Idaho District Reflects Battle Over GOP's Soul

Jan 22, 2014
Originally published on January 22, 2014 11:45 pm

In 2013, the battle lines were drawn within the Republican Party. This year, war may be breaking out across the country.

The Tea Party has already proven it has the energy, influence and cash to change elections and shape the landscape of Congress. Now, moderate and establishment-oriented Republicans are trying to match their intensity.

Case in point: Idaho's 2nd Congressional District, where we are reporting from this week on Morning Edition. Eight-term Rep. Mike Simpson was the first named target of the Club for Growth, a powerhouse super PAC that often supports Tea Party candidates. They're backing a lawyer from Idaho Falls named Bryan Smith, a political newcomer.

We've seen this scenario play out many times over the past several years. Often, the incumbent is overcome by the populist message and big financial backing of an upstart Tea Party candidate. In Simpson's case, pro-business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are spending money to flood the airwaves in his defense.

He also has the backing of Main Street Advocacy, a group started by former GOP Rep. Steve LaTourette, who like Simpson is a close friend of House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner lashed out in December at Tea Party groups for their tactics during the partial government shutdown. At the same time, LaTourette was organizing to put $1 million apiece into races where establishment GOP candidates were being challenged from the right. In a district like Simpson's, that million dollars can go a long way.

Smith's backers don't appear to be intimidated. As we arrived in Idaho, the Madison Project — a conservative group that announced this week it's backing the challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — scheduled the grand opening of an office in Boise to organize its efforts against Mike Simpson.

Traveling from Idaho Falls, up through the pristine Boulder-White Clouds mountain ranges, and around to Boise, we will be covering a lot of land and seeing how this national battle plays out in this deep red landscape.

Top issues for voters involve the role of the federal government: funding for Idaho National Laboratory, a sprawling nuclear research complex that covers nearly 900 square miles and has been estimated to provide a quarter of the jobs in the surrounding areas, and control of public lands in a state of which more than 60 percent is owned by the Feds.

You can hear reports over the next few days on Morning Edition and follow along with our travels at

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Our colleague David Greene is on the road this week. He's in Idaho, a deep red state with just two congressional districts. In one of those districts, a fierce battle for the House seat is well underway. A new Tea Party candidate is getting lots of help and money from groups around the country, and that's energized the more moderate GOP to fight back on behalf of the eight-term incumbent. In a place far from Washington, we're seeing a fierce battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

We got David on the line in Idaho Falls to tell us more. Good morning, David.


Good morning, Renee, a very cold Idaho Falls.

MONTAGNE: Alright, well, stay warm there while we're talking. And with me here in the studio in Washington is NPR's Peter Overby, who covers money in politics. Good morning, Peter.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with you, David. Tell us what we need to know about Idaho Falls.

GREENE: It's a small city, Renee. And so, you know, there's just nothing breaking the view of one of those big Western skies. You can see for miles to the mountains. I'm standing overlooking the Snake River and the actual falls.

I was excited to come here because this is not a place that we often come during election season. We spend so much time in some of the well-known swing states. This is a deeply red state but one that could tell us a lot about this election year. This district, you know, it's so spread out; a lot of ranching here - a lot of potatoes, of course; a lot of mining and a lot of federal land. More than half of Idaho is owned by the federal government so a lot of jobs depend on the federal government.

One other note: A huge number of minimum wage jobs in this state, so people trying to get by. And we're just going to see if they want to send back the congressman from this district who's held this seat for 16 years now.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about that particular congressman. And help us to understand what this race could tell us about the future of the Republican Party.

GREENE: Yes, his name is Mike Simpson and he's, I guess, a 15-year veteran now. He's a close friend of House Speaker John Boehner. He's known for being part of the establishment in the Republican Party. The Idaho National Lab here, which is an important job creator, he's brought money to that lab, which is something he's known for. And he's up against a Tea Party candidate, a local attorney named Brian Smith who's a new face in politics.

And Brian Smith has been campaigning full time since June, which tells you how much a Tea Party wants this seat. And Renee, this is the really important thing that we need to note here. Right now we are seeing the establishment of the Republican Party rise up with money and resources this early in a race that is Republican against Republican.

It's a pretty safe Republican seat. It's going to be a Republican. You've got to establishment spending money because they want to get fewer radicals in the House. They want to create a face of the House that they feel like they can work with it.

MONTAGNE: So this is a good time to bring Peter into the conversation. This is a kind of fight, as David described, that means dollar signs.

OVERBY: That's right. The Tea Party candidate, Brian Smith, he has a couple of big outside groups backing him. One is the Club for Growth. They endorsed Brian Smith, first of all their candidates this year - they're really committed to him. And there's another group called the Madison Project that's been influential this year, and they are also backing Brian Smith.

Now, on the moderate side of the Republican Party, you have a new group called Main Street Advocacy. They endorse Mike Simpson, the incumbent here. And they have said they intend to match the Club for Growth dollar for dollar in sort of an advertising slugfest. And the superPAC that's connected to Main Street Advocacy has raised a significant amount of its money this past year from labor unions.

MONTAGNE: Which sounds highly unusual, am I right?

OVERBY: Extremely unusual. Labor unions have not done stuff like this with the Republicans for years and years.

MONTAGNE: Which sounds like it means, for those voters in Idaho in this district, they're going to be seeing a lot of TV ads.

OVERBY: They're going to be lunging for their TV remotes. Now, the thing is that the ads from the outside groups are basically made by consultants in D.C. A lot of the time these ads are sort of cookie-cutter things. Mike Simpson, 15-year incumbent, solid Republican, is being depicted by some of these groups as a secret ally of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

MONTAGNE: Which, you have to say Mike Simpson is a Republican, and a fairly conservative-slash-moderate.

OVERBY: There's no mistaking him for an ally of Nancy Pelosi, but this is how he's being depicted. The Republicans in Idaho have a history of basically supporting federal programs as they affect Idaho, except at certain times when they reject them. This may be one of those times, and that's what the Tea Party groups are trying to capitalize on.

MONTAGNE: And David, before we let you go, what are we going to be hearing from Idaho later this week?

GREENE: A lot of voices, Renee. We're going to hear from both candidates. We're going to be hearing from people here in the city of Idaho Falls and also in some remote communities up in the mountains, and I should say it's not just listening. People can see some photos too. We've set up this Tumblr. It's at and I'm sending photos already so that people can see online.

There's one of the three bearded men in this black and white photo. They're sitting in front of the cabin they built in Idaho and they happen to be the great, great, great uncles of the Tea Party candidate in this race, Brian Smith. I interviewed him. He brought out this photo in his office and he said, look, you know, people can accuse me of a lot of things, David, look at this photo.

They can't accuse me of being a carpetbagger in this state.

MONTAGNE: All right. David Greene in Idaho. I'm looking forward to that. And NPR's Peter Overby, thanks, both of you, very much.

OVERBY: Good to be here.

GREENE: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.