A shorter version of this article appeared in this week's BW.
When Idaho's singing senator became Idaho's toe-tapping senator, Idahoans thought it couldn't get any weirder.
But now, five men—Republican Jim Risch, Democrat Larry LaRocco, Independent Rex Rammell, Libertarian Kent Marmon and the man known only as Pro-Life—are running for Sen. Larry Craig's open U.S. Senate seat, and it's a pretty unique race.
"I've got taco hands," said a woman with auburn hair, sitting on the patio at Pollo Rey, her fingers splayed out to show her food-covered hands.
Undeterred, LaRocco shook her hand anyway.
"We need some change in Washington. I don't know if you've noticed," he said. Everyone at the table laughed.
LaRocco walked up and down Eighth Street, shaking the hand of every stranger he met: teenagers, mothers out for lunch with shy, crayon-wielding kids, immigrants at a bus stop who tried to translate the paragraph about Iraq on his brochure into Arabic.
He may have been approaching strangers, but sometimes it felt like a Democratic rally.
"You're running against Risch?" one man eating at Pollo Rey said. "Good luck. We're Democrats."
"I hope you kick his ass," said another man.
"I'm your friend on Facebook," a young woman introduced herself.
Maybe that's to be expected in downtown Boise, but LaRocco says his supporters are everywhere: Summerville's Cafe in Riggins; Twin Falls, where he holds house parties every few weeks; and Bannock County, where the campaign held a potluck dinner for 300 people.
In what he calls his "Working for Senate" campaign, LaRocco has worked one-day jobs at 35 companies around the state: collecting garbage for Simmons Sanitation in Orofino, making cheese for Glanbia Foods in Twin Falls.
"It's sensitized me about what they do, the challenges they're facing," LaRocco said.
After meeting potential voters outside Pollo Rey, LaRocco took a tour of MPC Computers in Nampa. Though he couldn't meet many workers—he had to stay behind a yellow taped line to prevent electrostatic discharge—LaRocco tried to make the most of his time with his tour guide, floor supervisor Tandy Killingbeck. He asked her about the company's high energy costs, getting a job for a day at MPC, and her health-care situation (she carries six people on her company health plan, and last year, MPC was forced to increase premiums).
LaRocco has made health care a cornerstone of his campaign. He's proposed a plan that would allow people to keep their existing insurance, but offer portable health insurance plans that would not charge extra based on age or pre-existing conditions.
LaRocco is hoping to gain the support of people like Killingbeck, who share their concerns with him when he joins them on the job, in order to beat Risch, who defeated him in the last race for lieutenant governor. He blamed that loss on the fact that he didn't use his "Working for Senate" campaign method.
He's also counting on voters who are drawn to his open campaigning style. Both LaRocco and Risch threw out the first pitch at Boise Hawks games a few weeks ago. "He went out and threw out the first pitch and then he left," LaRocco said of Risch. "I went out and I was Humphrey the Hawk and then I threw out the first pitch—it was wide and in the dirt—and then I worked at the will-call booth and sold beer and hot dogs. I'm gonna be there for Idahoans for nine innings."
Two words: Mitt Romney
Risch may not be working next to you at Amalgamated Sugar or Everton Mattress. But it's hard to argue that that makes him an ineffective campaigner.
One need only point to his time on the campaign trail in Boise and Idaho Falls with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, easily the most popular of all this season's presidential candidates among Idahoans. As the man with the "R" behind his name and as a former governor, Risch was always the man to beat in the Senate race. With Romney at his side, Risch's campaign became downright formidable.
Even without Romney's star power, Risch has his own, very different campaign style.
At a senior American government class at Capital High School on Oct. 15, he paced across the front of the classroom. He spoke rapidly and energetically, peppered the 17- and 18-year-olds with questions and didn't always wait for their answers. He sometimes complimented them, once saying, "We weren't nearly as sophisticated as you kids are," but most of the time he tried to connect with the kids by giving them a hard time.
"Could you explain to me the tax shift?" asked the first boy in the class to raise his hand during the question and answer session.
"Yoooou're a Democrat," Risch retorted.
"No he's not," a girl in the back piped up.
"Only Democrats use that phrase, 'tax shift,'" Risch replied. "By the way, don't be afraid to ask questions of me," he said to the other students in the class. "They're not stupid questions like this one over here."
Risch delivered a similar stump speech on the economy and the bailout package to whatever group he talked to, from businesspeople meeting over pancakes and diner coffee to high school kids surreptitiously assembling pepperoni pizza Lunchables. He told them that though he generally believes in free markets and minimal regulation, the financial system needs more oversight, and we need more systems like the FDIC to back up entities like investment banks and money market funds.
His audiences were interested in this topic—even the high school students asked questions about it—and Risch kept the speech fast-paced and easy to understand. But sometimes he got a little carried away with his own explanations. Near the end of the American government class, he called on the boy he'd pegged as a Democrat again. Before the student could get his question out, Risch suddenly launched into an anecdote about Michael Bloomberg.
"For reasons I fail to understand, the media tends to ignore anyone who doesn't have
an 'R' or a 'D' behind their name," Marmon said.
Marmon recognizes that he and the two other third-party candidates in the race, independents Rex Rammell and Pro-Life, have an uphill battle. Not only is media coverage sparse, he and Pro-Life weren't invited to all the debates. They also have less time to campaign—Marmon has a full-time job and Pro-Life has to harvest his strawberries.
Marmon does his best to make up for it by sending out e-mail blasts to 500 people on topics such as the bailout, climate change, health care and oil drilling.
"The second thing I hear the most is, 'I'm glad to see that we have someone to support besides Jim Risch,'" Marmon said.
It's all in a name for Pro-Life, who officially changed his name from Marvin Richardson to Pro-Life in 2006. And yes, he says his family and friends call him Pro-Life. Pro-Life appears on the ballot as "Pro-Life (a person formerly known as Marvin Richardson)."
The name change is one part of Pro-Life's campaign. He also participated in an anti-abortion rally called Life Chain with a few hundred other people on Oct. 5 and stands on street corners every week with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses. That may sound intimidating, but Pro-Life's campaign style is pretty friendly. He offered to take some of his strawberries to the Boise Weekly office.
Rammell's campaign strategy is to pummel Risch from the right through debates and TV advertising. He has kept up a heavy debate schedule with LaRocco. Risch has only agreed to join them in three debates. In his first debate with Risch, Rammell repeatedly argued that Risch was too liberal to be a true Republican, citing Risch's moderate policies on public land use and the fact that he has acknowledged the existence of global warming.
"He keeps calling himself a stalwart conservative and he's taken a lot of positions that are not conservative at all," Rammell said.
Rammell also plans to post 4-by-8-foot signs all over the Treasure Valley with his name next to a picture of a bull elk. Rammell is suing Risch for ordering his elk to be shot when they escaped from Rammell's shooter bull ranch during Risch's term as governor. He's conducted polls that found that when he is identified as an elk rancher, his name recognition increases, as does his favorability rating.
"A lot of people supported me over the elk ordeal," he said.