Democrat Jerry Sturgill says his political playbook is nuanced, detailing what he calls a path to victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Crapo. But the No. 1—and No. 2 and No. 3—game-changer is as glaring as a bad comb over.
"It's Trump. It's Trump. It's Trump," said Sturgill. "It's obvious that Trump won't play well in Idaho, especially toward the Mormon vote."
Both Crapo, 65, and Sturgill, 63, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When Crapo was first elected, he became the first Mormon to represent Idaho in the U.S. Senate. He's now running for his fourth term and, while faith is not a primary factor in the Crapo/Sturgill contest, morality casts a long shadow.
Donald Trump was never Crapo's choice to be the next U.S. president.
"I liked Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson," Crapo told Boise Weekly, beginning a long list of would-be candidates who Donald Trump kicked to the curb through a bruising primary season.
"One can speculate on whether a different nominee would be in a better position to beat Clinton, but this is the election we have," he said.
Crapo's tepid endorsement of The Donald was upended Oct. 7 when a 2005 recording captured Trump claiming to have sex with a married woman, saying he could grab a woman "by the pussy," adding, "I moved on her like a bitch."
"Trump's repeated actions and comments toward women have been disrespectful, profane and demeaning," said Crapo hours after the tape went public, urging Trump to "step aside" from the top of the GOP ticket.
"Trump's most recent excuse of 'locker room talk' is completely unacceptable and is inconsistent with protecting women from abusive, disparaging treatment," he added.
Trump insists he never acted on his claims and his statements were "only talk." Still, the mounting evidence of Trump's bad behavior only mounted. On Oct.12, TheNew York Times interviewed two women who said the real estate mogul and reality TV star touched them inappropriately. On the same day, CBS News reported a then-46-year-old Trump joked in a 1992 interview about dating a 10-year-old girl when she's older.
"This is not a decision that I have reached lightly," wrote Crapo in a statement disavowing his party's standard bearer.
Sturgill said Crapo's dismissal came too late.
"This latest group of detractors, including Sen. Crapo, look like a bunch of weak-kneed, last-minute deserters, demonstrating a history of poor judgment, hypocrisy and lack of independence," said Sturgill. "These Trump 'traitors' are a symptom of a broken Congress, where any good judgement and independence are leached out in the mind-numbing marinade of Washington party politics."
Stung by a backlash from diehard Trump supporters on the far reaches of their own party, some of the same Republican members of Congress who previously demanded Trump step aside began changing their own course by Oct.12, when The New York Times reported a number of GOP senators and U.S. representatives conceded they would probably vote for Trump after all. Meanwhile Crapo's criticism of Trump began catching flak from sectors of his own party.
"Trump was chosen by us to represent us," wrote Idaho County Republican Central Committee Chairman Jon Menough on Oct. 12. "With your announcement that you would no longer support Mr. Trump, in our opinion, you have relinquished your right to be associated with the Party we represent. Effective immediately, the Idaho County Republican Central Committee will provide neither physical nor financial support to your effort to be re-elected."
Meanwhile, Idaho Republican Party leaders remained mum on Crapo's non-endorsement of Trump, but were quick to issue a statement of their own.
"Donald Trump has shown himself to be the agent of change," wrote IDGOP Chairman Steve Yates on Oct. 11. "The Idaho Republican Party remains steadfast in its support for all of our nominees, selected by the people, from the top of the ticket to the bottom. As is our duty and privilege in the party, we will remain focused on electing Republicans in Idaho."
Meanwhile, Sturgill said the Trump debacle was "the No. 1 component of why Crapo is vulnerable."
"We've conducted our own internal polling and it revealed that the Trump effect was No. 1 in this race," said Sturgill, who added that Crapo's own "personal problem" had triggered what he called "a seething undercurrent of disaffection for Crapo after he got busted for DUI."
"When you Google Mike Crapo, what do you see? His mugshot," said Sturgill.
A 2005 recording of Donald Trump and then-Access Hollywood co-host Billy Bush (left) in a conversation where Trump claimed he would grab a woman “by the pussy” and “move on her like a bitch.”
The DUI incident occurred on the night of Dec. 22, 2012 when Crapo, by his own admission, drank vodka tonics alone in his Washington, D.C. apartment, got behind the wheel of a 1999 Jeep and drove through the Capitol Hill district, past the city's iconic monuments and into Alexandria, Va., where he ran a red light. Crapo was pulled over and blew a 0.11 blood alcohol content level. Two weeks later, the senator pleaded guilty to drunk driving and was sentenced to a $250 file, a year's suspension of his driver's license, a suspended sentence of 180 days in jail and a requirement to enroll in an alcohol safety program.
"I have recently made personal choices that are at odds with who I am, who Idahoans rightly believe me to be and who I strive to be," said Crapo, minutes after stepping outside the courthouse.
Four years later, Crapo is now being put to the political test, his first reelection effort since the DUI conviction.
"As I said then, and I saw now, it was a terrible mistake," Crapo told Boise Weekly. "It was a difficult time... very difficult. I was probably as hard on myself as anyone else. Out of it came a very strong self re-evaluation. The positive part of it is that I found the people of Idaho are very loving and forgiving. By far, the strong, biggest message delivered to me was, 'I'm disappointed. You should not have done that. But react to it properly, build yourself back and be a strong senator.' That's what I've tried to do."
Crapo hasn't taken anything for granted. In letters to constituents and financial backers, Crapo wrote he was taking Sturgill "very seriously."
"[Sturgill] is a corporate lawyer and investment banker with strong connections in New York City, where he used to work, and has the potential for attracting vast sums of money from his left-wing network," wrote Crapo to potential funders. "He's as liberal as I am conservative."
Sturgill says that's about half-right.
"An investment banker? Sure. Have I been helping small companies in Idaho grow? You bet. Since when was that a liberal idea?" he asked.
Sturgill grew up in Twin Falls in what he described as a Republican family.
"We talked politics every night at the dinner table. Dad was a Republican precinct chairman for Twin Falls County and I was president of the Teen Republican Club in high school," he said, adding he even shook hands with then-President Richard Nixon in 1969 when the young Sturgill traveled to the nation's capital to participate in a youth political event.
"But my idol was Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho and the greatest example of a statesman than I can think of," Sturgill said.
After an LDS mission in Quebec, Canada, graduation from BYU law school and a stint in corporate law in New York City, Sturgill said he was anxious to return to Idaho in 1995. He was a fan of candidates on both sides of the political aisle, working on campaigns for former Democratic Congress members Richard Stallings and Walt Minnick but proudly donating to Mitt Romney's failed 2008 presidential bid.
"Here's how I see Idaho. It's basically in three parts: Republicans on the right, Democrats on the left and a very big swath of independents in the middle who have traditionally gone to the right," said Sturgill. "So, what would happen if just enough voters leaned toward a Democrat? Quite frankly, our internal polling indicates that there is a tangible symptom of anti-establishment this year. And that hurts Mike Crapo."
In a rare move meant to accomplish statewide outreach, Crapo spent almost two years traveling to every incorporated city in Idaho—200 in all—meeting with constituents in town halls, restaurants and at their kitchen tables.
"Have you ever been to Warm River, population 3? I just came back from there. It's just above Ashton on the old highway to Yellowstone," Crapo said. "There's a nearby fishing lodge where I talked with nine people. There's a town called Golden, population 1. I was there. There's a house tucked behind a bunch of trees, but there's a boulder out front with 'Golden' spray painted on it."
Crapo racked up thousands of miles over 22 months to visit the 200 cities and towns, and he said he's continuously impressed by how engaged his constituency is.
"The cowboy? He's got a laptop in his saddlebag. Believe me, people are very sophisticated on national and international issues," said Crapo. "There are some common themes, but there's also an overriding anger about the fact that government is dysfunctional. More and more people are telling me that they're concerned over intrusive, big government and that the national debt is huge."
If he is elected to a fourth term, Crapo will have served 24 years in the U.S. Senate in addition to six years in the U.S. House of Representatives and eight years before that in the Idaho Legislature. When asked "How long is too long in office?" Crapo argued it comes down to having the commitment to keep fighting for the principles that first put him in office.
"I believe in a limited government, that the Constitution should be interpreted as-written; that we should have a free market with limited government control and a strong focus on individual rights," said Crapo. "But I believe we've been sliding, quite aggressively, toward a huge federal government with extensive control over our economy and a subjugation of individual rights. As long as I can keep fighting the fight and effectively advocating for those original principles, I know I can be effective."
Sturgill says when he points to Crapo's voting record in the U.S. Senate, he sees particular vulnerabilities when it comes to Idaho independents.
"Let's take a look at the Lilly Ledbetter vote," said Sturgill referring to a 2009 "no" vote when Crapo joined 35 other Republicans to try to kill a measure Democrats said would strengthen equal pay protections for women.
"I find it ironic that Senator Crapo has done such good work on legislation to protect women from violence, but voted against a paycheck fairness act," said Sturgill. "But that's just one issue that voters are telling me that they want change on. Public lands, stronger funding for education and a much stronger economy. That's what I want to talk about."
Sturgill concedes the top of the ticket may be the ultimate factor in swaying his contest.
"Quite frankly a lot of people in Idaho think Hillary Clinton is the devil incarnate and those are weeds I don't have time to get into," said Sturgill. "But Trump? You bet he's going to influence this race and a lot of others. Get ready for change."