And Now... The Main Event! 

The 2006 elections are already shaping up to be lively

Welcome, Idaho, to the rest of your election year.

The abbreviated hustle of the primary season now done, Democratic and Republican candidates across the state are assembling new staff and resources in anticipation of campaigns on everything from a gay marriage initiave, county commission races to a tussle for the empty congressional seat now occupied by U.S. Rep Butch Otter. Oh, and the governor's race, too.

Tuesday's congressional primary election wasn't without its own excitement--if the notion of six Republicans snapping at each other passes as such--but in the end, such events tend to be little more than run-ups to the general election. And because Republicans have a substantial hold on the political majority in Idaho, Boise State political science professor Jim Weatherby is quick to remind that the primary really could signal November's outcome.

"In many cases, especially when you look at some of these legislative races, the election is really now," Weatherby said early Tuesday night.

With Otter fixated on the governor's office, opposed by Democrat Jerry Brady, the primary in that election mattered little.

Instead, most eyes were on the battle among six Republicans hoping to take Otter's place.

When BW went to press late Tuesday night, with many northern Idaho counties yet to show their returns, Bill Sali had begun to pull ahead.

If he pulled it off, Sali's win signals two things: One, noted by Weatherby, is his ability to tap into a ready army of primary voters in the conservative Christian movement. That move is not lost on Democratic strategists, or Grant himself.

The other lesson out of Sali's win is the fervor his pro-life activist base feels for this election. Those voters could fuel a move to pass a Constitutional amendment now on the ballot, which would outlaw all forms of unions that are not precisely defined as a marriage between one man and one woman. Idaho's only openly gay lawmaker, State Rep. Nicole LeFavour, a Boise Democrat, has already stated she expects that initiative to pass.

A Sorensen win would have been tougher on Grant, most observers agreed. Johnson was, of course, the only Republican who had experience running a statewide campaign. His experience, as well as his non-polarizing stance on issues, made him an affable, if unexciting, choice for Republicans who soured on the vicious attacks by Sali and Vasquez. But like with Sorensen, Grant said he doubts that Republican party activists who were hoping to have Sali or Vasquez lead the way would come back to Johnson.

A Sali race against Grant, Weatherby said, will go "all the way to November."

Lower on the ballot, but perhaps of more significance to the average Idahoan, are legislative races. With moderate Republican Bruce Newcomb now out as House Speaker, a winner of Tuesday's races might well ascend to his post.

"We know Republicans will control the Legislature," Weatherby said. "The question now is, who will be the speaker? Will it be a moderate like (State Rep.) Bill Deal, or an ultra-conservative like (State Rep.) Lawerence Denney?"

But as Republicans battled for their catbird seat, Democrats faced a problem of their own: How to generate interest in their primaries when the flash and sizzle was coming from across the aisle. On the eve of the election, Idaho Democratic Party chairman Richard Stallings put out a plea to his party that, despite advice from "pundits" --including BW's Bill Cope--Democrats should not cross over to try to create a spoiler vote in the Republican primary. "I understand it may be tempting for some people, but that's not the way our system is designed to work," Stallings wrote. "We as Democrats have a duty to go to the polls and choose the strongest Democratic ticket possible."

More to the point, party executive director Maria Weeg said, "I don't want the Republicans mucking around in my primary, either."

Nor has the idea of crossing over into the Republican primary worked for Democrats. They tried before, in 1994, and found themselves with conservative firebrand Helen Chenoweth as their new Congresswoman.

Of course, they already had their candidates virtually locked in: neither Grant nor Brady had significant opposition. The primaries, Stalling noted, do not bear much weight for Democrats.

Now, both Grant and Brady face a singular challenge: getting their party's national engines to rumble to life in their favor. In the months before the primary, both candidates were on the phone with national Democratic Party groups .

For Brady, that meant time on the phone Tuesday with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who heads the Democratic Governor's Association. The two have been corresponding ever since Brady announced he would try again for the governor's office, and Brady has said he will hold a fundraiser in New Mexico with Richardson, a likely candidate for President in 2008.

"I congratulate Jerry Brady on his primary victory," Richardson said in a statement released Tuesday night. "His vision of working together to get Idaho back on the right track is exactly what the state needs. As governor, Jerry will work on the issues important to everyday Idahoans, not special interests."

Brady has done some retooling of his campaign. His original campaign manager, Jay Gertsema, has been replaced by Minnesotan Matt Hurm. Brady now travels with a full-time "handler," who keeps him on time and ready for the campaign trail's vagaries.

For Grant, the task is to attract the attention of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group that serves as a resource for Democrats running for Congress nationwide. Their assistance, whether in campaign dollars, advice or attention of national donors, can be crucial to a Democrat in a state as red as Idaho. "We already have their interest," Grant said. "With an open seat, it's impossible for the national folks to ignore it."

Grant was buoyed by some glances his candidacy has gotten from national pundits. The Cook Political Report, a national nonpartisan analysis, only recently this month put Idaho's First Congressional District race on the map. They labeled it "likely Republican," Grant noted, but they at least are taking notice, he said.

"To have it move onto the radar screen is really something," Grant said.

But for now, Bush's party has been divided by a tough primary. Also, few candidates on the national scene, Weatherby said, currently see Bush as an asset.

"They've run the other way," Weatherby said.

It's worth noting that as of late Tuesday, no Republican get-together had been scheduled for all the candidates to come together, while Democratic candidates were set to gather at the Statehouse to present a unified front toward November. The sense of Republican disarray prompted Jim Risch to admonish his party in a speech Tuesday night that "when the sun comes up tomorrow morning, we are one team."

With primary election turnout so low, Idaho's political debate is still held in a very small space. And competing with popular culture is a challenge for even the political junkies. On the popular Idaho Democratic Web site www.redstaterebels.com, a series of commenters bantered back and forth early Tuesday about the chances of various candidates, before devolving into a discussion about who might win on "American Idol."

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