For anyone who watched principled stands destroy others’ political careers in the Gem State, Congressman Mike Simpson’s win in last month’s 2nd Congressional District Republican primary election was a welcomed relief.
In today’s play-it-safe environment, it’s rare to see anyone spend political capital the way Simpson did in promoting his $33.5 billion plan to breach the four lower Snake River dams to rescue imperiled salmon and steelhead from extinction — while mitigating the effects on communities and industries.
And Simpson spent a bunch of capital.
It earned him a GOP primary rematch with Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith.
Smith reckoned Simpson’s concept was just the ticket to send him to Congress.
It certainly marked Simpson’s toughest campaign in decades.
“We are talking about an issue that applies to Idaho and, using the pun, that’s his Waterloo,” Smith told columnist Chuck Malloy last winter.
When he first faced Smith eight years ago, Simpson won nearly 62% of the vote.
Last month, that dropped to 54.57% — and the dam breaching issue probably hurt Simpson most in the agricultural Magic Valley, where his margins slipped below 50 percent.
As a veteran Appropriations Committee member, Simpson holds the keys to the Idaho National Laboratory’s financial future. So he retained majorities in the counties of eastern Idaho.
He also cinched nearly two-thirds of the 2nd District’s half of Ada County.
The 2nd District’s more moderate base of urban Democrats, eastern Idaho Mormons and Magic Valley conservatives is a good fit for Simpson.
And it’s not amenable to Smith, who ironically also lost ground this year — down from 38.4% in 2014 to 33.7%. Three other candidates split the difference.
Smith’s career chasing down people who can’t afford their medical bills remained anathema to voters.
Someone without his liabilities going up against an incumbent without Simpson’s assets might have prevailed.
All of which suggests Simpson’s win is no mandate for his dam breaching proposal. If anything, Simpson’s district is agnostic on the issue. Those who voted for him simply had other priorities.
All to the good. Had Smith prevailed, he would have established a new third rail of Idaho politics. No one would have had the courage to speak of dam breaching anywhere in the Gem State ever again.
So Simpson is free to act on his conscience, just as he did decades ago when he successfully pursued congressional passage of wilderness designations in the Boulder White Cloud range.
How does he proceed?
Where he finds a vehicle to hitch a $33.5 billion spending package — especially with an austerity prone GOP about to retake the congressional majority — seems a murky prospect at best.
But his timing couldn’t be better. As Simpson emerges from the primary, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are expected to release a draft of their study into whether to breach the dams while helping communities that are caught in the crossfire — possibly next week.
By July 31, a pause meant to facilitate talks among the parties in a long-standing federal lawsuit over the fate of those dams will end.
So even his friends — who concede Simpson displayed some tone-deafness in how he rolled out his proposal more than a year ago — think it’s time for him to recalibrate.
Become an honest broker of information to persuade a skeptical state — north and south — that charting its own destiny is far better than waiting for others to dictate a solution from outside.
Give Simpson his due. No one deserves this opportunity more. — M.T.