Say one thing about Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, he does not lack for confidence or swagger. And he will need all of that if he’s going to take out longtime 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson in May’s primary election.
“Mike Simpson will not go down without a fight, but go down he will,” Smith told me.
And it starts with Simpson’s controversial view on breaching of the four lower Snake River dams. It’s a battle that seemingly has gone on longer than the 100-year war. Proponents say that breaching the dams is the only practical way to save salmon. Most Republicans, however, are adamantly opposed to the idea.
Smith adds a few more to the list of breaching opponents.
“The farmers aren’t buying it. Ranchers aren’t buying it. The ratepayers who get their electricity aren’t buying it and the grain growers aren’t buying it,” Smith says. “This is a localized issue. It’s not as if Mike Simpson and I are debating on immigration policy or the $29 trillion hole he has helped put us into. We are talking about an issue that applies to Idaho and, using the pun, that’s his Waterloo.”
The breaching issue also has served as a springboard for Smith’s campaign — something that didn’t exist during his unsuccessful challenge to Simpson in 2014. Smith recently issued a news release saying he has raised $370,000, almost $100,000 more than Simpson. Suffice it to say that both candidates are just getting warmed up with fundraising. The House Appropriations Committee, on which Simpson serves, traditionally is a magnet for campaign donations.
If Smith lands donations from a longtime conservative kingmaker, Club for Growth, then both candidates will be flooded with cash. The fact that Simpson and Smith do not particularly like one another (to put it mildly) puts added spice in the 2nd Congressional District race.
It’s certainly not the race that Smith ran in 2014, and he’s seeing the difference in Lincoln Day events and the mix of new voters in the 2nd Congressional District. “In 2014, I received obligatory applause. Today, people are more engaged and they know who I am.”
Republicans seem well aware of Smith’s past involvement with the party and his position as vice chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation — which is something that plays well with a more conservative audience. But he views himself as within the Republican mainstream in Idaho, with his support of former President Donald Trump.
If he’s elected to Congress, he says, “I think it’s fair to say that if you like Russ Fulcher (the 1st District congressman), then you probably would like me. We have been friends a long time and are aligned ideologically.”
Another change from 2014 is the surge of voters. Smith sees a generous number of newcomers to Idaho — people who moved here because they are fed up with liberal politics from states such as California, Oregon and Washington. To that crowd, they know little about Simpson’s 22 years in Congress.
“I met a man the other day who didn’t know me, but he did know that Mike Simpson declared Donald Trump unfit for the office in 2016,” Smith said. “What I hear over and over in the district is that he’s just been there too long. People may be opposed to dam breaching, amnesty for illegals, bigger spending, bigger government. They may be opposed that he was one of 20 Republicans who voted with Democrats giving transgender people special civil right protections. Whatever the issue is, he’s just been there too long.”
Those associated with the Idaho National Laboratory, the lifeblood of eastern Idaho, will disagree. Even working in the minority, Simpson has plenty of seniority and clout on the Appropriations Committee.
Smith views Simpson as a congressman who has lost touch.
“People feel they do not have a voice in Washington, and certainly not in the 2nd District,” Smith says. “People feel tuned out and they want someone who says what they’re thinking. I can do that from Day 1.”
In Idaho, it’s unheard of for anyone to mount any kind of a challenge to a sitting congressman who has been in office for 22 years. In this case, Smith is raising money and has a winnable message for a primary campaign.
Let’s not be too quick with an “upset alert,” but the 2nd Congressional District race is shaping up to be the toughest of Simpson’s political career by far.