Minnick overcomes tight race, beats Sali

Minnick overcomes tight race, beats Sali »Play Video
Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in 1st Congressional District Walt Minnick at campaign headquarters in Boise. (AP Photo/Paul Hosefros)
BOISE (AP) - Democrat Walt Minnick ousted Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Sali in the 1st Congressional District, scoring Idaho's biggest political upset in more than a decade and giving an unexpected boost to the House Democratic majority.

Minnick won with 50.6 percent of the vote, becoming the first Democrat from Idaho to capture a congressional seat since Larry LaRocco in 1992. With his win, Democrats in the U.S. House added at least 18 seats; going into Tuesday's election, the party controlled the House 235-199 with one vacancy.

Minnick, a 66-year-old former executive with wood-products company Trus Joist International, throughout the campaign emphasized his Republican roots as a 1970s Nixon White House staffer and as a gun-toting hunter.

He also met with dozens of business groups to persuade them that Sali's allegiance to a small minority of conservatives in Congress and votes that often clashed with Rep. Mike Simpson, Idaho's 2nd District congressman, hurt efforts to reach pragmatic solutions.

"It's a great morning," Minnick told reporters, supporters and Democratic Party operatives on Wednesday at the Idaho State Historical Museum in Boise. "I would like to thank the thousands of Idahoans, Republicans and independents, who chose to look at this campaign from the standpoint of who could be more effective for Idaho."

Minnick, who lost a 1996 run for U.S. Senate against GOP incumbent Larry Craig by 17 percentage points, was accompanied by his wife, A.K. Lienhart-Minnick, and two children, Dixon and Denali. He told reporters he had yet to speak with Sali, but that Simpson had already offered assistance in his impending move to Washington, D.C. Simpson easily won his own race against Democrat Debbie Holmes.

At a news conference later with fellow Republicans, Sali refused to concede, saying he's "anxious to make sure that every ballot gets counted." By midday Wednesday, all 19 counties in the district reported 100 percent of ballots counted, though Ada County was still tallying 500 photocopied ballots. They're likely to have little effect, with official results showing Minnick with a 4,243-vote victory margin.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said the victory margin wasn't within the one-tenth of 1 percent needed to trigger an automatic recount, but Sali could pay for one himself. Still, voting irregularities haven't surfaced.

"I'm not aware of any great problems," Ysursa said.

The GOP has controlled this conservative bastion in the state's largely rural west and north for 37 of the last 41 years. In favoring Minnick, voters bucked a long tradition of sending Republican iconoclasts to Washington, D.C., including Steve Symms, the late Helen Chenoweth and current Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

Democrats have been largely unsuccessful here, apart from the 1990 and 1992 victories of LaRocco, who rode the coattails of popular Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus.

Sali, a 54-year-old Kuna lawyer who touted his own pro-gun, anti-tax message, lost after a single term, in part because his brusque style alienated members of his own party's establishment. In June, he defied Otter and backed Norm Semanko over then-state GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan to lead the party. Semanko won.

Then he drew attention with struggles to file his Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports on time. And in 2007, after just a few months in office, Sali had to apologize for suggesting America's founders never intended for Muslims like U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., to serve in Congress.

"It's not a Democratic thing. It was about Bill Sali," said Jasper LiCalzi, a professor of political economy at College of Idaho in Caldwell. "One of my former students said, 'He's a blind, three-legged horse. How do you expect him to win the race?' And he almost did."

Minnick collected about $2 million from supporters and hundreds of thousands of his own money, to the GOP incumbent's $1 million. Sali, who spent 16 years as one of the Idaho state House's most-conservative members before beating Democrat Larry Grant in 2006, blamed his loss partially on his inability to keep pace with campaign cash — or anti-Sali television ads paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee late in the race.

"We were heavily outspent, and unfortunately, that's part of what accounts for a very, very tight race," he said Wednesday. "Many of you are encouraging me to come back and try it again. I don't know that we're quite ready to do that."

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