Analysis: Sali fell victim to himself

Analysis: Sali fell victim to himself
BOISE (AP) - Conservative western and northern Idaho voters jettisoned Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Sali after tiring of his divisive persona, a reminder of 2006 elections in Virginia and Montana when "foot-in-mouth" disease helped lead to the political demise of U.S. Sens. George Allen and Conrad Burns.

Sali, who lost Tuesday to Democrat Walt Minnick, has suggested the growing number of Americans without health insurance wasn't "as big of a problem as some people would make it out to be." He also brushed off criticism over his tardy Federal Election Commission filings. He personally heckled a Minnick aide during an on-camera TV interview and suggested Muslims didn't belong in Congress.

And since his election in 2006, Sali's votes also routinely clashed with those of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, now a six-term Republican from eastern Idaho.

Sali, a 54-year-old lawyer from the railroad town of Kuna, likely hammered one of the final nails in his own congressional coffin in June, at the state Republican Convention in Sandpoint. That's when he broke ranks with Simpson, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Jim Risch, Idaho's lieutenant governor who won a U.S. Senate race Tuesday, to lead a revolt against then-GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan.

Norm Semanko, Sali's favorite, won the contest, but Sali's fortunes dimmed with Idaho's Republican establishment.

"With Kirk as chairman, we'd become the most Republican state in the country," Simpson told The Associated Press. "And Bill supported throwing him out. That kind of split our party, and quite frankly, that had some backlash."

In losing a 1st Congressional District seat that's been in GOP hands for 37 of the last 41 years, Sali takes his place in the ranks of U.S. politicians whose years of bombast alienated as many people as they energized.

Burns, a three-term Montana Republican, was beaten in 2006 by Democrat Jon Tester after years of polarizing behavior, including a 2006 airport confrontation with U.S. Forest Service firefighters he said were doing a "piss-poor job" and a 1999 incident when he called Arabs "ragheads."

Allen lost to Virginia Democrat Jim Webb after applying the word "macaca" to a Webb volunteer of Indian descent, a label many viewed as a racial slur.

"Foot-in-mouth disease is usually fatal, but it takes awhile," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "When the circumstances permit, the voters will take their revenge and clean out the stable. Sali is so controversial, and has been for his entire career."

Since entering the Idaho Legislature in 1990, Sali has given detractors ample ammunition. In a 2006 state House debate, he insisted abortions cause breast cancer, prompting the Democratic minority to storm out and his own leader, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, to dub him an "idiot."

And just months into his U.S. House term, he suggested America's founders wouldn't have approved of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., Congress's first Muslim. Sali later apologized.

State GOP leaders say Sali's defeat was a referendum on the candidate, not the party.

Even as Sali lost, John McCain scored a big win Tuesday in Idaho and the GOP widened its 3-to-1 majority in the state Legislature.

"Bill Sali is a unique individual and he brings a unique set of circumstances to a race," said Risch, who won his Senate race handily over former U.S. Rep. Larry LaRocco. "That, as much as anything, drove the outcome of the race. The rest of the state went in a different direction."

Even so, Minnick, a 66-year-old Boise businessman, said his campaign was reluctant to devote too much energy to portraying his rival as an off-kilter ideologue after watching the strategy fail in 2006, when Sali beat Democrat Larry Grant.

Minnick instead emphasized his business background, as well as his own GOP roots as a 1970s Nixon White House aide.

"Whatever Sali's faults, we believed the best strategy was to talk more about Walt's qualifications," said John Foster, a Minnick spokesman.

Meanwhile, Sali aides maintain campaign funding woes — Minnick raised $2.5 million to Sali's roughly $1 million — made it difficult to counter a negative message they say started with the opposition but was perpetuated by a liberal media.

"Bill is a very good guy who has a very big heart and I think that we were never able to tell that story ... because we didn't have the money or the media on our side to do it," spokesman Wayne Hoffman said. "There are people who voted against him because they thought he was a bad person. Nothing could be further from the truth."