By John McCormick
Ground zero in the Republican Party’s fight to define its future is on the opposite side of the country from Washington, amid snow-covered mountains and the Snake River canyon, in a House race that pits the business community against the tea party.
It’s here in Idaho’s 2nd District where Rep. Mike Simpson, an Appropriations Committee chairman and ally of House Speaker John Boehner, is fighting for re-election against fellow Republican Bryan Smith, a lawyer and political novice aligned with the limited-government movement.
Multiple tea party groups back Smith, who says Simpson doesn’t reflect the district’s “conservative values.” The threat to Simpson has awakened national and local business groups and Idaho companies with little or no history of getting involved in primary contests, and is a top priority for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“Extremists haven’t proven themselves to be very sympathetic to the needs of business,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry. “It is more populism than conservatism.”
The association formed a super political action committee, which allows it to raise and spend unlimited sums on campaign messages, late last year after learning of Simpson’s challenger.
The outcome could change how the House operates in 2015. Last year’s partial government shutdown was led by the tea party caucus in the House, and business groups were stunned when some of those members resisted raising the government’s debt ceiling while discounting a default’s economic impact.
A shift in the number of tea party allies could determine Boehner’s flexibility in avoiding such faceoffs and passing other business priorities, including infrastructure spending.
“Business entities in Idaho have a long history with Congressman Simpson,” said Mike Reynoldson, the Idaho government affairs manager for Boise-based Micron Technology Inc., the largest U.S. maker of memory chips and the employer of almost 6,000 people in the state. “In this race in particular, we saw a number of out-of-state interests were recruiting candidates and raising money and decided we needed an Idaho- based solution to offset the noise.”
Similar dynamics are playing out in U.S. Senate races, where seven of the 12 Republican incumbents up for re-election this year face primary challengers, most aligned with the tea party. These showdowns also may act as a proxy for the party’s direction heading into the 2016 presidential campaign season.
In the House, races pitting business against the tea party are also developing in Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Simpson’s Idaho district covers most of the state’s southern half and is home to a robust potato crop and one of the nation’s most concentrated Mormon populations.
It’s also one of the most heavily Republican districts. Mitt Romney, who has endorsed Simpson, won 64.5 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election. The victor of the May 20 primary will almost certainly win the seat, which explains the early entry by advocates on both sides.
The U.S. Chamber, the nation’s largest business-lobbying group and a traditional Republican supporter, has already run ads boosting Simpson. Defending Main Street, a super-PAC affiliated with the Republican Main Street Partnership and its call for policy “pragmatism,” plans to spend as much as $1 million to help the incumbent even though the group would rather focus on competitive open seats.
“We have to go in and defend him,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the partnership’s chief operating officer. “That will be our No. 1 seat.”
tea party allies are also making the race a testing ground. The Club for Growth, a Washington-based group favorings spending cuts, is backing Smith, as are the Washington-based small- government advocates FreedomWorks and the Madison Project.
Smith, 51, dismissed the importance of the business groups backing Simpson, 63, and said he’ll have enough campaign money and support from outside groups to be competitive.
“Congressman Simpson’s values do not reflect the values of the district,” he said during an interview at his Idaho Falls law office. “This is a very conservative district and Congressman Simpson has a moderate voting record.”
Simpson is out of step with the rest of the state’s four- person delegation, Smith said.
“He’s the odd man out on many of these important votes,” he said, citing Simpson’s votes on increasing the federal debt ceiling and last week’s $1.1 trillion funding bill, which passed the Republican-led House on a bipartisan vote of 359-67.
Smith cites tea party-aligned lawmakers in Washington as his political role models, including Representative Justin Amash of Michigan and Senators Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, the architect of the strategy that led to the partial shutdown of the government in 2014. Smith calls Cruz a “Republican hero.”
Disappointment with Simpson among tea party activists was on display when about 40 Smith supporters gathered last week in a meeting room at the public library in Idaho Falls.
“This has become a very, very important race not just for Idaho, but for the nation,” he said. “You deserve a congressman who isn’t afraid to stand up for conservative principles in Washington.”
Simpson’s counter to Smith is that he’s represented their values in a more productive manner.
“Being conservative doesn’t mean you just go vote no on everything,” he said in a telephone interview. “It means you try to find conservative solutions.”
Simpson, seeking a ninth term, has cast several votes in recent years that have angered tea party activists.
He was the only member of the current Idaho congressional delegation in 2008 to back the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout of financial markets. Simpson also was one of just 16 House Republicans in March 2012 to support a budget plan that would raise revenue as well as cut spending.
“The tea party has the same goals as the Chamber of Commerce as do many other organizations,” Simpson said. “It’s the tactics of how you achieve those goals.”
Still, he is taking his challenger seriously. Simpson, who had fundraising assistance from a personal August visit to the district from Boehner , R-Ohio, raised $460,977 during the fourth quarter of 2013, more than twice as much as he collected during the same period two years ago, a Federal Election Commission filing shows. He had $787,424 in the bank in January.
Smith raised $111,066 during the same quarter and had more than $375,000 cash on hand, according to a Jan. 9 campaign news release.
Ann Burt, one of those who attended Smith’s meeting at the library, isn’t persuaded by Simpson’s assertion that the party rift is simply about tactics and remains troubled by his record.
“He totally sells us down the river with almost every vote,” said Burt, 52, a personal assistant working from home.
Burt said she isn’t concerned about the infighting within the Republican Party, locally or nationally.
“I would rather fail, fighting within my party, than go lock step with things I don’t agree with,” she said.
—With assistance from Greg Giroux in Washington.