Idaho State Journal - Risch, LaRocco in Showdown
Since last summer, Larry LaRocco has devoted more than a month of working days getting greasy, dusty and stinky laboring side-by-side with Idaho's lunch pail crowd in cities and rural outposts in every corner of the state.
Long before anyone ever heard of an Ohio plumber named Joe, LaRocco, 62, rubbed elbows with cheesemakers in Jerome, hauled trash in Orofino and nailed shingles on a Garden City home, all in hopes of connecting with the middle class workers and families the Democrat has made the focal point of his run for the U.S. Senate.
"I worked side-by-side with people in the workplace so I could learn what they are thinking," LaRocco said during a recent debate here in Boise. "There is so much wisdom in the break room where people have their lunch and prepare for their shifts."
LaRocco, a stockbroker by trade who in 1992 became the last Idaho Democrat elected to Congress, didn't earn a dime for his blue collar stints. It remains to be seen if LaRocco's strategy will earn enough votes to beat his political nemesis, Republican and Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, in a state that hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate in decades.
Heading into the final days of the campaign, Risch, a 64-year-old lawyer running his 32nd primary and general election campaign, is heavily favored to win the election, and beat LaRocco for a third time since 1982.
On the trail and in campaign ads, Risch paints LaRocco as a liberal out of touch with Idaho voters. What Congress needs now, Risch says, is an Idaho lawmaker with a record of fiscal responsibility, a conservative philosophy and resume showing an ability to get things done.
At a recent breakfast meeting with Boise business leaders, Risch recited a list of achievements during his seven-month term as governor in 2006. The list includes pushing through a $260 million property tax cut, reorganizing government agencies and starting talks that ultimately led to the federal policy for managing Idaho's 9.6 million acres of roadless wilderness, a solution that has won over industry, ranchers as well as some conservation groups.
"I know how to make government work," said Risch, who has twice served as Idaho's lieutenant governor and won an eight-candidate primary in May with 65 percent of the vote.
Voters have some other choices when they head to the polls Nov. 4 and pick a successor to three-term Republican Larry Craig, who last fall opted to retire in the wake of his arrest in an undercover gay sex sting at a Minneapolis airport men's room.
Three third-party candidates round out the ballot, including Libertarian Kent Marmon and two Independents, an organic farmer from Gem County who changed his name to Pro-Life, and eastern Idaho veterinarian Rex Rammell. Of those three, Rammell has waged the most aggressive campaign, traveling around the state in a massive motor home and crusading as the only candidate truly committed to shrinking the size and scope of the federal government.
On the trail and in debates, Rammell, has vowed to cut federal spending and dismantle the Department of Education, supported legal changes to charge abortion doctors with murder and he's denounced as myth the theory that human activity is responsible for global warming.
Historically, Independent candidates draw no more than 2 percent of the vote, said Jim Weatherby, a professor emeritus of political science at Boise State University. But Rammell has spent more money and campaigned more aggressively than previous third-party hopefuls, which could siphon off more conservative votes this year, Weatherby said.
"He clearly has the conservative credentials," Weatherby said of Rammell. "But what comes out is his anger over Jim Risch. I think his appeal is hurt by the stridency of his attacks on Risch."
LaRocco, too, has taken aim at the GOP, but for different reasons.
LaRocco accuses Republicans of abandoning middle class voters on issues like health care and the economy, topics LaRocco and Risch offer very different solutions.
To extend health care to more Americans, LaRocco favors a national health insurance market that would enable people to buy standardized insurance coverage from public and private providers. He also backs policies to make existing coverage portable when workers change jobs and emphasizing preventative measures to lower costs.
To Risch, reform should be less comprehensive, focused instead on lowering costs or providing tax credits to help lessen the cost of insurance for the estimated 46 million Americans without coverage.
"I am attacked for being a proponent of a national system," LaRocco said in an interview with the Associated Press. "But there are people in this country who are being squeezed. We need an American-based system for health insurance that is fair and brings security."
On the economy, Risch has defended some levels of government intervention, though he's said repeatedly he would have voted against last month's $700 billion bailout of the financial markets, arguing it was too loaded down with other spending to entice wavering lawmakers.
"The federal government has a responsibility to protect us," Risch told Boise-area business officials at the height of the crisis last month. "They aren't taking over our economy. They are dealing with the monetary system of this country, and that's exactly what they should be doing."
LaRocco has supported the rescue package, saying Americans will get their money back and the new regulatory reforms will restore confidence in the financial system. LaRocco has also supported another stimulus package with public works projects at its heart.
And he reminds voters he was part of a Congress that helped the nation climb out of economic lethargy in the early 1990s by promoting a balanced budget and reducing the federal deficit.
"I helped fix an economic mess then, and will help fix it again," said LaRocco, who served two terms in Congress but was defeated in 1994 by Republican Helen Chenoweth.
Twice before Idaho voters have had to choose between LaRocco and Risch. In 1986, Risch beat LaRocco in a state Senate contest, then again two years ago when they battled for lieutenant governor.
LaRocco also finds himself trailing in the polls and fundraising this time around. To make up ground, LaRocco, a former staffer for late-Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church, has focused on his tireless campaign. At the same time, he's criticized Risch as aloof on the campaign trail, a veteran Republican treating the race with a sense of entitlement.
"I'm the guy who's been working hard for the vote," LaRocco said. "It's been from the start just a total difference in they style we're running this campaign and reaching out to voters."