BOISE, Idaho — U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick finds himself on familiar ground as he prepares for a heated battle over Idaho's nationally targeted 1st Congressional District seat.
Minnick became the first Idaho Democrat sent to Congress since 1992 when in 2008, he ousted Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Sali, a former state lawmaker who alienated GOP moderates with his brusque style and extreme political positions.
Now Republicans have set their sights on districts like Idaho's 1st, where Republican presidential candidate John McCain won with 62 percent of the vote in 2008, as they try to win back 40 or more House seats in an effort to seize control of the House.
As Minnick launches his re-election campaign with stops in northern and western Idaho, he's facing a challenge from Republican state Rep. Raul Labrador, a conservative state lawmaker who won the support of Idaho's biggest tea party organization for his experience and right-leaning positions. [See who is giving the most money to Minnick's campaign.]
Like onetime Minnick rival Sali, Labrador has a willingness to buck his party to fight for his conservative principles. Last year, he criticized the Republican governor's plan to raise gas taxes to fund highway repairs.
But while district voters grew tired of Sali's style, Labrador has touted his ability to get along with members from both parties.
"I'm not sure that I would compare Raul Labrador to Bill Sali," said state Rep. James Ruchti, a Pocatello Democrat. "They're very different people, they use different methods to achieve their goals. However, Raul's brand of conservative has its own way of alienating people."
Minnick, a 67-year-old Harvard-educated former Nixon White House aide who made millions as a Boise forest products executive, likely expected a much different contest a month ago, when Marine reservist Vaughn Ward had been an early front-runner in the GOP primary.
"I do think the contrast is sharper between me and Raul than it would have been against Vaughn Ward," Minnick said. "I think my position has been strengthened by the fact that I'm running against someone who is so far right, so extreme on so many of these issues."
Minnick, a fiscal conservative who voted against federal bailouts and called for a permanent ban on earmarks, said he's among some 50 fiscally conservative House Democrats in the "Blue Dog Coalition" who last week said they wouldn't vote for new programs, renewing old programs or renewing tax breaks unless they were paid for.
At stops in northern Idaho this week, Minnick fielded voter frustrations over unemployment rates and federal spending.
"I'm furious that Democratic leadership continues to put on the floor for votes, bills that aren't paid for," he said. "Getting the message through to my party leadership, that we're going to be fiscally responsible, is both important and extremely frustrating to me. I understand the frustration of voters."
Minnick was invited to join the coalition by U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's lone Democrat in Congress. Last month, Matheson, a five-term lawmaker, was forced into a June 22 primary runoff by Utah party delegates upset that he voted against President Barack Obama's health care reforms. [See which industries are giving the most to Matheson's campaign.]
Minnick also voted against the health care overhaul but said he doesn't expect that backlash from liberal Democrats in Idaho.
"I think they'll respect my independence and fiscal conservatism," Minnick said. "When Democrats compare my voting record with what Raul Labrador stands for, I expect that the majority of them will conclude that I will continue to be the better representative for the state and for them."