In Idaho Congressional Race, the Establishment Strikes Back

A Republican showdown in the Gem State reveals the party's old guard isn't idle.

Idaho congressional candidates Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, left, and Bryan Smith.

A victory for Idaho Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson, left, over tea party contender Bryan Smith in the state's 2nd Congressional District race could prove the party establishment is back in business. 

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In Idaho, a victory for incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Simpson could mean a major shift in the Republican Party’s establishment vs. tea party battle. If Simpson can pull off a win in a race once billed as “ground zero” for the party's ideological fight, Idaho could be the state where the establishment community proves it's back in business.

Thanks to the help of outside groups, the contest in Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District looks to be working out in favor of Simpson, an eight-term incumbent, rather than local attorney and tea party candidate Bryan Smith. Simpson, an ally of House leadership and chairman of a powerful House Appropriations subcommittee, was expected to be a prime target for the tea party.

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“He’s the kind of congressman who views earmark spending as a gateway drug to bigger spending,” says Rod Beck, a former state senator who has been working with Smith’s campaign.

The contest is a microcosm of the successful battle the business and establishment wing of the Republican Party has been able to wage in the 2014 election cycle. From GOP primaries in states from Texas to North Carolina, the establishment is tallying up one win after another. While Smith received early endorsements from national conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, the Gem State congressional race shows the heavy-hitting power of more traditionally aligned GOP groups is still alive and well.

“It is a combination of Republican candidates who came into this cycle well-prepared and Republican outside groups who were not going to continue to allow the D.C. conservative groups to hijack the election cycle,” says Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant who has done work with the Defending Main Street super PAC, a group that has spent money on behalf of Simpson in the race.

The race has been the most expensive congressional primary contest in the country. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside groups have spent roughly $3 million on the Idaho contest, and $2.2 million has gone to boost Simpson. Defending Main Street, started by former Ohio Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette, has poured $457,568 into the race for Simpson, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent $725,000 on his behalf.

Former Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney appeared for Simpson in one of the Chamber’s ads, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has stumped for Simpson in the state. Such high-profile endorsements reveal the establishment brand might not be the poison many had billed it to be in Idaho. Club for Growth, which had warned it would “send a shiver” through the establishment’s spine with a victory in the district, has not spent money in the race during its final weeks.

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Polling in the race has been scarce, so it's hard to know for certain where the candidates stand just hours before they go head-to-head in the polls. But pundits say there have been some key signs indicating Simpson’s holding on.

“The Club for Growth is no longer spending money on the race, and so that has been an indication to me and others that Simpson is probably a favorite,” says Kyle Kondik, a congressional campaign expert at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I don’t think there are any neutral polls floating out there, but the fact that the buzz from the race has died down I think tells us what we need to know.”

Local Republicans say the contest isn’t just a bellwether for the national party, but a testament to the debate raging between Idaho GOP members as well. Custer County Republican Party Chairman Mike Barrett says he doesn't see the fight as one between the tea party and the establishment in the state, but more of a rural vs. urban divide. 

“This is as brutal a primary season as I have ever seen,” he says.