What do you do with a drunken sailor?

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 29 2006 11:59 PM

What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?

With this election sinking fast, Republicans debate how not to lose the next one.

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Chenoweth retired in 2000 after three terms, one of the few members of the 1994 class to keep her promise on term limits. But in her prime, she was without peer. She wondered how the Pacific salmon could be endangered, when she could buy canned salmon in the grocery store. She defended the militia, and insisted on being called "Congressman," because in her view, the white male was the real endangered species. She read French libertarians, not French existentialists. Perhaps most famously, Chenoweth popularized the far right's fear of a vast federal conspiracy of "black helicopter" gunships that were coming to take away our guns, our land, and our survival shelters.

Those are hard shoes to fill. If Ann Coulter ran for Congress in Idaho's 1st District, she'd be canned salmon. Five candidates to Coulter's right would say to her, "You're no Helen Chenoweth."

Chenoweth's successor, Rep. Butch Otter, said at her funeral that since he came to Congress six years ago, other congressmen have tried to convince him that "you'll never be as conservative as Helen, so quit trying." In his eulogy, Otter pledged, "I didn't quit trying, and I'll never quit trying."

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Otter may have equaled Chenoweth's lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 95 percent, but he never came close to matching her extremist authenticity. After he led a House revolt against the Patriot Act, he became something of a liberal hero, which was tough to explain back home.

So like Chenoweth before him, Otter decided to leave Congress. He's heavily favored to be elected governor in November. With an open congressional seat, Idaho Republicans have spent 2006 playing a game of "Can You Top Helen?"

This spring, six candidates carved each other up in a bitter GOP primary. The runner-up, an anti-immigration candidate named Robert Vasquez, has already announced that in 2008, he will challenge Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a mere 94 percent.

The winner of the primary, with a commanding 26 percent of the Republican fringe, was a state representative named Bill Sali. Human Events calls him a "swashbuckling conservative." The leading political historian in the state, Randy Stapilus, dubbed Sali "one of the weakest Idaho state legislators in the last couple of decades." That's august company, indeed. Sali once testified that the "brain fade" he suffered after a car wreck hasn't hindered him, because "much of the time in the Legislature, critical-thinking skills are not necessarily needed."

Sali is an embarrassment, all right, but more of the Coulter than Chenoweth variety. Earlier this year, Sali brought the Democratic minority leader, a breast cancer survivor, to tears on the House floor by alleging that abortion could cause breast cancer. The Republican speaker of the House was so angry, he stripped Sali of his committee assignments and started fuming like Idaho's favorite son, Napoleon Dynamite. The speaker said of Sali, "That idiot is just an absolute idiot."

In a normal year, even a freakin' idiot could win the 1st District. Republicans held the seat in both of the last two Democratic midterm landslides, in 1974 and 1982. In 2004, Bush carried it with 68 percent against John Kerry, who considers Idaho a second home.

Republicans may well hold on to the seat again. As Randy Stapilus says, 1st District voters "don't embarrass easily." But a new robopoll last week showed the race still too close to call. The Democratic candidate, Larry Grant, is a centrist and former executive at Micron Technology, the biggest employer in the state. He recently won the endorsement of the influential Spokane Spokesman-Review, a Republican-leaning newspaper that serves the northern half of the district.

Bill Sali could be ultraconservatism's canary in the coal mine. But even if he loses, extremists should take heart. As the late Helen Chenoweth might say, if right-wing nuts were an endangered species, we wouldn't be putting them on the shelf. ... 10:14 A.M. (link)

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