BOISE, Idaho -- A little more than a week before the GOP primary that will effectively determine whether Rep. Mike Simpson will win his re-election bid, the Republican lawmaker stood Sunday in the frigid studio of Idaho Public Television.
While he was only a few feet away from his challenger, attorney Bryan Smith, the two men weren't looking at each other or attempting to make small talk as they waited for the hourlong debate to begin.
But then the lights came up and the sparring began.
Smith, a political novice making his first bid for office, took repeated swipes at Simpson, seeking to frame the eight-term lawmaker as too liberal for the eastern Idaho 2nd District, which stretches from Boise to the Wyoming border.
Simpson fired back -- defending the need for bipartisan collaboration in the House and accusing Smith of repeatedly misconstruing votes the lawmaker has cast during his 16 years in office -- until a spat on immigration prompted him to turn bodily to his challenger in frustration.
"It's an outright lie. It's not true, Brian," Simpson chided Smith, seeking to explain a vote on immigration that Smith has repeatedly described as an amnesty measure.
The feisty session was a condensed version of the nearly yearlong battle Smith has pitched in an effort to knock Simpson out of office.
While it's not the first primary challenge Simpson has faced -- the 63-year-old lawmaker successfully defended his seat against tea party-backed candidate M.C. "Chick" Heileson in both 2010 and 2012 -- Smith has shown up with distinctly more muscle in the form of third-party groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservative Fund.
"He never had the kind of race that he has now," Smith, 51, told E&E Daily following the Sunday debate. "People from Idaho are just tired of business as usual, and they want someone who's not afraid to stand up for conservative principles in Washington."
But while third-party spending is flooding the Idaho district -- the race has seen $2.8 million in outside spending, which the Center for Responsive Politics reports makes it the top recipient of such funds of any House primary this cycle -- it's largely to Simpson's benefit.
According to data compiled by CRP, more than $2 million of that has gone to promote Simpson, paid for by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Rifle Association, American Hospital Association, American Dental Association and Defending Main Street Super PAC.
Another $500,000 has been spent in opposition to Simpson's bid, largely by Club for Growth's Action Fund and FreedomWorks.
And although Smith's campaign has put up the strongest fundraising challenge Simpson has seen in recent years -- both of Heileson's campaigns were underfunded -- the Republican lawmaker has nonetheless maintained his edge in the money chase, as well.
Simpson, chairman of the House Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, raised $1.9 million at the end of April and retained $566,000 in the bank at that time.
Smith has raised $781,00 during his run and had $231,000 on hand at the end of April.
But beyond the money, much of the fight has centered on whether it's better to reach across party lines to make deals in Congress or to refuse to give ground on principle.
'Howling at the moon'
While the intraparty fight has prompted Simpson to defend his conservative record -- pointing in ads to his support for spending cuts and his opposition to health care reform law -- he has also put significant effort into showing voters he has the ability to work across the aisle with Democrats.
"I try to be honest with my voters," Simpson told E&E Daily following the debate. "The only way you get things done in this Congress when you are the majority in one body and not the other, or the president, is that you have to work across the aisle with other people. That's the reality."
Still, the strategy is an unusual one against a tea party challenger, when such races often find Republican incumbents moving to the right to defend their seats.
During the debate, Smith tried to tie Simpson to President Obama and Democratic leaders, repeating an accusation that Simpson once voted for funding for a park in Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) San Francisco district. Simpson has defended the vote, noting that the land was actually transferred from a military base as part of the base realignment and closure process.
"Congressman Simpson indeed has become part of the problem in government," Smith said, before going on to name-drop several lawmakers popular among tea party activists. "If you look in Congress now, who are the ones who are actually making the difference? It's men like [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz and [Utah Sen.] Mike Lee and [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul."
But Simpson asserted that because conservatives like Smith would refuse to negotiate, it would likely prevent Republicans from achieving any success.
"If you're unwilling to sit down and get 80 percent of what you want -- that's a win, not a loss --- then you're not going to get anything done in Congress, and you'll just be howling at the moon," Simpson said.
The lawmaker made similar arguments in an April debate with Smith, during which he said that strident conservatives in the House had cost Republicans some of the cuts they sought in the recent farm bill.
"Sometimes, when they demand certain things, you end up going in the wrong direction, and that's what happened with this," Simpson said during that debate, pointing to reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
Simpson has likewise criticized Smith for making claims that he would eliminate U.S. EPA if elected, arguing that dismantling the agency is not a realistic proposal.
"Brian has said he wants to eliminate the EPA, a very popular statement. It's just not going to happen," Simpson said at the Boise debate, arguing that he is better positioned to "control" the agency by making cuts to its funding.
The candidates have also sparred repeatedly over the question of whether Idaho should absorb any federal lands in the state and, if so, how it would pay to mitigate wildfires and road maintenance.
While both candidates have voiced support for the state's managing federal lands within its borders, Smith accused Simpson of attempting to "lock up" land in federal wilderness areas. Smith wants to encourage the federal government to give states all the federal land within their boundaries, but Simpson suggested that would see access limited or even lands sold off by the state.
Smith has also attacked Simpson repeatedly over his past support for appropriations bills that included out-of-state earmarks -- like funds for the study of lobsters in Maine -- and argued that he has not done enough to rein in federal spending.
But Simpson, who has defended his support for projects in other states as a way to earn support for Idaho projects, has said Smith's zealousness for spending cuts would harm the Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear research facility located in the 2nd District.
"Supporters of Mr. Smith have been out to shut down the Idaho National Lab since the beginning," said Simpson, who earlier this year touted his work to send the facility $24 million more than the Obama administration's original budget request.
During the debate, Simpson also sought to emphasize his seniority in the House, as well as his experience as a legislator, arguing that installing a political novice would be detrimental to the Gem State.
"The reality is, I think that we're both conservative," Simpson said during the debate. "This election is about what kind of representative you want in Congress to represent you. Do you want someone who will go back and grandstand and make statements about things that just aren't true and things that just can't be done? ... Or do you want a congressman who will actually go back to Washington and try to solve problems?"
Attendees of a National Rifle Association-Institute for Legislative Action event held at the Boise Grove Hotel earlier this week -- where Simpson spoke to attendees in a closed-door session -- echoed those concerns.
A Boise man who identified himself only as Jerry said he planned to back Simpson not only for his support of gun rights but also because "he's well-established."
Dressed in a red Hawaiian print shirt, Jerry noted that Smith likewise supports gun rights, "But gosh, he'd be brand-new in Congress, and I don't believe he'd have the status and effect Mr. Simpson does."
Standing outside the Boise Grove Hotel, another attendee, who likewise declined to give her last name, said she has received numerous direct mail ads during the contest but hasn't been swayed to support Smith.
"I just don't feel real committed to change. Who is this person? I don't know much about him," said Pat, who held three orange NRA baseball caps in her hands.
The winner of Tuesday's GOP primary will claim a considerable advantage in the November election -- GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took 64 percent in the 2012 election -- but ex-Rep. Richard Stallings (D) said he plans to put up a fight for the seat.
Watching the Republican primary, Stallings, 73, said he has been disappointed that Simpson and Smith have been "acting like a couple of schoolkids" while spending "millions of dollars over who is the most conservative."
Still, asked why he has decided to make another run for office -- filing at the last minute before a March deadline -- Stallings told E&E Daily: "Some suggest because I'm nuts. While I was there, it ran pretty well, but the place seems to have gone to hell since I left."
He added: "This is one of the worst Congresses in history. We've never had a Congress that was so incompetent, so poorly led, that seems intent on hurting people rather than solving problems."
But this isn't the first time Stallings, who served four terms in the House before giving up his seat in 1992 for a failed Senate bid, has sought to return to Congress.
After serving as the U.S. nuclear waste negotiator in the Clinton administration, Stallings campaigned in the 1998 open-seat race to succeed then-Rep. Mike Crapo (R). Simpson won that contest by nearly 8 points.
This time around, Stallings acknowledged that he's running a campaign largely on his own, unable to get Democratic campaign committees to return his calls.
"I'm going to run a campaign that's run on issues and that will change the dynamic," said Stallings, who served on the Pocatello City Council from 2001 until 2007, at the same time he led the Idaho State Democratic Party.
While he has reached out to unions and education groups and plans to seek assistance from environmentalists, Stallings acknowledged that he'll likely lack the outside-group support Smith or Simpson will claim: "I'm not very optimistic about any of those."
Instead, Stallings, who said he was inspired to run again in part by the recent debates over increasing the minimum wage and congressional inaction on immigration reform, said he plans to focus on a ground game that turns out Latino voters, single mothers and students.
"We're going to focus on changing the dynamics of this a little bit," Stallings said. "There are enough voters out there that I can appeal to that will not be subject to the [billionaire GOP donors David and Charles] Koch brothers' dollars."
He added that he believes many Idaho Republicans have shifted their voter registrations to "unaffiliated" because they have been turned off by "radicalism" within the party.
"I think my task will be to find new voters. While Idaho is definitely a red state, Republicans are no longer the majority party in the state; independents are. If I can mobilize the forces, there are votes to win," Stallings said.
Still, he acknowledged that he is likely to be financially outgunned, particularly if Simpson wins the GOP nomination. Stallings said he has raised $12,000 in the time since he announced his bid.
"I will be badly outspent. He's got all the [political action committees], all the money, all the heavy hitters like the Koch brothers and the chamber. If it's based on money, he's already bought the seat," said Stallings, who added that Smith would be an easier opponent in the general election because he is not liked by Democrats.
"Smith would be easiest for me to beat," Stallings said. "But on the other hand, Simpson, while he's the best of our delegation, that's a very low bar. In seven terms, he's really done nothing for the state. He's liked by Democrats as well as Republicans. I find it appalling that you let a bunch of crazies dictate how you run the state."
Stallings, who served on both the Agriculture and the Science, Space and Technology panels during his House tenure, also said he will confront Simpson on his claims of bipartisanship if the two face off in the general election.
"On the key issues -- on immigration reform, on minimum wage -- Simpson has not reached across the aisle. On minor stuff he has," Stallings said. "It's a nice statement he can show a little bipartisanship, but in fact, he's part of the leadership of this terrible Congress."
Stallings said he plans to use his own legislative record as a contrast, pointing to achievements like the 1988 Swan Falls water rights bill, which gave federal approval to an agreement between the Idaho Power Co. and the state over water in the Snake River Basin.
"Mine was an office that produced results. Mine was an office that forced the other offices to get off their butts and do something," Stallings said.
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