I’m going to devote a few posts to the Larry Craig drama this morning, because it raises a variety of issues, some immediate and political, and others a bit more complex.
The immediate political question is what effect this will have on ’08 Senate politics. The 62-year-old Craig, who first won his Senate seat in 1984, is up for re-election next year. His retirement had been considered possible – mostly because of the increasing chatter about his sexual orientation and restroom conduct that preceded this week’s developments – and now it can be called certain. The real issue is whether he will stick it out through next year, or resign early.
There’s a chance that the Minnesota airport revelations will open the floodgates and similar reports of past conduct by Craig will come pouring through. That would surely hasten his exit. Then again, what’s already emerged might be enough. A story in today’s Idaho Statesman, which had been investigating Craig’s sexual activities for the previous five months, described how his wife’s eyes “reddened and filled with tears” as she sat with her husband in May when the Statesman played the tape of an interview with a man who claimed to have had sex with Craig. You can only imagine what she’s telling him to do today. There’s also the prospect of pressure from within the Republican Party, which would surely like Craig to leave the stage as soon as possible. (Indeed, Craig has already left Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, which tried in vain to hide this video of Craig endorsing Romney and his “family values.”)
The best possible outcome for Republicans is probably a quick resignation, which would allow Idaho’s G.O.P. Governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, to appoint a replacement, who would then presumably stand for a full term in 2008. With little doubt, Otter would tab Mike Simpson, a Republican who has represented half of the state in Congress since 1998. (The state’s only other Congressman, Bill Sali, is also a Republican, but he is – quite literally – the most loathed public official in Idaho by his party’s establishment. He owes his election last year to an absurdly split primary field, which allowed him to win with just 26 percent.)
Simpson is reliably conservative but publicly inoffensive, and his quasi-incumbency would only help his standing in what is one of the most Republican states in the union (Idaho voted for George W. Bush by nearly 40 points in 2004). Moreover, the Democrats do not have a deep bench in the state. Larry LaRocco, a Congressman for two terms in the early ‘90s, is the last Democrat to score a high-profile victory in the state, although his comeback attempt last year – a bid for lieutenant governor – ended in a lopsided defeat. LaRocco has been preparing to challenge Craig, perhaps anticipating that the senator might be tripped up by his own baggage. Had the Craig revelations emerged, say, in October 2008, LaRocco would be sitting pretty. But if he ends up facing an appointed Senator Mike Simpson, his odds are slim.
Democrats would be happier, then, if Craig opts to complete his term. For one thing, that would keep him in the news, which would keep the media on his case asking embarrassing questions. Potentially, that could poison the atmosphere against Republicans in Idaho. More to the point, though, it would produce an open G.O.P. primary next year, which could attract the kind of unwieldy field that allowed the hated Sali to sneak through in his own Congressional primary a year ago. Yes, Sali won the general election, but his margin was far narrower than any Republican in his district should ever enjoy. With Larry Craig in the news and Republicans fielding a Bill Sali-like candidate – or maybe even Sali himself – Democrats could make a serious push for this seat next year.
But for those very reasons, expect Republicans to do anything they can to make sure Craig leaves early – although he may not need that much pushing. And if the G.O.P. gets its way, don’t count on Idaho hosting a competitive Senate race next fall.