Lesbian Democrat challenging U.S. rep. must defy history

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In seven elections, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson secured 1.1 million Idaho residents’ votes to send him to Congress. His Democratic rivals? Fewer than 500,000.

Only once did Simpson win less than 62 percent, his inaugural 1998 run when he beat former Democratic Congressman Richard Stallings. On average, Simpson wins by 36 percentage points with Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District voters.

Confronted with these numbers, Simpson’s Democratic rival, Nicole LeFavour, a four-term state lawmaker from Boise, offers her own numbers to underpin a stubborn optimism about Nov. 6.

She has 11 paid staffers to reach voters. She’s made 30 trips to eastern Idaho, trekking door-to-door in hardcore Republican neighborhoods. Singer Carole King has given two concerts to energize her supporters – and financiers who have chipped in more than $300,000. With field offices in Boise, Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Twin Falls, LeFavour says she’s reaching more voters than any Idaho Democrat ever.

Forget numbers that say Mike Simpson is a shoo-in for an eighth trip to Washington, D.C.; LeFavour contends her 2012 campaign is a different animal than the seven that failed to beat or unseat Simpson over the last 14 years.

“How many of them were sitting state senators who had spent 20 years on the ground working with people, every day?” she said. “We’ve been talking to thousands of them. No one has ever done that in this congressional district.”

On paper, however, Simpson is the candidate to beat: A Republican in a state where 81 percent of the Legislature is GOP.

He’s outraised LeFavour, banking $1.1 million.

And he’s running in a district that includes eastern Idaho and eastern Boise that hasn’t elected a Democrat in 22 years – Stallings in 1990 – in a year when Idaho favorite Mitt Romney is on the GOP presidential ticket. Idaho Republicans are energized.

“Sen. LeFavour has a steep hill to climb, running against a popular incumbent in a heavily Republican district,” said David Adler, head of Boise State University’s Andrus Center for Public Policy. “What compounds the difficulty for Nicole is that, on a number of economic issues, Congressman Simpson has been an advocate of programs that appear to be centrist.”

Simpson, for instance, has been among a bipartisan lawmaker coalition that urge a broad compromise combining cuts with new revenue to trim the $16 trillion national debt by a quarter.

LeFavour, meanwhile, casts Simpson as an extremist lurking beneath a moderate veneer, barely concealing her outrage at his votes against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 that bolstered wage protections for women and for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s austere budget when it cleared the House in March 2012.

The spending package pushed by Ryan, now Romney’s vice presidential pick, foresaw changes to Medicare that LeFavour argues would hurt seniors.

She favors restoring extended federal unemployment benefits; Simpson doesn’t, wondering where the money is going to come amid trillion-plus annual budget deficits.

“Look at his voting record,” LeFavour said. “People expected him to stand up for them and against that kind of cruelty.”

LeFavour is an earnest crusader, born in Colorado but raised up in Idaho’s rural Custer County. She’s Idaho’s first openly-gay state lawmaker.

Simpson is an unapologetic jokester, a Mormon who drinks coffee with Bailey’s on cold, rainy days and who quit dentistry for politics.

The 62-year-old Simpson traded his House speaker post in Idaho’s Capitol in the 1990s for his current job, where since 2010 he’s led the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee that sets funding for the U.S. Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, a regular target of his budget barbs.

Simpson contends the Lilly Ledbetter law allows women claiming pay discrimination to wait for too long before lodging a complaint, but added his vote doesn’t conflict with his conviction that women deserve equal pay for equal work. His wife, Kathy Simpson, has worked for 42 years, he said.

“The idea that I don’t care about her being paid equally is just patently absurd,” he said.

And Simpson said his support of Ryan’s Medicare voucher proposal underscores his commitment to paring budget deficits, insisting it takes political courage to challenge Medicare’s status quo.

“It’s the third rail of politics. You touch it, you die,” he said. “But somebody has got to be stepping up and saying, ‘We’ve got to reform this program.’ “

LeFavour hopes an often-overlooked constituency – Hispanic and Latino voters in the 2nd Congressional District’s agricultural communities – turns out in greater numbers than ever to help her end Simpson’s run in Washington, D.C. Three LeFavour staffers are bilingual.

Even if the numbers don’t work out in her favor this time, she says they may provide guidance for her future.

“If I get 40 percent plus of the vote, I would certainly consider that a potential reason to run again,” LeFavour said.