Idaho Rep. Simpson says record speaks for itself. His challenger calls him a ‘fossil’ - East Idaho News
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Idaho Rep. Simpson says record speaks for itself. His challenger calls him a ‘fossil’

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Republican voters in eastern Idaho may feel like they’re experiencing deja vu when they cast their May 17 primary ballots for the 2nd Congressional District, which includes a repeat match-up between longtime incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson and challenger Bryan Smith.

Simpson, 71, and Smith, 59, an Idaho Falls attorney, also squared off in the district’s 2014 Republican primary. Simpson, a former dentist, won that race with nearly 62% of the vote, as well as three general elections since.

Now, as he seeks a 13th term, he is campaigning largely on his record after holding the seat since 1999.

“My record over the past 12 terms speaks for itself,” Simpson told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview. “I think I reflect the values and interests of my state and my district very well.”

Smith, meanwhile, is one of a slate of right-wing candidates across several statewide races trying to knock off a number of incumbents. In what has developed into an expensive and testy primary battle, Smith has labeled Simpson both a “career politician” and a RINO — a term meaning “Republican in name only” — while arguing that his opponent has lost touch with his constituents.

That’s due in part, Smith said, because the state and congressional district have become increasingly conservative, including during the four-year tenure of former Republican President Donald Trump.

“Mike Simpson has become a fossil and a relic to his constituents,” Smith told the Statesman in a phone interview. “The state has turned farther to the right, all while Mike has plummeted and careened and veered to the left. All those things make this a far different race than in 2014.”

Simpson disputed the characterization, instead describing himself as a “go-to guy” in Congress on anything concerning agriculture, including his involvement in authoring the U.S. farm bill reupped every five years. In addition, he highlighted his work to remove gray wolves from the federally protected list, guide statewide management of sage-grouse protections and also ensure the U.S. Forest Service has the funds necessary to fight rising occurrences of catastrophic wildfires across the West.

As a senior member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Simpson said his continued representation of the state is vital to maintaining Idaho’s interests in Washington, D.C.

In a recent spending bill signed by President Joe Biden, for example, Simpson said he helped secure tens of millions of dollars in water system upgrades at Mountain Home Air Force Base, record funding for the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls and an overall strengthened national defense budget through the end of the fiscal year.

Smith, however, took aim at the $1.5 trillion spending package, which the rest of Idaho’s federal delegation – Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Rep. Russ Fulcher — each voted against. Smith called the bill an example of Simpson’s growing willingness to support big spending and expanded government — neither of which uphold traditional conservative values.

“In 2014, I ran because Mike was just way too liberal for the district, I felt,” Smith said. “What’s hard to believe is Mike Simpson has accomplished the impossible and gotten far worse.”


Together, Simpson and Smith have raised more than $1 million in campaign donations since October, according to Federal Election Commission records, easily making it Idaho’s most competitive congressional race. Smith has added another $450,000 in personal loans to his campaign to keep pace with Simpson’s nearly 2-to-1 fundraising edge.

Through April, the two candidates also have combined to spend more than $1.2 million on TV and digital advertisements, consultants, fundraising events and direct mailers to voters. Residents of the 2nd Congressional District will be happy when May 17 arrives, Simpson joked, just so they can see the end of the blitz of political mailers and TV ads related to the race.

“As a challenger, you need enough money for an active campaign, to help with building name recognition, as well as to differentiate yourself from the incumbent or attack the incumbent,” Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State University political science professor, told the Statesman. “Other groups are also spending money, and that’s the element that’s hard to carefully track before the election.”

Three other Republicans qualified for the 2nd Congressional District’s primary ballot: Flint L. Christensen, Daniel A.L. Levy and Chris Porter. However, none of the three has reported raising any funds, nor are running active campaigns, leaving Simpson and Smith in a two-horse race.


What the two candidates agree on is the need to better secure the U.S.-Mexico border, which each said the Biden administration has failed to do since taking office. Simpson and Smith each want to see the restart to construction of the border wall that was launched under Trump.

The same is true, each candidate told the Statesman, of restarting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline along the U.S.-Canada border and three U.S. states, to deliver more oil. Both also said they would like to see increased mining of minerals and natural resources on public lands in Idaho.

They agree that each state should be in charge of its own elections, rather than seeing the federal government involve themselves to a greater extent, as they said Democrats seek to do with new laws.

Simpson, however, said he has confidence in the results of the 2020 election, when Biden defeated Trump. Smith said, though, he believes growing evidence shows voter fraud on an “enormous, giant scale” swung the presidency for Biden, instead of Trump — aligning himself with false claims from Trump and his allies, for which proof has never surfaced.

“There is no question that the election was, I’ll say, rigged in favor of Joe Biden,” Smith said. “It does appear it was stolen from (Trump) through illegal ballot harvesting and drop boxes, and there’s a very strong case to be made that, had that not happened, President Trump would have been the president.”

One of Simpson and Smith’s largest clashes is over their respective strategies for addressing water and salmon population issues along the lower Snake River.

Simpson has pitched a compromise among Idaho, Oregon and Washington to remove four dams to help prevent the potential extinction of salmon, while also recharging the state’s aquifers and providing water for farm and other agricultural needs. Smith argued the approach is unproven, doesn’t address the issue of fluctuating fish populations and is a “scare tactic” from Simpson to garner votes.

“I’m trying to save water for Idaho farmers rather than just flush it down the river,” Simpson told the Statesman on Friday. “We’ve put the concept out there, and the issue needs to be debated and decided, I think, by the people of the Pacific Northwest. We’re trying to end lawsuits, where we spend millions (of dollars) each year, against farmers, because of the dams and the loss of salmon runs.”

Simpson said court is a place where Smith has gotten too comfortable, given his work as a lawyer working on behalf of a debt collection agency.

He said Smith has filed thousands of lawsuits against vulnerable Idahoans behind on medical bills, amassing millions of dollars in payments through “excessive, abusive and unethical” practices. That is Smith’s record that voters must consider, Simpson said, because his opponent has never before held public office.

Smith called Simpson’s allegations in the bitter rivalry “vitriolic campaign rhetoric” in an effort to maintain control of the congressional seat. He said his law firm has never been accused of wrongdoing or unlawful practices, nor received a cease and desist letter or been shut down by the Idaho attorney general’s office, and maintains an “A-” rating from the Better Business Bureau.

“You would think that a 22-year incumbent would run on what he’s accomplished and what he’s done,” Smith said. “but from the very beginning he’s been attacking me and my profession, and attacking me as a lawyer. Mike is just making up stuff because he’s trying to win an election.”