BOISE, Idaho – For years, Idaho's most endangered species have been bald eagles, sockeye salmon and Democrats.
President Bush carried the state's massive 1st Congressional District with 69 percent of the vote in 2004. Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, who is running for governor, breezed to three terms in the House.
Yet it's a nettlesome year for Republicans. The 20-county 1st District, which spans western Idaho from the alpine lakes on the Canadian border to the sagebrush desert on the Nevada line, might tone down the Gem State's ruby-red reputation by replacing Otter with a light-blue Democrat.
Larry Grant, a former executive at Micron Technology Inc., the state's largest private employer, is the Democrat in the race. His opponent is conservative state Rep. Bill Sali, a rock 'n' roll drumming and soul-singing Republican.
The contest is one of a handful of late-breaking races that complicate the big picture for Republicans who suddenly have to spend resources in heavily GOP districts around the country. Clear evidence of the party's concerns came Tuesday when the National Republican Congressional Committee spent $135,442 for ads against Grant in the Idaho district.
The backlash from Sali's sharp attacks on his competitors in a May primary and the Republican scandals in Washington may propel Grant to the party's first win in the district since 1992, said Jim Weatherby, an emeritus professor of public policy at Boise State University.
"The question is how many of these voters who are used to voting Republican can hold their nose in the privacy of a voting booth and vote for Grant?" Weatherby asked.
Sali echoes Idaho's deep conservatism with a libertarian dash. He wants to build a fence on the Mexico border, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and the Education Department, rein in the Environmental Protection Agency, bomb Iran's nuclear sites and eventually revoke the USA Patriot Act.
Whether Sali's stances will rally the GOP base or mute enthusiasm from middle-of-the-road voters may have less impact than the rocky reputation he brings from 16 years in the Idaho legislature.
Sali is a strident abortion foe who brags he's never voted for a tax hike. But along the way, his combative nature has put off many party leaders.
He once refused to cut short a floor speech linking breast cancer to abortion, prompting the Republican House speaker to call him "an idiot" and briefly strip him of his committee assignments.
"Even his fellow legislators don't like him," said Jim Holden, a district voter and charter member of the Service Employees International Union in Idaho.
Idaho's only other congressman, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who served with Sali in the state House, once threatened to throw him from a window.
"I have a good working relationship with Mike Simpson and I'm looking forward to working with him," Sali said. "I didn't get thrown out of the window, so ..."
Simpson marshaled the party rank-and-file behind Sali after he won the six-way primary with 26 percent of the vote. Simpson embraced Sali at a post-primary fundraiser, but he told The Associated Press that Sali may be vulnerable.
"It's a seat there is concern about," Simpson said. "I don't want to say there's confidence, but there is a feeling he will win this seat."
Sali says he will not moderate his philosophy. At a picnic last month he said, "Yeah, I'm hard to get along with because I don't like liberal politics." But he acknowledged he will have to cool down.
"I've stepped up to a leadership position within the Republican Party and that requires certain things a little different than what I've done in the past," he said.
In a campaign advertisement, Sali smiles throughout while leaning on a pickup truck and talking to cowboys, joining a white-haired man on a park bench and fishing with his grandchildren. Despite the campaign's subdued tone, it is Sali's partisan vigor that could mobilize core conservatives.
"It's his style that I like," Vincente Moreno said at a Sali picnic as the candidate sang Free's "All Right Now" with a long-haired country rock band. "He's a pro-lifer. He's for cutting taxes. He stands up."
Grant thinks Sali will create a fissure among Republicans. He has campaigned as a Western maverick with business sense, touting a platform of spending cuts, a raise in the minimum wage and support for Idaho's wilderness.
"My problem is name ID," Grant said. "His problem is he has to convince his natural constituency that he is not as extreme as he seems to be. But I didn't choose Bill Sali to run against. The Republican Party did and that's their problem now."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has pledged no money to Grant, instead funneling resources to House candidates in traditionally competitive states.
Grant still balances on a tightrope, trying to tap into a wave of discontent with the Republican Congress, while distancing himself from Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Rodham Clinton, toxic names in Idaho political circles.
"I'm not going to let an East Coast liberal define me any more than a conservative Republican," he said.