Why They Play the Game

There are favored teams in sports.

Fans scrutinize teams on paper, sifting through statistics to determine which squad has the advantage over the other. Depending on the sport, they decide which team has better speed, which has a better passing game, which team's bullpen stinks and which side possesses a wicked power-play.

Then there are upsets.

Fans meet these upsets with a common refrain: "That's why they play the game."

Games are won on the field, not on paper.

That's why an unheralded 1990 Cincinnati Reds club swept the heavily-favored Oakland Athletics team in one of the biggest upsets in World Series history. It's why the previously-unheard of Buster Douglas rocked the boxing world by knocking out heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. It's why 800 student, NAIA member Chaminade of Hawaii throttled Ralph Sampson and the number one-ranked University of Virginia in 1982. And, do you believe miracles? Yes, a bunch of American college kids edged the mighty Soviets and eventually took the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid.

Political handicappers are like sports fans. They look at the candidates on paper and catalogue the dynamics of a race, electoral history, voter registration and a district's demographics.

But just like in sports, things happen in the political arena that defy logic.

This is unfolding as a Republican election year. But political experts are expecting Democrats to hold a Congressional seat that, on paper, would appear to be a layup for the GOP.

The Cook Political Report rates this district as the 27th-most Republican in the country (out of 435).

In the 2008 presidential election, voters in this district favored Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) over President Obama by 26 points. They awarded President George W. Bush a 38 point advantage over Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in the 2004 presidential contest. And Mr. Bush walloped Al Gore by 40 points in this district in 2000.

What gives?

Like sports, politics is played on the field.

Rep. Walt Minnick (D-ID) arrived in Washington in January, 2009 with a gigantic bull's-eye on his back. He dispatched former Rep. Bill Sali (R-ID) by barely 4,000 votes as Democrats racked up big gains in both the House and Senate in 2008. Almost immediately, National Journal rated Minnick as the second-most endangered incumbent in the House. This past spring, National Journal scrubbed him from the list. The Cook Political Report tilted Minnick's district from a "toss-up" to "lean Democratic." And no one is listing Minnick's seat as one of the most-likely seats to switch parties this fall.

What's even more telling is an email exchange I had with a key Republican election watchdog about Minnick's race and another contest where a veteran Democrat faces an uphill climb this fall.

For the latter race, my source gave me a very specific, quote addressing how the voting record of the incumbent made them vulnerable. In the same email, my source only wrote this about Minnick: "In this kind of toxic political environment, no Democrat is safe."

Oh, the bull's-eye remains on Minnick's back. It's just a question if anyone can hit it.

Interest groups from both the left and right track how each Member of Congress votes on critical issues, They then produce a "score" which indicates how often a particular lawmaker votes with or against that interest group.

For instance, on abortion, Minnick secured a 100 percent score from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The NAACP awarded Minnick a 68 and the AFL-CIO scored Minnick at 57 percent.

But look at how conservative organizations rated Minnick. The Club for Growth scored him at 53. The American Conservative Union gave Minnick a 44 and the Eagle Forum presented Minnick with a 54.

Minnick supported the Obama Administration 68 percent of the time. That's not a lot when it comes to party loyalty. And furthermore, he put significant real estate between him and Democratic House leadership, only siding with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) 41 percent of the time. No other Democrat has bucked leadership that frequently.

To wit: Minnick voted against the health care reform law, was a no on the $787 billion stimulus bill and opposed the climate control bill, sometimes described as "cap and trade."

Few House Democrats boast voting records like that (or would want to). In fact, many liberal Democrats receive a "zero" rating from the American Conservative Union and Eagle Forum. Minnick gave Republicans little ammunition to fire at him this fall.

"His voting record is going to be hard to go after," conceded Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), Idaho's only other House member.

But that didn't prevent the Idaho Republican party from getting its hooks into Minnick after members of MoveON.org met with a member of the Congressman's staff about campaign issues.

"This is the real Walt Minnick, speaking to the right and voting with the left," said Idaho GOP leader Norm Semanko. "Congressman Minnick consistently portrays himself as something other than a liberal Democrat. I can assure you, he is a liberal Democrat."

Minnick describes himself as a "Blue Dog Democrat" who monitors the fiscal bottom line. He's one of only three House Democrats who doesn't do earmarks. As a result, Minnick secured an endorsement from the Tea Party Express. He was the only Congressional Democrat to earn such a nod.

It makes some wonder why Minnick doesn't switch parties.

"I'm comfortable being a Democrat. I'm proud to be a Democrat," Minnick said. He notes that some Republican factions now require "loyalty oaths," standing against abortion and advocating a repeal of the 17th Amendment, which calls for the direct election of U.S. senators.

"You have to ascribe to all planks. That's not where I am," Minnick said, who describes himself as a social moderate and fiscal conservative. "To be on the other ticket, you have to be a social conservative."

Minnick notes that geography sometimes dictates politics.

"When I was in Massachusetts, I was a Republican," Minnick said. He says that he was an independent for years. But Minnick said he wouldn't consider becoming an independent if re-elected to Congress this fall.

"This institution is run by politics," Minnick said, indicating that lawmakers have too pick a side in the House.

And therein lies the rub for Minnick.

Minnick sweated his first vote of his Congressional career in January of 2009. Looking ahead to the fall of 2010, Minnick mulled voting "present" when the entire House initially convened to choose who would be Speaker. A vote for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would immediately link the vulnerable freshman with the liberal Democrat from San Francisco. A vote for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) could earn Minnick enmity from Democrats who helped him eke out a win in a Republican district. But voting "present" would be, as one Minnick aide described it, "an onside kick."

In the end, Minnick voted for Pelosi.

But he's non-committal about who he would support for speaker in January.

"I don't even know who would run for leadership next time," Minnick said. "I will make that decision at that time."

To challenge Minnick, Republicans nominated Puerto Rican-born Raul Labrador, an Idaho state legislator who helped conservatives gain a foothold in the GOP-controlled statehouse.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) heads the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the panel charged with electing Republicans to the House. Sessions wants Idaho voters to know who Minnick backed for House Speaker.

"The support that Mr. Minnick offers Mrs. Pelosi for her agenda will be the issue," warned Sessions. "He is an enabler."

Mike Simpson says that Minnick's predecessor, Bill Sali "tried to use" the Pelosi card against the Congressman in their 2008 contest. But without much success.

However, Simpson says Minnick may even have a tougher decision to make this January. Especially if Democrats hold control of the House. By a narrow margin.

"I think it's hard for him to (vote for Pelosi)," said Simpson. "If we get close, five or six votes could determine who becomes speaker."

And potentially, which party controls the House.

Sessions says his party will try to convince voters that casting a ballot for Minnick helps Pelosi and the Democrats.

"We're trying to change the agenda," Sessions said. "Minnick had a chance to vote for John Boehner."

But so far, the GOP's "guilt by association" tactic doesn't appear to be working on Minnick. Which is ironic, considering how successful Republicans appear to be elsewhere as they try to lace the speaker's agenda around the neck of incumbent Democrats like an albatross.

So this may be a good year for the GOP. But at least one Democrat who appeared quite vulnerable last year could emerge victorious in one of the country's most Republican-leaning districts.

The 1990 Reds. Buster Douglas. Chaminade. The Miracle on Ice.

They don't decide athletic contests on paper. And in politics, that's why they play the game.