Since at least 1980, Idaho’s major Republican candidates joined together in late October for a statewide campaign bus tour that generated excitement, press coverage and helped get out the votes for GOP candidates from the top of the ticket down.
There is no statewide bus this year. Four dollar gas prices, the internet and perhaps a changing Republican Party in Idaho have driven this campaign tool off the road and into the ditch.
But one state senator has loaded his own bus with college Republicans on a tour through the 1st Congressional District that ended Sunday at the Canadian border.
The statewide GOP bus was a biennial event at least since 1980 when Steve Symms was running against Frank Church and Larry Craig was making his first run for Congress. It was great political theater that brought the major party candidates and legislative hopefuls into most of the small towns of the state for rallies that were real community events.
When I started covering Idaho politics in the 1980s I rode the bus through eastern Idaho and marveled at how local Republicans put together the rallies that brought out regular voters to meet Symms, Rep. George Hansen and then Lieutenant Gov. candidate Butch Otter.
Symms, Hansen and Otter were animated campaigners, as Otter is today. The bus was where many Idahoans got to know and weigh the character of these political celebrities face-to-face.
Cowboys and grandmothers had big smiles when Otter remembered their names or Symms asked them how their sick spouse was doing. Weekly newspaper editors ran full page spreads and every local television and radio station had live interviews the week before the election.
Craig and Otter were joined by equally personable Dirk Kempthorne and Mike Crapo in the early 1990s. The candidates at the top of the ticket used to put up most of the money for the tour, which with hotel reservations, food and arrangements cost in the range of $10,000.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Matt Ellsworth, who ran the bus in 2004 working for Crapo’s Senate campaign.
Now with the Risch campaign, he said gas prices were the major reason they chose not to support a statewide bus tour, which was primarily their decision, according to Idaho Republican Party chairman Norm Semanko.
“With $4 gas prices chugging around the state that way would not have been a good message for voters,” Semanko said.
Statewide candidates depend more today on television advertising. Sophisticated absentee ballot direct-mail tactics have become a larger part of the Republican Party’s toolbox.
Local candidates use door-to-door now more than community rallies, Semanko said.
What he didn’t say was that with Rep. Bill Sali generating low favorable ratings – only 33 percent in one poll – local candidates and perhaps Risch didn’t want to be associated with him. Sen. Larry Craig’s political downfall also has taken away one of the great bus campaigners who might have brought out voters to celebrate his career like an NBA star on retirement tour.
In the vacuum, Caldwell Republican State Sen. John Gee has organized his own bus tour with more than 20 college students to help his fellow Republican state lawmakers in western Idaho races. McGee is a veteran of the statewide buses and he was disappointed the tradition was dropped.
McGee has made no secret he aspires to higher office. Some pundits have argued he would benefit if Democratic businessman Walt Minnick defeated Sali.
McGee was in McCall Friday as his young Republicans spread out to drop literature for all GOP candidates, including Sali. But his own bus, paid for with his campaign funds, has none of the major candidates, no rallies and no scheduled media events.
“I would call this more of a blue collar effort because we are going door-to-door,” McGee said. “This is grass roots.”
The most obvious reason there might not have been a statewide bus this year is that the Republicans Party is increasingly divided between its moderate and conservative wing. McGee said his bus trip is one way to address the split.
“Maybe this is one way to heal those wounds,” McGee said.