Here's a preview of my column for Tuesday's print edition:
In almost any state but Idaho, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, would be considered solidly conservative.
But Davis isn’t a purist, which has made him enemies during his decade as floor leader. For example, Davis voted for just two of the three “Luna Laws” in 2011, opposing the online and laptop mandate that was ultimately rejected by 67 percent of voters earlier this month.
Davis fought off a challenge two years ago, but looks to be more vulnerable with 11 new votes in the 28-member GOP caucus, many of those more conservative that their predecessors.
Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, was the natural challenger to Davis and began exploring the race seven months ago. But last week, Winder told Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, he would run again for assistant leader, the No. 3 post.
Winder said there was more resistance to change than he anticipated.
“A lot of the members of the caucus felt we had a good team,” Winder told me Monday. “When you really stopped and said, ‘Look me in the eye and tell me what you’re going to do,’ I concluded it was tied at 14-14. For me to run with that close of a vote would have been divisive.”
So, Mortimer, who’d been waiting on Winder to pull the trigger, jumped in for a late run against Davis.
Coeur d’Alene Sen. John Goedde’s unexpected decision to remain as Senate Education chairman played a role. Mortimer was likely to get the job; but voters rejected the education reforms, prompting Goedde to stay put. “The dynamics changed,” Mortimer said.
Mortimer’s makes a two-pronged pitch.
“Sen. Davis has been there 10 years and he’s done a great job, but I do think it’s time for a change,” Mortimer said. “And I think there’s an opportunity for me to unite the Senate. The Senate is changing dramatically.”
Six of the new GOP senators come from the more conservative House, where Mortimer served two years. The other new votes are three appointed members who won on their own Nov. 6 and freshmen Sens. Fred Martin of Boise and Todd Lakey of Nampa.
“Mortimer may be able to get a vote or two that I couldn’t get,” said Winder, who may have been hurt by his clumsy remarks about rape during the 2012 ultrasound debate.
Mortimer, a builder and developer with four years in the Senate, wouldn’t disclose his count of a secret ballot to be held behind closed doors Dec. 5. “Do you ever know exactly where the votes are? Probably not. But I do feel like I have a chance to be successful.”
Davis, a lawyer and 14-year Senate veteran, replied to text messages Monday, saying he had pleadings due and didn’t have time to talk.
Mortimer declined to knock Davis as insufficiently conservative. “I personally don’t think you can say that he’s too moderate. If I win, it will take a combination of all the interests, those conservatives and those moderates.”
Winder said lingering dissatisfaction over Davis’ handling of former Sen. John McGee’s troubles could prove decisive. McGee pleaded guilty to DUI in 2011, but maintained his post as caucus chairman in January 2012. Weeks later, McGee was the subject of a sexual harassment case with a Senate aide which prompted a guilty plea to disturbing the peace, a jail sentence and resignation.
“There was some concern Sen. Davis hadn’t been as forceful as he could have been to avert some of the problems,” Winder said.
Two other races are in play. Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, is opposing Winder; and Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, is challenging Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian.
Still, Winder said the Senate contests don’t hold a candle to efforts to unseat House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Majority Leader Mike Moyle. “I don’t think we have the same fight, the same passion,” Winder said.
Mortimer agreed. “The Senate will be united, no matter who wins.”