After 37 years in elected office, all of them in Idaho, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch has his sights set on the national political arena.
Risch, a Republican, is making a bid for the U.S. Senate to replace the seat being vacated by long-time incumbent Sen. Larry Craig, also a Republican. Risch and his wife, Vicki, were in Blaine County this week to make appearances at meetings of the National Milk Producers Federation and the Dairy Coalition.
Risch, 65, is facing Democrat Larry LaRocco, Libertarian Kent Marmon and independents Rex Rammell and Marvin Richardson, who has formally changed his name to "Pro-Life." Recent polls show Risch and LaRocco are leading, with Risch ahead by at least 10 points.
Risch and LaRocco faced off two years ago for the lieutenant governor position. It was a race Risch easily won, getting the nod from 40 of the state's 44 counties. However, he characterized this year's race against LaRocco as "higher profile" than the previous one because the stakes are higher in a run for the U.S. Senate.
"I think my campaign's kind of the same," Risch said. "His campaign's kind of the same."
In an hour-long interview, Risch touted the seven months in 2006 he spent as Idaho's 31st governor, after former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was appointed secretary of Interior.
During his time as governor, Risch made headlines for his environmentally friendly politics. He supervised adoption of a rule that prohibited construction of mercury-releasing coal-fired power plants in Idaho. He designed a plan to manage Idaho's designated roadless lands, a proposal that won approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In public land and environmental policy, he consistently supported collaborative policymaking.
"Probably the best collaborative effort I had was the roadless," he said. "We worked from the middle."
Asked whether there was political risk involved in supporting conservation-oriented policy, Risch answered definitively.
"Some friends said not to go with it. They said, 'Don't touch that with a 10-foot pole. You're not going to be governor very long.'"
He said the solution—using more than one classification to categorize road-free public lands—seemed obvious. Thereafter, it was a matter of building consensus and breaking down the polarized nature of the issue. It's a method he said he supports in efforts to designate wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains and in the Owhyee canyon country in southwestern Idaho.
Risch was long-time majority leader in the Idaho Legislature, with a tough partisan player. He said that if there is a perception that the man he was as governor and the man he was as majority leader are different, that's because the processes are different.
"When you're doing that (working in the Legislature), the legislative process is more in the spotlight," he said.
He said that can create a perception of being more sharp-elbowed.
Risch adamantly called for congressional energy reforms.
"The U.S. Congress has let America down dramatically in the energy field," he said. "I'm an angry American about it. We need to get at it, and we need to get at it now. It's a wake-up call for us. We are going to run out of oil in this century."
Risch said the economics are going to change as the country transfers its dependence away from oil and onto new sources.
"It's energy that drives our economy," he said.
That said, even with what Risch calls Congress' sluggish response to energy issues, he said the free-market system will jump in soon.
He said nuclear power will be part of the solution, as will solar and wind. He supports drilling offshore and in Alaska to help while the nation works to draft an energy policy.
LaRocco spokesman Dean Ferguson pointed out in a telephone interview that polling indicates a 10-point race, and said he believes the wave of Democratic voting that swept the country in 2006 has yet to reach Idaho.
"Now we're still at war in Iraq, we're $9.5 trillion in national debt and they want change," he said. "Change is coming to Idaho."
Ferguson also countered Risch's notion that the race for lieutenant governor two years ago and the race for U.S. Senate this year are similar.
"In 2006 Jim Risch ran this rose garden campaign," Ferguson said. "He just ran around and was governor. The races just can't compare. People are paying attention to this campaign in a way they weren't in 2006."