BOISE — The GOP’s live televised primary debate in the 2nd congressional district race has been canceled because longtime GOP congressman Mike Simpson declined to participate.
Simpson faces off against Idaho Falls’ Bryan Smith for the second time, who also challenged him in the 2014 primary, as well as several lesser-known GOP challengers, though Smith has been by far the most active in the campaign.
Simpson’s campaign said in a statement that he had previously had joint appearances with Smith and said, “Republican voters no longer need to see anything from Bryan Smith.”
Simpson and Smith spoke at two Idaho GOP Lincoln Day dinners in Caribou and Twin Falls counties; both attended a third, in Bingham County, although only Simpson spoke.
Smith told the Idaho Press, “Not only was I perfectly prepared, but I was looking forward to having a debate unfiltered by ads or managers. I want and want the people of Idaho to be able to see Congressman Simpson and I directly discuss issues important to them, without any interference from the campaigns or any other interference. And I’m really disappointed for the people of the 2nd congressional district that he doesn’t.
Melissa Davlin, host of Idaho Reports on Idaho Public Television and scheduled moderator for the debate, said, “Despite multiple contacts, we have not heard from Congressman Simpson. Our rules state that we cannot hold single-candidate debates, so unfortunately we had to cancel the CD2 primary debate.
The debate was to be part of the “Idaho Debates,” a long-running series of political debates held in every election cycle for the past three decades, co-sponsored by the Idaho Press Club, League of Women Voters of Idaho, Idaho Public Television and Idaho State Universities.
The Idaho debates are broadcast statewide on Idaho Public Television, which reaches all parts of the state; Simpson and Smith faced off at the Idaho Debates on May 10, 2014 when Smith issued his previous challenge to Simpson. Debates include candidates who meet viewpoint-neutral criteria to show they are actively campaigning and who agree to participate.
Political scientist Jaclyn Kettler of Boise State University said only “a fairly small portion of primary voters” attend county GOP Lincoln Day dinners while statewide debates are televised to a wide audience. “That’s potentially a concern in terms of limiting voters’ ability to learn about candidates,” she said. “And often, these are the types of places where incumbents have to defend their case or explain their cases,” serving as an “accountability” mechanism for voters.
“That kind of illustration of the difficult nature of being a challenger for an incumbent,” she said, “where the incumbent has certain advantages that can make it quite difficult, as a challenger, to really…be able to have opportunities to distinguish yourself or make those comparisons.
Simpson, who is seeking a 12th two-year term in Congress, is a dentist and former president of Idaho House. In Congress, he serves on the House Appropriations Committee and two key appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over programs involving millions of dollars in federal funding for Idaho, including the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior and the US Forest Service.
Smith, an Idaho Falls attorney, is vice chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation board of directors, a member of the Bonneville County GOP Central Committee, and a conservative GOP activist. He sharply criticized Simpson as “too liberal”, in particular criticizing a concept Simpson pioneered to break four North West dams to save the region’s salmon runs, while pumping millions into the helping farmers and affected communities.
Smith also criticizes Simpson for not being supportive enough of gun rights, although Simpson has always had an “A” grade from the National Rifle Association, and occasionally an A+; for voting in favor of the congressional inquiry into the January 6 riot at the United States Capitol; and to always agree with Democrats on anything in Congress. “Just two weeks ago he voted for the $1.5 trillion budget deal,” Smith said.
That bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support, included $13.6 billion in emergency aid for Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. The other three members of the Idaho delegation voted no.
Smith lists his main campaign issues as opposing the dam breach; support for “restarting Trump’s border wall construction”; and supporting a federal law requiring photo ID to vote in all 50 states.
Simpson, on his campaign website, lists his top issues as agriculture, energy, veterans, health care, gun rights, immigration and balancing the federal budget.
Simpson’s campaign adviser Sarah Nelson said in a statement, “Bryan Smith spent his life as a litigator and debt collector who earned millions taking advantage of vulnerable Idaho residents who struggling to pay their medical bills, and he’s using that money in another attempt to buy an election. Republican voters no longer need to see anything from Bryan Smith. They know that Mike Simpson was a fierce Idaho champion and a staunch, dedicated conservative who leads the fight against the reckless agenda of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.
Smith’s law firm, Smith Driscoll & Associates, handles medical debt collection, though Smith said that was largely handled by his employee, attorney, and former state representative Bryan Zollinger. “I’m a litigator and I do civil litigation,” he said.
In 2020, East Idaho’s top GOP donor Frank VanderSloot, owner of Melaleuca, successfully spearheaded legislation to address medical debt collection abuses in Idaho, many of his main criticisms of Smith’s business. The bill, the Idaho Patient Act, was signed into law in March of that year and went into effect on January 1, 2021.
Smith is just as critical of Simpson as Simpson is of Smith. “I believed in 2014 that he was just too liberal, and Mike has done the impossible, he’s gotten way worse since 2014,” Smith said.
He also criticized Simpson for posting a 2020 endorsement of former President Donald Trump on his campaign website. “He makes it look like Trump endorsed him in the primary,” Smith said. “He does not have.” Smith acknowledged that he also did not receive Trump’s endorsement in the primary.
According to the Federal Election Commission, as of December 31, Simpson had raised $695,119 for his re-election campaign and had $516,894 in campaign money; Smith had raised $370,636, including $21,510 from his own funds, and had $289,193 on hand.
The Idaho debates begin next Monday with the debate in the contested GOP primary race for lieutenant governor; follow-up to GOP primary debates for Idaho Attorney General, April 19; state superintendent of schools, April 25; and Idaho Secretary of State, April 26.
The debate in the disputed primary for governor has yet to be announced, although it has been tentatively scheduled for May 3 as incumbent GOP Governor Brad Little has yet to confirm whether he will participate. or not, despite a deadline that had been set for last Friday.
“We have not received confirmation from Governor Little’s campaign that he will attend, although we have contacted them several times and offered to move the debate to a date that works if they have a conflict,” Davlin said in a statement. “We have confirmation from the (Janice) McGeachin and (Ed) Humphreys campaigns. We hope Governor Little will participate for the benefit of the voters.
Hayden Rogers, spokesperson for Little’s campaign, said in a statement, “As communicated to IPTV last week, the Governor’s campaign will respond to the invitation to the Idaho debates before the end of the week. Governor Little is working hard to get results for Idaho families.
No sitting Idaho governor seeking re-election has refused to participate in the Idaho debates for the past three decades.
Disclosure: Betsy Z. Russell, as president of the Idaho Press Club, is involved as a volunteer in planning and organizing the Idaho Debates.