BOISE — Big issues hang in the balance as Idaho weighs whether to send one of its longest-serving politicians, Sen. Jim Risch, back to Washington, D.C. to represent the state for a third six-year term.
Democratic challenger Paulette Jordan, who ran for governor in 2018, wants to expand, rather than repeal, the Affordable Care Act, while also reforming the nation’s health system; to “protect Idaho’s natural resources,” including coping with the impacts of climate change on Idaho agriculture and landscapes; and to “combat corporate greed” in how the nation addresses everything from fiscal policy to environmental protection.
In some ways, she’s the opposite of Risch: Relatively young, at age 40; Native American; female; and progressive. Risch, 77, a trial lawyer and longtime state senator before he served as lieutenant governor, governor and then U.S. senator, would be 83 at the end of a third Senate term. He says the most important thing he wants to do in a third term is “deliver a predictable and a rock-solid conservative vote” every time his name is called in the Senate.
“Voting is the No. 1 thing that you do,” he told the Idaho Press.
Risch also has risen to the role of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he can influence everything from trade agreements to arms sales. “No munitions, no warfighting weapons leave this country without my signature on it,” Risch said. “The president can try to sell (to) places, but they can’t go unless I sign off on it.”
“As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, your job, of course, is to weigh the incredible Rubik’s Cube type of issues that you’re facing as to whether this is in the best interest of the American people,” he said.
Asked about the nation’s standing in the world, Risch said, “The national media says, ‘Oh, we’re on the rocks, it’s terrible, they’re all mad at us.’” But, he said, “I’ve dealt with our European allies for years and years and years.”
Risch says President Trump was right to pressure European allies to pay more to support NATO. “Now, we’re not going to back away from NATO,” he said. “I think some of our European allies think we might, but that simply isn’t going to happen. … They overrate the power of the president. The Congress would never let the president step away from NATO.”
Jordan is deeply critical of Risch’s record as Foreign Relations chairman, saying it’s “nothing to be proud of,” especially at a time when many are “trying to bring the full force of the world together to combat a global pandemic. … Many of our people have died due to him.”
She faults Risch for trade deals that she says have left Idaho farmers dependent on government payments, rather than having “access to markets that they have spent lifetimes building.” And she calls his staunch defense of President Trump, including being the only member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to vote against a recent, major report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, “sweeping very relevant, very important information under the rug.”
“His part is to at least ensure that we are holding even the president accountable,” Jordan said, “and if he is not willing to do his job, then he should not be in that position.”
Risch said his holdout vote on the intelligence report came because he wanted the report to say there was “no collusion” between Trump’s election campaign and the Russian interference efforts, and it didn’t. “At the end of the day, there was clearly (a) Russian attempt to interfere in the election,” he said. “The Democrats desperately wanted to reach a conclusion that Donald Trump was orchestrating this and was colluding with the Russians.”
The report detailed ties between then-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and other senior campaign officials and Russian intelligence agents. The nearly-1,000 page report said, on page 944, “The Committee’s bipartisan report found that Russia’s goal in its unprecedented hack-and-leak operation against the United States in 2016, among other motives, was to assist the Trump Campaign. Candidate Trump and his Campaign responded to that threat by embracing, encouraging and exploiting the Russian effort.”
Risch joined five other GOP senators on the Intelligence Committee in signing an “Additional Views” addendum to the report stating that it “exhaustively reviews the counterintelligence threats and vulnerabilities to the 2016 election, but never explicitly states the critical fact: the Committee found no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government in its efforts to meddle in the election.”
However, he was the only one to refuse to vote in favor of the entire report on that basis.
In the 12 years he’s served in the U.S. Senate so far, Risch counts as his top accomplishments for Idaho having “a significant impact” on the USMCA, or United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that was signed July 1 to replace NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that preceded it; and using his Foreign Relations role to watchdog Idaho water interests in the ongoing negotiations with Canada over the Columbia River Treaty. He also cites his work on Intelligence to steer cybersecurity work to the Idaho National Laboratory, which he said will eventually surpass its nuclear mission; his work on the bipartisan Secure Rural Schools Act and and PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) legislation to continue payments to rural western counties hard-hit by declining forest proceeds; and his work with the Small Business Administration to establish Women’s Business Centers in Boise and Idaho Falls.
If re-elected, things he hopes to accomplish in a third term include bipartisan legislation he’s sponsoring to create a new international entity that can quickly respond to pandemics; and legislation targeting China to “stop theft of our intellectual property and trade secrets, thwart their attempts to dominate and eliminate U.S. industries, and establish fair trade for our farmers and manufacturers.”
“I’m frequently asked what the three biggest threats are to the U.S. in the foreign affairs arena and my answer is China, China, and China,” Risch said.
Risch said when he first arrived at the Senate in 2009, his top choice for committee assignments were Energy and Natural Resources, and Foreign Relations and Intelligence, because “we hadn’t had any representation on either Foreign Relations or the Intelligence Committee for, at that time, 30 years or so, and what happens internationally affects Idahoans just as much as it does any other American.” He also signed up for the Small Business Committee, which he chaired before Foreign Relations; and was assigned to the Senate Ethics Committee.
His rise to chair of Foreign Relations was “fortuitous,” he said, simply because of seniority rules; the lack of competition from more-senior Republicans allowed him to get that key chairmanship when he’d been serving in the Senate only 10 years.
Jordan said if elected, her top committee choices would be Energy and Natural Resources; Appropriations; Agriculture; and Environment and Public Works. She said her work both in Idaho and nationally on energy and environmental issues, her experience being raised “on the land” on a family farm in North Idaho that’s been handed down for generations, and her deep-seated concern for the environment all would prepare her to work in those areas.
On Appropriations, she said, “We want to make sure we’re being a leader in terms of bridging opportunities to get out of our financial crisis. I think there’s many ways we can do this with my connections at the national level, my ability to work across the aisle, even as a junior senator. … We can really turn our ship back in the right direction under the Appropriations Committee.”
While Risch has long advocated repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a more market-driven system, Jordan said, “We definitely need to expand the ACA,” by adding measures ensuring transparency in drug prices and adding a “public option” for health insurance, which she said will drive down prices.
She also advocates reshaping the health care system to focus on functional and integrative medicine, so not just illness, but ways of maintaining health become top priority, driven by data. “Typically when we speak of health care we are having a conversation about health insurance,” she said. “We need to put data on the center stage,” and fund only “medications that are cost-effective. I think this is how we achieve massive savings, how we tackle chronic disease.”
Risch said, “This fight is going to go on for years and years to come. It’s like the laundry – it’ll never be done. It’s going to have to be refined. We don’t think the ACA is the way to go. … The replacement is going to wind up being a bipartisan effort. It has to be. If it doesn’t, this never goes away.”
Early in his Senate service, Risch spoke out frequently about the growing national deficit, but it’s been less of a talking point for him as the deficit has soared under the Trump Administration. “I am committed to the fact that we need to work on the federal deficit,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is not the focus of Congress today. It’s one of the most vexing problems that I’ve seen since I’ve been there.”
He maintains that big tax cuts enacted under Trump spurred the economy by increasing business activity, though he disavows the “trickle-down” label such theories typically get. “After the tax cut was put in place, we had more money coming in,” he said. “That is a result of people having money in their pocket to spend. … It has a velocity and it goes through the economy.”
Both Risch and Jordan say the nation’s immigration system needs reform. “It actually is a priority with me,” Risch said, noting that he supported an earlier proposed compromise in which so-called “dreamers” who were brought to the country as undocumented children would be given permanent legal status, in exchange for increased border security. “It came very close, but it never got done,” he said. “You can only beat your head against the wall for so long on something like this, and say, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to do other things where I can actually accomplish something.’ … I can’t work miracles.”
Jordan calls for “comprehensive immigration reform so we can improve and expedite legal immigration while beefing up security at the entry points,” and adds, “We need to create an efficient pathway for them, a pathway for citizenship. We also need to improve our security so we don’t allow bad actors into our country.”
On the federal response to COVID-19, Risch praises Trump for his early order to bar immigration from Wuhan, China, and says no one knew how contagious and dangerous the virus would be. “At the early stages, I was like everybody else, I thought the virus would run its course,” he said. “This one obviously is not running its course.”
Asked why the United States has seen so much more spread and such a high death toll compared to most developed countries, Risch said, “If you have a country that’s autocratic like China, they can tell people that you lock yourself in your houses and you can’t go out,” or face jail or torture. “We have a lot more freedom than anybody in the world has, and as a result of that, people make their own choices.”
Jordan called Risch “the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the culture of Washington, D.C.” She said, “We’re tired of the partisanship. We’re tired of the divide.”
“As a leader, you have to lead by example,” she said. “You have to exert checks on the executive branch of government. We are here to address all the needs of Idahoans, not just a few, and not just the folks that are on one side or the other.”
Risch said recently that he’s the candidate for people who “want Idaho to be what Idaho is.”
Jordan sharply objects, saying, “Idaho is largely independent.”
“Jim Risch wants to nationalize this election, saying that the choice is clear between a conservative and a liberal,” she said. “Idaho doesn’t need a hyper-partisan voice like his. We need a representative that is going to get things done.”
She said she believes in “bringing everyone to the table.” She called that “the core value system of who we are – this is the legacy of my grandparents.”
“I am running as an Idahoan first,” she said. “I’m willing to work with everyone.”
Also on the ballot are independent Natalie Fleming and Constitution Party candidate Ray Writz.