When the Tea Party Express last week endorsed Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick — the only Democrat to receive the backing of the conservative grassroots group — one of his Republican challengers said he was simply baffled to learn the news, considering Minnick’s past votes that line up with Democrats on the estate tax and Guantanamo Bay.
“He voted for Nancy Pelosi. I mean all these things — I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. This is the guy you guys want to get behind nationally?’” said Republican Vaughn Ward, an active Marine Corps reserve officer whose candidacy for Minnick’s seat was endorsed by Sarah Palin.
His initial shock, Ward told The Daily Caller during an interview Tuesday, turned to frustration upon learning from Tea Party groups in Idaho — who he said have not endorsed candidates in the race yet — that the Tea Party Express didn’t consult them before the endorsement of the Democrat.
“My campaign manager e-mailed it to me the day it happened, and I thought, ‘Huh, that’s interesting.’ And I started making some phone calls around and found out that, one, they didn’t consult anyone in Idaho,” said Ward, who also faces primary competition from state Rep. Raul Labrador and three other Republican candidates.
The Republican added: “It’s almost like, ‘Did they really do a thorough job of investigating his voting record?’”
Sal Russo, a strategist with Tea Party Express, said the group did reach out to a number of groups and activists, many of whom support Minnick. Democrats who “are willing to stand up to Pelosi and Reid” should get support from Tea Party organizations “to encourage others” to act similarly, he said.
“When you find someone willing to stand up, you got to stand up with him,” Russo said.
The strategist said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the group add another Democrat or two to the list. “It can’t be a one-party issue. Fiscal responsibility has to be embedded in both parties,” he said.
Yet activists are still asking questions about the motive of the endorsement. Andrew Ian Dodge, a Tea Party participant, said that the Minnick endorsement was an “odd” move “that is no doubt based on the Tea Party Express’s desire to be seen as non-partisan.”
“There are a lot of frankly befuddled Republicans, Tea Partiers and Idahoans that deserve an explanation why this race was singled out for such a spot of bizarre meddling,” Dodge wrote in an op-ed published by The Daily Caller.
Before the Tea Party Express announced their endorsement last week, Politico published a story suggesting the organization was merely a front for Republican political operatives seeking to take advantage of the energy of the Tea Party movement. The endorsement of Minnick has since been called a reaction to that view, with critics calling Minnick the group’s “token Democrat.”
Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell denied that’s the case, saying the Minnick endorsement was in the works for weeks prior to the announcement.
That confusion over the endorsement, Dodge wrote, is because Ward’s stance on issues reads similar to other candidates beloved by Tea Partiers: repeal and replace the health-care bill, eliminate wasteful spending, secure our borders are all planks listed on Ward’s campaign Web site.
John Foster, a spokesman for Minnick who called the endorsement “a total surprise,” said the congressman, who voted against the recent health-care bill, is known for voting for restraining the government’s pocketbook. “Walt has consistently voted for fiscal responsibility,” Foster told The Daily Caller.
Foster said he thinks Minnick garnered respect from Tea Partiers in August when the congressman was the only member of the Idaho delegation to accept an invitation to sit down with a Boise Tea Party group in person. “Just going surprised a lot of people,” Foster said.
“It was just having the willingness to sit down and talk with people,” he said. “They appreciate that.”
Asked if Minnick considers himself a Tea Partier, Foster just said the congressman is “glad” Tea Party groups have raised awareness to fiscal issues.
“Walt considers himself first and foremost an Idahoan. And Idaho has a long record of this Libertarian approach to government: stay out of my house and don’t spend too much of my money. And he’s reflective of that.”
Since hearing news of the endorsement, Foster said he’s “only talked briefly to” the Tea Party Express and said he didn’t know how involved — or involved at all — the group would be in the congressional campaign.
UPDATED to clarify Minnick’s votes on bailouts. Foster adds: “Walt, as a former CEO of a Fortune 1000 company, finds corporate bailouts on the taxpayer dime offensive and wrong. He urged forced bankruptcy for the auto companies and AIG, for example.” A previous version alluded that Minnick had voted for major bailout bills.