Republican Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene is asking most of the right questions as he contemplates a run for Congress in the First District. Is the timing right? Can he raise the money needed to make a competitive race? Can he win?
The 35-year-old Malek says his wife, Tara, is supportive of the idea of him running for Congress. But if the answer to any of the other questions is “no,” he figures he would be better off staying in the Idaho House.
But here’s one more question for the mix: If not now, then when?
Open congressional seats do not pop up often. The last time it happened in the First District was 2006 when a cluster of Republican candidates ran for an open seat vacated by then-Congressman Butch Otter, who successfully ran for governor. This time, the seat will be vacated by Congressman Raul Labrador, who’s running for governor next year. It could be 10 years, or more, before the seat is open again.
Rep. Robert Anderst of Nampa, a friend and supporter of Malek, says the timing might never be better from a personal standpoint. Going to Washington could be relatively easy for a young couple such as the Maleks.
“If you’re 45 years old with two kids, a wife and a settled lifestyle, running for Congress could be tough,” Anderst says. “You either run when you’re young or retired, because of the time constraints of what it takes to get back and forth to Washington, D.C.”
Intellectually, Anderst says, Malek is up for the job. “Luke is extraordinarily bright and has governing experience. I would press anybody to find somebody who works harder during a legislative session and takes on more difficult issues. Can he win? Absolutely, because nobody is going to work harder to win if he decides to run. That’s how he’s wired.”
Sandy Patano of Coeur d’Alene, a longtime Republican Party activist, also vouches for Malek.
“The House, in particular, is best suited for a young and energetic person who is willing to spend an extraordinary amount of time in a congressional district,” says Patano, who worked on former Sen. Larry Craig’s senatorial and congressional staffs. “Luke does town halls, and takes concerns of the citizens he represents back to the Legislature. I have every confidence that if he were in Congress, he would be doing the same thing from the Canadian border to the Nevada border.”
My hunch, after talking with Malek during a recent visit to Coeur d’Alene, is that he will enter the congressional race. He’d be leaving a lot behind – including life in a beautiful city, a growing law practice and a legislative career. But a run for Congress is a higher calling, and one that I can’t imagine him passing up. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the College of Idaho in Caldwell, so he’s no stranger to the southern part of the First District.
Two formidable candidates – former Lt. Gov. David Leroy and former Sen. Russ Fulcher – are in the race, but they hardly are unbeatable. Leroy, a onetime bright young star in the GOP, is trying to make a political comeback at age 69 and Fulcher – until recently – was running for governor.
Malek has his detractors, particularly from hardline conservatives who think he’s too liberal.
“The congressional district is quite conservative and increasingly so every year. I think Luke will have a tough time explaining his Freedom Index and ACU (American Conservative Union) scores,” says Wayne Hoffman, who heads the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
Hoffman ranks Malek as one of the state’s most liberal legislators, but his “lifetime” ACU scores tell a different story. He’s on par with Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale, who nobody confuses with Hillary Clinton, and a few points higher than Rep. Brent Crane of Nampa – who hardly is a clone of Bernie Sanders.
Patano is not impressed with political scorecards, and especially Hoffman’s. “We need people who can solve problems … especially in the federal government,” she says.
Now, it’s up to Malek to decide if he wants to go for it. There’s still plenty of time for him to put together a campaign, but the clock could start working against him the closer we get to Labor Day.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at email@example.com