The most conservative member of the Senate has his office not far from the Russell Rotunda, where many of his colleagues regularly approach the mic under the lights and go on national television.
But you won’t find James Risch, the high-energy, low-visibility junior Republican senator from Idaho, anywhere near the camera. That also explains why you may not have heard of him.
Yet it was Risch—not Sens. Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or Marco Rubio—who compiled the Senate’s most conservative record, according to National Journal’s newly released 2013 vote ratings. And he did so for the second straight year and third time overall since he took office in 2009.
Risch stands in contrast to his Republican Senate colleagues, not so much because he’s more conservative but because he doesn’t seek the spotlight like some, including three possible presidential candidates. Risch cedes the point. He may indeed have the lowest name recognition compared with his colleagues.
“I’m not running for president, and I don’t have a book that I’m selling,” he said.
“So given that, there’s a lot more work to be done right in this room than there is to walking over to the rotunda and getting on Fox or what have you.”
So who is James Risch?
Those who know him say he’s a strict constitutionalist, a believer in small government and states’ rights. His voting record is more conservative than those of Minority Leader McConnell (No. 25) and tea-party stars Cruz (No. 4), Paul (No. 19), and Rubio (No. 17). In a state like Idaho, where Mitt Romney won by 32 points in 2012, Risch’s record merely reflects the views of most voters.
“Idaho loves two things,” said Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter. “They love a person who is a constitutionalist, who tries to follow the Constitution, and they love a person that uses the Constitution as the principles that guide their political decisions. And that is Jim Risch.”
Not surprisingly, as Risch tells it, that means there’s little common ground for him to find with Democrats, whose views he can’t square with his principles. “I want to work with any Democrat, including Barack Obama. I want compromise with him,” Risch said. “I want to deal with him. I want to do bipartisan things with him—to reduce the size of the federal government, to lower federal taxes, to get rid of regulations, and to reduce the intrusion of the federal government into our lives. So far I haven’t found anybody that’s interested in working with me on that.”
Despite that, Risch insists he knows how to compromise, pointing to what he said was a top accomplishment during his time in the state Legislature: changing how the state enacted regulations, which prior to reform did not require the Legislature to weigh in. After the reforms, any regulation not affirmed by the Legislature expired. That resulted in a legislative rush to clear regulations that lawmakers wanted to see kept on the books.
“In the legislative process, you never get what you want,” Risch said. “It is always a matter of give and take.”
Risch came to the Senate in 2009 after Larry Craig, charged with soliciting sex from an undercover cop, decided not to run again. Risch spent nearly three decades in state government, including a yearlong stint as governor (he filled a vacant term), two terms as lieutenant governor, and two decades in the state Senate, much of the time as majority leader.
His friend and colleague of 30 years, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho (No. 10), says he and Risch have the “highest level of trust” between them, and he describes Risch as results-oriented.
But when you’re a constitutional conservative who values less government, what do results look like?
Crapo pointed to the Owyhee Initiative, a public-lands effort that designated more than 500,000 acres of wilderness in the state. But that was passed and signed into law nearly four years ago. Indeed, with a Democratic Senate, common ground and landmark legislative accomplishments are hard to come by.
Behind the scenes in the Republican Conference, Risch has earned a reputation as a quiet but earnest colleague.
“He’s a workhorse,” said his friend and fellow Westerner, Sen. John Barrasso (No. 6) of Wyoming. Barrasso said Republicans have consulted Risch on regulatory questions as well as issues involving the Environmental Protection Agency. “When Jim Risch talks, everybody listens,” he said.
Risch faces reelection this year, and in deep-red Idaho seems poised to win, according to political strategists. He won’t face a Republican primary opponent. A Democratic challenger, Boise attorney Nels Mitchell, recently entered the race and won the backing of former state Sen. Mike Burkett, who defeated Risch in a 1988 state Senate contest. (Risch still remembers the sting of that defeat “like it was yesterday,” he said.) Otter, a Republican, is backing Risch.
“I will do whatever I can to help him,” he said.
Risch came to Idaho from Wisconsin, where he grew up and studied forestry before going on to law school at the University of Idaho.
He also established himself as an accomplished rancher. Before he and his wife of more than four decades, Vicki, were married, Risch bought a beef cow, and has since grown the herd to more than several hundred cows. His eldest son, James, largely runs the operation now, but Risch regularly helps with branding—the metal brand is a symbol combining his initials, JR—calving, and other duties, his aides say.
“He’s quite a cattleman,” Otter said. “We don’t brag how many head we have. I’ve been a cattleman all my life and a horse person all my life, but Jim’s got a lot more cattle than I got.”
This article appears in the February 6, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Who Is James Risch?.