The Most Conservative Member of the Senate Isn’t Who You’d Think

National Journal
Michael Catalini
Feb. 5, 2014, 4:47 p.m.

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.”

What We're Following See More »
PHOTO OP
Clinton Shows Up on Stage to Close Obama’s Speech
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

Just after President Obama finished his address to the DNC, Hillary Clinton walked out on stage to join him, so the better could share a few embraces, wave to the crowd—and let the cameras capture all the unity for posterity.

‘DON’T BOO. VOTE.’
Obama: Country Is Stronger Than Eight Years Ago
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

In a speech that began a bit like a State of the Union address, President Obama said the "country is stronger and more prosperous than it was" when he took office eight years ago. He then talked of battling Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008, and discovering her "unbelievable work ethic," before saying that no one—"not me, not Bill"—has ever been more qualified to be president. When his first mention of Donald Trump drew boos, he quickly admonished the crowd: "Don't boo. Vote." He then added that Trump is "not really a plans guy. Not really a facts guy, either."

‘HILLARY CLINTON HAS A PASSION’
Kaine Sticks Mostly to the Autobiography
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

Tim Kaine introduced himself to the nation tonight, devoting roughly the first half of his speech to his own story (peppered with a little of his fluent Spanish) before pivoting to Hillary Clinton—and her opponent. "Hillary Clinton has a passion for children and families," he said. "Donald Trump has a passion, too: himself." His most personal line came after noting that his son Nat just deployed with his Marine battalion. "I trust Hillary Clinton with our son's life," he said.

TRUMP IS A ‘CON’
Bloomberg: Neither Party Has a Monopoly on Good Ideas
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Michael Bloomberg said he wasn't appearing to endorse any party or agenda. He was merely there to support Hillary Clinton. "I don't believe that either party has a monopoly on good ideas or strong leadership," he said, before enumerating how he disagreed with both the GOP and his audience in Philadelphia. "Too many Republicans wrongly blame immigrants for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on climate change and gun violence," he said. "Meanwhile, many Democrats wrongly blame the private sector for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on education reform and deficit reduction." Calling Donald Trump a "dangerous demagogue," he said, "I'm a New Yorker, and a know a con when I see one."

TRUMP’S ‘CYNICISM IS UNBOUNDED’
Biden: Obama ‘One of the Finest Presidents’
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Vice President Biden tonight called President Obama "one of the finest presidents we have ever had" before launching into a passionate defense of Hillary Clinton. "Everybody knows she's smart. Everybody knows she's tough. But I know what she's passionate about," he said. "There's only one person in this race who will help you. ... It's not just who she is; it's her life story." But he paused to train some fire on her opponent "That's not Donald Trump's story," he said. "His cynicism is unbounded. ... No major party nominee in the history of this country has ever known less."

×