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

National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
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.”

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