Editor's Note: In the final 100 days before Election Day, CNN has been profiling one race at random each day from among the nation's top 100 House races, which we've dubbed "The CNN 100." Read the full list here. Today's featured district is:
Idaho 1st – Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick seeks a 2nd term
Primary: May 25
Location: Western Idaho
Days until Election Day: 67
(CNN) - At first glance, the race for Idaho's 1st district looks like it should be virtually unwinnable for a Democratic candidate in 2010. Idaho, some of the most Tea Party movement-friendly terrain in the nation, is solidly Republican at the presidential level; no Democrat has won here since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 bid.
The panhandle area of the state, which has traditionally been its most Democratic territory, has trended more Republican in recent years. And Rep. Walt Minnick - the first Democrat to win a congressional race here since 1992 - won that seat in a squeaker two years ago, edging past incumbent Republican Rep. Bill Sali 51-49 percent.
But Minnick - who defied the odds in 2008, winning a string of counties that backed John McCain over Barack Obama - seems poised to confound expectations yet again.
This time around, Minnick's facing state Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, who beat national party pick and Sarah Palin-backed Vaughn Ward - one of the National Republican Campaign Committee's earliest "Young Guns" picks - after a string of primary season missteps by the GOP leadership's favored candidate.
The Democratic incumbent has GOP roots as solid as his state's. He's a former president of his school's College Republicans chapter who went straight from an army stint to a job with the Nixon administration, before splitting with the GOP in the 1990s over the party's rightward drift. His politics in Congress have been a brand of libertarianism that plays well in this Western state: he's in favor of abortion rights and gun rights, against tax increases and government spending. He's cultivated a reputation for political independence, voting with his party less often than nearly any member of Congress.
Minnick, in fact, has famously emerged as the Tea Party's favorite Democrat, nabbing support from local groups and an endorsement from the Tea Party Express. It's a relationship that's featured some awkward moments, including his rejection of that Tea Party Express nod after controversial remarks by activist Mark Williams, the group's former spokesman
Before the economic slowdown hit, Idaho was on a steep growth curve, its population surging by roughly half over the past decade to 1.5 million residents. These new arrivals helped accelerate a political shift that's made the traditionally-Republican state slightly friendlier terrain for Democrats. One advantage Minnick has over other Democratic incumbents: Even with the economy lagging, Idaho's unemployment rate hasn't come close to the national average, and the state managed to dodge the housing meltdown wave sweeping the nation. His district, which includes the city of Boise, is also home to many out-of-state transplants comfortable splitting their vote.
Minnick's biggest advantage of all may be his massive campaign cash haul. Last cycle, Minnick's war chest was nearly double Sali's, thanks in part to a $900,000 infusion of his own money. This time around, he hasn't yet had to open his wallet: as of the most recent FEC filing, he had more than $1.1 million cash on hand, to about $69,000 for his Republican challenger.
The remaining wild card is outside spending: Minnick's been a top GOP target since his win, and conservative groups like Freedom's Watch and the Club for Growth spent big here last time around. But recent indications that Minnick may have built up a daunting lead - combined with more-competitive races in bordering states that drove up the price of local advertising this summer - may move this race even further down the GOP's priority list than it already seems to have sunk, in a year rich with Republican pickup opportunities.