U.S. Rep. Michael Crapo has a good chance to be the first Mormon ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Idaho.
Surprisingly, a state where every fourth person belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - the highest per capita Mormon population outside Utah - has never sent a saint to the Senate.Searches by the Idaho State Historical Society and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society turned up not a single case of a Mormon senator being elected in Idaho in 107 years of statehood.
Utah, of course, elected its first Mormon to the Senate more than a century ago, and members of the faith have been elected from other states but not from Idaho.
One reason is Idaho's disjointed geography. While Mormon politicians flourish in eastern and southern Idaho, closer to Utah, they rarely have done well in northern Idaho.
Voters in the district Crapo represents haven't sent a non-Mormon to the House for 50 years. His predecessor, Democrat Richard Stallings, enjoyed that fact for four terms before losing a 1992 Senate bid to non-Mormon Republican Dirk Kempthorne.
Even in what had been a Democratic bastion, Stallings lost half the counties in the Panhandle.
Still, Crapo said religion hasn't been a factor in his past campaigns, and as far as he's concerned it won't come into play next year either.
"I will not campaign any differently this time," he said.
In an interview with the Ricks College student newspaper, Crapo said he always has tried to separate religious issues from political issues and believes everyone has a right to be represented, regardless of their faith.
Crapo was president of the Idaho Senate five years ago when he handily won the first of three terms in Congress. The Idaho Falls attorney quickly moved into a leadership role under House Speaker Newt Gingrich and hasn't been seriously challenged in the past two elections.
He would have been a favorite to win again next year, but decided instead to go for the Senate seat Kempthorne will give up to run for governor.
At 46, Crapo was young enough to have a shot at a committee chairmanship if the GOP maintained a House majority. But he will have to give up a leadership role if he's elected to the Senate.
He has no regrets about the decision, though.
"Certainly there are things that I will be leaving in the House that have been tremendously rewarding," he said. "But I am really excited about the Senate opportunity."
From the outset, Crapo has been considered a heavy favorite. For one thing, there's the money.
He started with a hefty war chest from previous House campaigns, and staffers say cash has been pouring in since he announced for the Senate. Anybody who runs against Crapo will start with an immediate disadvantage of several hundred thousand dollars.
Idaho is known as a relatively inexpensive state in which to run for the Senate. That might tempt national Democratic Party leaders to pump in millions of dollars in pursuit of an open seat, but only if they can find a strong candidate.
Former Idaho Democratic Party chairman Bill Mauk might decide to run but would be a long shot at best. And other leading Democrats are hard-pressed even to come up with a name.
With that kind of edge, Idaho Republican Chairman Ron McMurray doesn't think Crapo's religion will be a factor.
"He has proven himself; he's not just a brand new kid on the block," McMurray said. "He has proven himself as a leader, and he is very popular."
He also is conservative by national standards. But Crapo is fairly moderate for an Idaho Republican, and McMurray said he always has been received well in northern Idaho.
He said he told Crapo, "In the 2nd District they love you. In the 1st District, they like you."
Besides, McMurray said, Crapo already has a staff, a base of support and plenty of money with which to launch a Senate campaign. That could be enough to keep any credible Democratic challenger at bay.