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Campaign ’86: Symms-Evans Said To Be Locked In Dead Heat

September 19, 1986

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ In Idaho, where voters seem to toe no party line, pollsters say the Senate race between Republican incumbent Steve Symms and Democratic Gov. John Evans is a dead heat with six weeks to go before the election.

Symms rode the Ronald Reagan landslide to victory over a revered Democrat in 1980 and Democrats are going all out to recapture the seat in one of the races long considered crucial to whether Republicans can maintain their control of the Senate.

With neither candidate able to claim a meaningful lead, they are going at each other with heavy rhetorical artillery.

″He has been a weak, vascillating governor, and he has failed miserably to help the state grow,″ charges Symms, 48, a veteran politican from an established southwestern Idaho farm family.

″He has made most of the mistakes,″ counters Evans, 61, a successful southeastern Idaho businessman and rancher who has been chief executive of an ostensibly Republican state for the past decade.

″The mistakes are in his voting record,″ says Evans. ″He has not been representing the people of Idaho well.″

Evans has attacked Symms for aligning himself with the Senate’s ultraconservative members like North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and for being the lone senator voting to keep so-called ″cop-killer bullets″ legal.

Symms has laid the blame for Idaho’s anemic economy on Evans, accusing the governor of doing nothing to help rejuvenate the state. And he has tried to show traditionally conservative Idaho voters a link between the governor and more liberal Democrats in the Senate.

The campaign will be the most expensive on record in the state, with the two candidates combined expected to spend about $5 million in a state with about 1 million residents.

In 1980, Symms was a four-term congressman who had never lost an election when he challenged veteran Democrat Frank Church, a four-term senator who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Symms won by 4,200 votes out of more than 440,000 cast.

His bid for re-election is likely to be as close against a governor who has held public office for more than 30 years without suffering a defeat.

Reagan’s 1980 landslide doubtless helped Symms since the president captured over 70 percent of the Idaho vote. But Reagan is not on the ballot this year, and with the state’s resource-based economy severely depressed, Idaho Democrats hope anti-administration sentiment will swing many GOP voters, especially farmers, to their side.

A record number of voters could go to the polls, drawn by a referendum on whether to make Idaho a right-to-work state banning compulsory financial support for unions as a condition of employment.

″There’s no question, right-to-work in areas of concentrated union membership will not be positive for Republicans in general,″ Symms says.

Evans recalls that the last time a proposal to adopt a right-to-work law was on the Idaho ballot, in 1958, the Democrat turnout was so large that not only was the proposal defeated but Democrats took control of the Legislature for the only time in the last 44 years. Evans became state Senate majority leader then.

Religion also could be a factor since Evans is a Mormon, and church membership is exceedingly high in staunchly conservative eastern Idaho, where Symms, a Free Methodist, built a winning margin six years ago.

A recent poll showed Symms about 3 percentage points ahead, and the incumbent admits he will be ″running scared″ all the way in a state that in a 1974 election sent to Washington one of the nation’s most liberal senators and one of its most conservative representatives.

″Clearly, there is a majority supporting me,″ Symms said. ″If we can get our voters out to vote, we will be ahead. If he does a better job of turning out voters, we may not.″

Evans concedes he may have fallen behind since a mid-summer poll that showed him a few points up, but he still calls the race ″neck-and-neck″ with his momentum building.

″It doesn’t hurt to be a little behind,″ the governor said. ″It makes you work harder, and it makes your people work harder.″

Their years in public office have made both men well known among the voters, and their support bases appear solid. Polls showed only 10 percent of the voters still undecided four months before the election.

The campaigns have been in sharp contrast in one way. Symms has had several high-level national Republicans, including Reagan, in to campaign for him while Evans, for the most part, has gone it alone.

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