RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
In election years, we hear a lot of reporting from swing states: Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin. We do not usually hear as much from a place like Idaho, because it is so deeply one color: red. But this midterm election year, Idaho is home to one of the most closely watched races in this nation. A Republican is battling another Republican in a primary campaign that may point to where the party, as a whole, is heading.
Our colleague David Greene is spending time in Idaho's 2nd Congressional District this week. And he picks up his political coverage in a place where he learns an awful lot: a diner.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, it's just a reality we have to accept. You really can get the sense of a community, a feel for what people are talking about, in places that just so happen to serve food.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)
GREENE: Welcome to the North HiWay Cafe in Idaho Falls. That's the sound of chicken sizzling in a vat of oil. Now, don't think Southern fried chicken. They do things a little differently here in Idaho. This is broasted chicken.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The inside's going to be really juice, and the outside is going to be really crispy. And it seals it instantly, so you don't get any oil or grease inside.
GREENE: OK. That - I'm ready to dig in.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.
GREENE: We dug in while chatting with two fellow diners who told us about a debate that's sizzling around here, over how to protect the Idaho National Lab. This is one of the federal government's biggest nuclear research facilities. Don't think scientific building with people in lab coats. This lab is spread over nearly 900 square miles of Idaho desert, employing thousands of people around Idaho Falls.
BECKY LAZDAUSKAS: You know, in my neighborhood, out of the cul-de-sac of maybe eight families, four of them, five of them work there. And that yeah, they're very watchful of the money that they receive out there, because it brings in a lot of money for the economy.
GREENE: That's Becky Lazdauskas, who works for the Federal Bureau of Land Management, one of the other huge employers in Idaho. And here lies the tension: Many people in this deeply red state have been drawn to the message from the Tea Party, that federal spending should be reined in at all costs, even if that means never compromising.
Then again, the federal government plays a huge role in so many peoples' lives here. Now, neither Becky nor her seatmate Deena Teel were ready to talk about specific candidates. This primary election isn't until May. But Deena said the lab is on everyone's mind. It's that important here.
DEENA TEEL: My father actually retired from there, and my father-in-law also retired from the INL. When I was growing up, I thought I would be working for them. It was just an assumption that most people that grow up around here around here make.
GREENE: Leave the diner, drive maybe five minutes or so, and you're in the center of Idaho Falls.
(SOUNDBITE OF A LOCOMOTIVE)
GREENE: It's a quiet downtown. Here on Shoup Avenue, there's the Idaho Youth Ranch Thrift Store. There's a bank, the courthouse, and some law offices, including one with the name Bryan Smith on the door. He's a political newcomer, who's getting a lot of national attention. Some of the big Tea Party Groups have made his bid for Congress a priority, hoping he can knock off eight-term Congressman Mike Simpson in this primary.
Hi. Bryan Smith? I'm David Greene.
BRYAN SMITH: David Greene, Bryan Smith.
GREENE: We sat down on a bench, and I asked Smith about the big budget agreement recently passed in Congress. Republican leaders in the House compromised with Democrats.
SMITH: I would not have supported it.
GREENE: The deal he would not have supported included money for the Idaho National Lab. But Smith said there is something even more important than that lab, and that's protecting what he says is a core value for many people in Idaho: not spending more than you can afford. Standing for that principle, he said, is sacred, even if it means never compromising.
If that approach is one that you bring to Congress, how do you both govern effectively and sort of hold the line and take a hardline approach like that? Can you do both?
SMITH: Well, this is why we have 435 representatives across the nation. Representatives go back to Washington, and they represent the people in their district. They shouldn't go back to Washington to represent Washington, and that's the problem that we have here with Congressman Simpson. He is out of touch with the values from the people of this state. And what people from this state want, in my district - running as a conservative Republican - they want me to represent their values, and that's what I intend to do.
GREENE: Let's look at Congressman Simpson's career and Idahoans. He's gotten some credit for bringing a lot of money, a lot of jobs to Idaho with the Idaho National Lab, for example. Tell me how that debate is going to play out. How are you going to sort of state the case that that's not something that people here should give him credit for?
SMITH: Well, let's look at the facts. In 1998, when he first was elected and ran for office, he - there were over 10,000 jobs at the INL. After 16 years in government, we now have less than 5,000 people employed at the site. So I disagree with the assumption that jobs have grown at the site during his tenure as congressman.
GREENE: But he has a seat on the Appropriations Committee. I mean he's able to bring money into that program. I mean are you confident that as a newcomer in Congress, that you could tell people in Idaho that you could continue, you know, a funding stream that's important to a lot of people here?
SMITH: Well, a couple things. We don't know who the next speaker of the House is going to be. And as I understand it, people who sit on those committees serve at the pleasure of the speaker of the House. So we don't know who that's going to be, and that could readily change in 2015.
GREENE: What he's suggesting there is that if enough Tea Party candidates get into the House, John Boehner might lose his position as speaker. And that risk is one reason the party's establishment is rising up this year with money and resources to fend off the Tea Party. Their man in this race is longtime congressman Mike Simpson, who spoke to us from Boise, a four hour drive to the west.
We're on opposite ends of your district, I'm in Idaho Falls and you're in Boise. This is one huge district you have here.
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE SIMPSON: It is a very big district. I'm surprised I can hear you from clear over there.
GREENE: First off, I ask the congressman about his opponents charge, that the Idaho National Lab have lost jobs while he's been in office. His reaction...
SIMPSON: I kind of have to chuckle. It seems like we can't do anything right, according to Mr. Smith.
GREENE: Truth is, the lab has lost jobs, in part the congressman says because the Tea Party has put such a squeeze on funding. He says to get anything done in Congress, lawmakers need to know how to find common ground.
SIMPSON: You know, compromise have been a part of the politics since the beginning of time. It's become a bad word now. But it's an essential part of governing.
GREENE: And how to govern is clearly at the center of this campaign.
SIMPSON: This election is about the future of the Republican Party and whether we're going to be a governing majority or whether we are going to be an ideologically pure minority. But, you know, even within the Republican Party, we have differences of opinion about what ought to be done. That's OK, that's good and healthy. But if you become an ideologically pure minority, you know, you get nothing done, and you become a minority party of 100 members that stand there and yell at the moon, but you never get anything done. I'm one of those that believes that a governing majority, where we get 90 percent of what we want is the right thing to do.
GREENE: Congressman Simpson's future is now in the hands of voters here. People like Leon Matejka, who we met outside the bank downtown - he retired after working at the National Lab for 15 years. He's been leaning Tea Party, not feeling much of a connection with Congressman Simpson.
LEON MATEJKA: I'd have to really think about it, because I know he's a little bit more liberal on a lot of things than I am.
GREENE: Sounds like such an interesting moment for a lot of Republicans here. Because on one hand you have a place that is so important to the economy that it's gotten federal money for a long time. And on the other side, you have a real desire right now to control federal spending in general. How do you kind of work that out in your head?
MATEJKA: Yeah, that's why I'm a little bit, you know, contorted in that whole thing, you know because I think we do need to quit spending our federal money like we are. But we're going away with so many crazy things that what I think will happen is one of those things that's crazy.
GREENE: And that really is the conundrum for a lot of people here. They feel like too much federal spending is crazy. But spending money on the lab isn't.
From Idaho Falls, we headed deep up into the mountains, where there are communities with as few as a 100 people. We'll hear from that part of the state tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: And you can follow David on the road, which is a nice thing to do, he goes to scenic places, often stops for something to eat. If you want to join David on these travels, there's a Tumblr account where you can do that. Check out photos from the trip at nprontheroad.tumblr.com.
You hear our colleague, David Greene, right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.