How Idaho’s subdued statesman became one of the most powerful politicians in Washington

After serving several terms in the House and Senate, Mike Crapo is one of the most senior Republicans and ranking member on the powerful Senate Finance Committee

In the middle of the recent banking crisis, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo appeared on Fox Business with host Larry Kudlow, the fast-talking Washington insider. Crapo was there to defend what he considers one of his greatest legislative achievements — a banking deregulation bill passed in 2018 that was geared toward helping smaller and mid-sized banks.

President Joe Biden had just blamed the failure of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank on regulatory reform championed in 2018 by Crapo. Biden framed it as an initiative of the Trump administration, but really it was Crapo’s bill — although, it should be noted, it was ultimately passed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including several moderate Senate Democrats.

Crapo is not known for excitability. He comes from a family of farmers, and his father ran the local post office. He has a reputation for level-headedness.

But during his appearance on Kudlow’s show in March, his blood pressure was rising.

“First of all Larry, this is simply blame shifting by the president because he knows that his policies are what caused this,” said Crapo, who then pointed out that 16 Democrats voted for his bill.

“The fact is that President Biden, through all of the spending that he did in the last Congress ... has driven inflation up ... and when the Fed responded to push interest rates up, that’s what caused a liquidity crisis for these two banks,” Crapo said. “That is what happened. And then the regulators, the supervisors, did not adequately pay attention to what was happening in these banks.”

It turns out that even when fired up, Crapo resorts to arguing about policy.

If you crossed an Idaho farmer with a D.C. wonk, you’d end up with Crapo. He seems to genuinely enjoy talking about the finer points of policy. After years of serving on the Senate Banking Committee, he is now the ranking member on the powerful Senate Finance Committee and is the 10th highest ranking senator overall.

Ultimately, Crapo’s 2018 bill became law. It passed on a 67-31 vote in the Senate, and Crapo recently told the Deseret News he believes it “right-sized” the regulatory system for community banks and credit unions.

Crapo received plaudits for his leadership on the financial reform bill from Randy Quarles, the like-minded former vice chair of the Federal Reserve, who knows Crapo from his time with the Fed and also from their time sitting next to each other on flights from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City.

“Even as the country has become so increasingly polarized, and even though his committee included some of the chief polarizers — such as (Democratic Sens.) Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown — he crafted and carried through to enactment a banking reform bill with broad bipartisan support both in his committee and in the full Senate,” Quarles told the Deseret News. 

“It was a remarkable feat, unlike anything else that has happened in the Senate in a decade, and it was a testament to his leadership, savvy and tenacity.”

When we asked Crapo what he considered his greatest accomplishments in Congress, the financial regulatory reform bill made the list, even as it now faces scrutiny from across the aisle as partisans point fingers over the possibility of a still-looming banking crisis.

But over the course of his three terms in the House and four terms in the Senate, Crapo has attempted to navigate complex issues with a focus on bipartisanship — a process he says is becoming increasingly fraught as the country’s polarization grows more toxic. 

“Political divisions in our country are increasing and intensifying,” Crapo said in an email correspondence with the Deseret News. “There is nothing wrong with robust debate and conversation about how we must govern the United States. But collaboration is the most important way to achieve consensus on difficult public policy matters.”

This year marks Crapo’s 30th in Congress. And yet, Crapo remains one of the more complex individuals in American politics.

He’s a Republican lawmaker whose civil brand and reputation for working across the aisle has weathered an era of sharp elbows and political pugilism. Crapo is a religious man who served as a Latter-day Saint bishop in his early 30s, but who has also worked through very public struggles with alcohol, resulting in a DUI some 10 years ago. He’s a man of humble, rural roots who wound up at Harvard Law School.

We spoke with those who have worked with Crapo to better understand how, after three decades in Washington, an unassuming kid from Idaho has become one the nation’s most powerful senior statesmen.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, poses for portraits in the Senate Reception Room, near the Senate chamber in the Capitol Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. | T.J. Kirkpatrick, for the Deseret News

Fiscal leadership

Just months into his second year in Congress, then-Rep. Crapo stood on the House floor and asked his colleagues to support what he saw as a commonsense measure to allow government agencies to use basic business principles in their decisions. 

“I’m willing to work with everybody in this body to find the most effective and best way to conduct risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis,” Crapo said. 

Now, 28 years later, Crapo is the chief deputy whip for Senate Republicans; the ranking Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee; a member, and former chairman, of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; and a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation committees. 

“Those positions in leadership really tell you what other colleagues that work with you think about you,” GOP Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson said about Crapo in a phone interview with the Deseret News. “He’s just a hard worker and you can tell how much respect he has in the United States Senate by (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell’s faith in him.”

During the debt ceiling fights of 2011, Crapo emerged, in the words of The New York Times, as a “hero among advocates of bipartisanship” when he worked as one of three Republican senators on the “Gang of Six” attempting to formulate a plan to cut the deficit and avoid a national debt crisis. 

This prior experience with debt ceiling negotiations made Crapo a go-to voice as negotiations stalled between Biden and House Republicans on a debt limit increase tied to spending cuts.

“Asking the White House to come to the table and negotiate is not an extremist demand,” Crapo recently wrote. “Both parties have a responsibility to do their part, in good faith, to find a bipartisan solution.”

Unrestrained federal spending has long been at the front of Crapo’s mind. The top of his website displays a real-time U.S. national debt tracker. Recently, he grilled an IRS commissioner about the organization’s lack of transparency in spending the extra $80 billion in funds the agency received. And earlier this year, he proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would require the president and Congress to approve annual balanced budgets. 

He’s also recently raised alarm bells about inflation, and its effects on American families. He sees it as the cause of problems in the banking industry.

“Inflation is the bigger problem,” Crapo told the Deseret News. “Further unrestrained spending will only continue to cause inflationary pressures and require further action by the Fed to get it under control.”

Crapo says this approach is informed by his small-town background. 

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, walks in the Capitol Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. | T.J. Kirkpatrick, for the Deseret News

From Idaho Falls to the halls of Congress

“Idahoans have strong beliefs in the U.S. Constitution, a free market economy and the rule of law,” Crapo said. “I share these beliefs, and I have committed my efforts in Congress to uphold and protect these views.”

Crapo was born in Idaho Falls as a fourth-generation Idahoan. He studied political science at Brigham Young University and law at Harvard Law School. During this time, Crapo married Susan Hasleton. They have five children. Crapo entered the world of electoral politics shortly after his brother, Terry, died of leukemia in 1982. Crapo would face his own battle with prostate cancer 20 years later. 

Crapo’s brother had been the majority leader in the Idaho House of Representatives from 1968 to 1972. Two years after Terry’s death in 1984, Crapo was elected to the Idaho State Senate and then was appointed senate president, which included a stint as acting governor of Idaho for 12 hours. 

In 1992, Crapo was elected to fill one of Idaho’s two House congressional seats, and in 1998 became the first member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to represent Idaho in the Senate. In the four elections that followed, including his most recent race in 2022, Crapo has faced little to no electoral opposition in what is considered to be one of the safest seats in the Senate. 

But he has made it a practice to continue campaigning, visiting towns and rural areas across the state. Crapo said it is the interactions he has had with the residents of Idaho that he is most proud of: “Visiting and meeting with Idahoans from all walks of life has been the highlight of my career.”

Crapo visited every incorporated town in Idaho prior to the 2016 election and remains committed to visiting every unincorporated town in the state. Tom Luna, former Idaho superintendent of public instruction and former chair of the Idaho GOP, calls Crapo a “mentor” and credits him with helping turn Idaho into a solidly red state. 

However, despite the senator’s conservative record, Luna said the Idaho GOP is divided between those who recognize Crapo’s contributions in Congress and those who think he has not taken a hard enough ideological stance on certain issues. 

“There’s others in our party who think he’s cast one vote in the past 30 years that they don’t agree with and so he’s no longer to them a real Republican. And I just don’t agree with that,” Luna said in a phone interview with the Deseret News. 

The Heritage Action Scorecard, a measure of “how conservative” members of Congress are, gives Crapo a lifetime score of 78% — the same as the average Senate Republican. While unwavering in his conservative views on gun ownership and health care, Crapo has shown a willingness to engage in bipartisan negotiations around national debt, environmental protection and medical research funding. 

“The best ideas and accomplishments come from genuinely collaborative problem-solving wherein the participants do not sacrifice principle, but together advance good, strong policy,” Crapo said. 

Luna understands why some might see Crapo’s work with those on the other side of the aisle as a weakness but thinks that Republicans are better off uniting around the “80% they share in common” rather than “purging the party until everyone agrees on all the issues.”

“I don’t agree with a hundred percent of everything Mike’s done in his whole time in Congress. But I know his values,” Luna said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, poses for portraits in the Senate Reception Room, near the Senate chamber in the Capitol Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. | T.J. Kirkpatrick, for the Deseret News

How Congress has, and hasn’t, changed him 

As a senator, Crapo experienced firsthand fissures within the Republican Party. He was the first sitting Republican senator to revoke his endorsement of Donald Trump following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes in the weeks leading up to the 2016 general election. However, Crapo renewed his endorsement a few weeks later, saying that since the choice was between Trump and Hillary Clinton he would be voting for the Republican ticket. 

By 2021, Crapo accepted Trump’s “complete and total” endorsement. “Mike is tough on crime, strong on the border, and fights for our military and our vets,” Trump said in an endorsement statement. “He will continue to be a champion for our Second Amendment and the great outdoorsmen and women of Idaho and the USA.”

Crapo’s principles were also questioned when he was arrested for drunk driving in 2012. A contrite Crapo said alcohol had become a habit to relieve stress. After the arrest, he issued apologies to his family, friends, constituents and colleagues and vowed to stop drinking. Luci Willits, an East Idaho native who worked as an intern for Crapo during his first term in Congress and has maintained an amicable relationship with him in the years since, was surprised by the news of Crapo’s arrest but says his reaction was in line with what she saw as an intern. 

“He handled it with honesty,” Willits said. “He owned up to it. He took his punishment and he moved on. And I think that’s what so many people lack in the public arena today is they don’t own up to their mistakes and they certainly don’t try to try to do better.”

Willits said that as a young college student, Crapo changed her perspective on how politicians could act in public and private life.

“I saw that you could be a person of integrity and survive in the system,” she said. “And that certainly isn’t the narrative that existed 30 years ago, and it’s certainly not the narrative that exists today.”

Willits said that when she was elected to the Boise City Council in 2021, she received a handwritten note from the senator congratulating her. A gesture, she says, that highlights why Crapo will be remembered for his effort to connect with individual constituents as much as anything else.

Reflecting on his in-flight conversations with Crapo between D.C. and Salt Lake, Quarles said their conversations would turn to “the West, and fly-fishing, and our children, and not a lot of self-involved Washington talk.” He also expressed appreciation for Crapo’s personal and professional attributes.

“Mike Crapo is one of the most effective senators in a body known throughout our history for great legislators,” he said.