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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Candidates flock to race for open Idaho congressional seat

Russ Fulcher, third from right, speaks during a debate at the studios of Idaho Public Television in Boise on April 29, 2018, as five of his rivals for the GOP nomination for an open Idaho congressional seat look on. From left are Luke Malek, David Leroy, and Michael Snyder; from right are Alex Gallegos and Christy Perry. Not pictured is Nick Henderson, who didn’t participate in the debate. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)

BOISE – An open seat in Congress, as Rep. Raul Labrador steps down to run for governor, has drawn a whopping 10 candidates to the primary election ballot – and poses a big challenge for Idaho voters as they prepare to make their picks on May 15.

The Republican ticket alone has seven hopefuls, all of whom are hoping to capture at least a slice of the voters in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, which stretches from west Boise to the Canadian border. The Democratic ticket has three hopefuls vying for the nomination. In the seven-way GOP primary, a candidate could win with far less than a majority.

“Theoretically, it could be under 20 percent,” said College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi.

So how are voters to distinguish among the members of the pack?

“With the primary it’s always difficult,” LiCalzi said. “They don’t have the typical cue of the party.” Each candidate, he said, will “want to stand out in some way.”

Some indicators that voters can examine: Who’s backing each candidate and how strongly, their top issues and their stances on them, their record, their performance in debates, and how they each have tried to distinguish themselves from the others. Here’s a look at some of those factors.

Money and endorsements

Former state Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, has raised the most money for his campaign by far at more than $400,000, including $35,000 of his own money. He has endorsements from Labrador, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and other powerhouse national conservative groups and figures, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Fulcher’s donations have come both from political action committees and individuals. Thirty-four GOP state lawmakers also have endorsed Fulcher.

Running second in the fundraising race is David Leroy, a former Idaho attorney general and lieutenant governor, who’s raised roughly $300,000, including $98,000 of his own money, plus donations mostly from Idaho individuals, and drawn an endorsement from the American Conservative Union and Patricia Kempthorne, former first lady of Idaho.

In third is state Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who’s raised roughly $200,000, mostly from Idaho individuals, and drawn endorsements from former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Professional Firefighters of Idaho, 16 GOP state lawmakers, and an array of Idaho prosecutors and mayors. Malek, Leroy and Fulcher are the only candidates who have taken their campaigns onto the state’s TV airwaves. Fulcher’s advertising has been boosted by additional independent campaign ads on his behalf from the Club for Growth.

Bonners Ferry conservative blogger and author Michael Snyder has reported raising more than $115,000 for his campaign, much of it from out-of-state individuals and $4,000 of his own money. He also reported more non-itemized small donations than itemized contributions, drawing a complaint to the Federal Election Commission that he may be failing to property report the identity of his donors; the agency is now reviewing the complaint. He’s reported no endorsements and didn’t respond to interview requests.

Recently retired Army Col. Alex Gallegos has raised more than $53,000 for his campaign, $4,000 from his own funds and nearly all the rest from out-of-state individuals. His 44 donors include 10 from Virginia, five from Colorado, and three each from Kentucky, North Carolina, California, Texas and Idaho. He touts an endorsement from the Combat Veterans for Congress PAC, and has been campaigning on his 26 years of military experience, including multiple deployments to combat zones and two tours of duty at the Pentagon. “The fact that I don’t have too many Idaho donors shouldn’t be surprising,” he said, “because you’re away for 30 years.” A Nampa native, Gallegos said he’s lived all over the country and the world while on active duty.

State Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, has raised less than $20,000, including just under $4,000 of her own money. Among her top contributions are $1,000 from Emmett rancher Harry Bettis and the same from Jim Kissler, CEO of Norco, the Boise medical and industrial supply firm. “I knew ahead of time, when we jumped into the race, that we were not going to be able to compete in money,” Perry said. “I knew that from past experience in fundraising. I also knew because of the timing.” Perry, a four-term state representative, said, “I have not sought a single endorsement – I have not asked.” Instead, she said, “For me the only thing that matters is for me to go up and down this district and talk to the citizens, and that’s what I’ve spent my time on.”

Nick Henderson, a commercial pilot from Post Falls and first-time candidate, has raised little money and done little active campaigning. His largest donation was nearly $1,000 from his mother. An Army veteran who served for four years, he’s been endorsed by a small, faith-based veterans group called Code of Vets.

On the Democratic side, only hopeful James Vandermaas, a former firefighter and police officer from Eagle, has reported any fundraising, at just over $15,000, including $1,000 of his own funds. Also running are Michael William Smith of Post Falls, an Iraq war veteran; and Christina McNeil of Boise, a real estate agent and chair of the Idaho Democratic Party’s Latino Caucus.

Issues and positions

Here’s what each candidate said are his or her top issues and positions on them:

FULCHER: Immigration, health care and resources.

Fulcher said his immigration positions are “close to being in line with” the immigration bill from U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., now pending in Congress, which includes funding a border wall, hiring 10,000 new border patrol agents, cracking down on sanctuary cities, and shifting to a merit system for legal immigration, among other provisions. “It’s a huge issue for Idaho,” he said. On health care, he said, “The general answer has to be leaning on the privatization of it and free-market solutions.” On resources, he favors more state involvement in managing federal public lands, so they don’t “go up in smoke every year.”

LEROY: Government spending and debt; immigration and border security; and health care.

“I will be a budget hawk,” Leroy said; he’s advocating a “penny plan” to make repeated 1 percent, across-the-board cuts in all federal programs, to move toward eliminating the deficit over five years. He supports the Goodlatte immigration bill in full. On health care, Leroy wants to “move to free-market-based health care, with the states each creating a high-risk pool for those who are underserved or not economically able to get into the free market.”

MALEK: Cost of health care; reducing government burden on businesses and families; dealing with debt.

“We have got to get the cost of health care reined in, and the way we’re going to do that is by bringing back more local control, so physicians have more direct relationships with their patients,” said Malek, the son of two doctors, whose law practice has focused largely in the health care realm. He favors reducing both taxation and regulation on families and businesses; and addressing the federal debt.

SNYDER: Didn’t respond

On his campaign website, Snyder says he wants “a government so small that I can barely see it” and says he wants to “flush the toilet” on corruption in Congress.

GALLEGOS: Congressional failures, federal deficit and national security.

“I think Congress is failing Americans and hurting Idahoans,” Gallegos said. “They’re either not making decisions or allowing partisan politics in the way of making decisions, or delaying decisions, which I think is horrible.” He wants government to “suppress the appetite to spend money,” and says he’s worried about national security, from defense, budget and immigration to cyber warfare and veterans affairs. “If we don’t address and fix it now, I’m not so sure we can sustain an all-volunteer force when less than 1 percent of the American public serve,” he said.

PERRY: Federal debt, divisiveness in Congress and health care.

Perry said the federal debt is weakening the nation internally and externally, and impacting international trade decisions. “It’s a downward spiral, and I think it’s suffocating our economy,” she said. Congress, she said, needs to stop its internal bickering. “People have forgotten that they are actually serving their constituents. I’d like to be able to go in there and start building healthy coalitions that are built around the needs of our citizens and not the needs of a party.” Perry differs from some of her opponents who back repealing Obamacare even without any replacement. “I know that health care is paramount to a person’s life and liberty – it certainly is one of the major reasons that people file bankruptcy,” she said. “I just find no reason that we cannot have our citizens accessing health care.”

HENDERSON: State control of federal lands; descheduling and decriminalizing cannabis; corruption in Congress.

“I want to see more state control, more active management of our lands and harvest of our timber, to prevent these wildfires from getting out of control,” Henderson said. On marijuana, he said he believes Idahoans favor decriminalization. “I want total descheduling and decriminalization of cannabis at the federal level, so that it becomes a state issue,” he said. To fight corruption in Congress, he favors amendments to the U.S. Constitution requiring term limits and a balanced budget.

VANDERMAAS: Health care, public lands and education.

Vandermaas backs expanding Medicaid in Idaho to close Idaho’s health coverage gap and favors a “Medicare for All” program to be funded by the government, employers and patients. He supports keeping federal public lands public and open to public access; and backs public pre-kindergarten and a program to provide free post-secondary education, including vocational training, for students who pay it back in public service.

McNEIL: Infrastructure, education and fighting poverty.

“We need to evaluate the existing conditions of bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, roads, schools, wastewater, among other needs,” McNeil says on her campaign website. She also favors increasing teacher pay and benefits to recruit and retain Idaho teachers and addressing pre-K and college costs. A former volunteer for the Idaho Community Action network, McNeil told the Idaho Statesman she’s running for Congress, above all, “to fight poverty.”

SMITH: Economy and livable wages; protecting public lands, environment; renewable energy; health care.

“I have a duty to try to represent the people’s interests,” said Smith, who’s lived in Idaho for two years and said attending meetings of the “Indivisible” movement has convinced him that Idaho’s not as heavily Republican as most people think, despite the GOP controlling the vast majority of elective offices in the state. He favors a single-payer system for health care.

The candidates’ takes

The Spokesman-Review asked all seven GOP candidates what they think distinguishes them from their pack of opponents; here are their answers:

FULCHER: “Experience. Nobody, nobody who’s in this race can even come close to the global business experience,” including representing Micron Technology in multiple foreign countries, in addition to his service in the state Senate. “It’s a perspective nobody else brings to that party.”

LEROY: Leroy cites his many years of experience, including service at the county, state and federal level. “The collective experience of my worthy opponents properly added up and evaluated would be less than my credentials given the same weight to do the job right now in a problematic Congress. I believe that I can make an impact from Day 1.”

MALEK: “I think more than any other candidate, I have a history of effectiveness. You look at the accomplishments I’ve had in the Legislature – crisis centers, criminal justice reform, getting broadband out to our rural districts … working on the criminal code.”

SNYDER: No response. During the debate, he claimed to be the earliest supporter of Donald Trump for president among the group, though he didn’t cast a vote in Idaho’s March 2016 presidential primary, saying he was traveling at the time.

GALLEGOS: “Certainly the fact that I’m a veteran. … As a serviceman and a military guy, we’re accustomed to discipline. So if I believe that the breakdown in Congress is from a lack of discipline … in the profession that I come from, if you’re not disciplined, lives are lost.” He also cited his two tours of duty at the Pentagon, in addition to combat-zone deployments.

PERRY: “I think the fact that I’m a woman matters. I think that I bring a unique perspective as a wife and a mother and a grandmother and a small business owner and a legislator.” The co-owner of a gun shop, Perry has repeatedly described herself as “the girl with all the guns.” She said, “In my opinion, the good old boys haven’t done anything for us. … I think we need something different in Congress.”

HENDERSON: “Of course, my not being a career politician is one of the main things. Additionally, my age is something that distinguishes me from my opponents. I’m the youngest guy running at 32 years old.”