It’s been a dozen years since a Democrat last won an election to serve North Idaho in Congress.
But two Democrats joined the race hoping for the chance to replace incumbent Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District in November.
Staniela Nikolova, a law student at the University of Idaho, faces Rudy Soto, a military veteran who has served on the staffs of two members of Congress.
Nikolova’s platform includes a cap on prescription medication prices and a national program to provide all children younger than 18 with free dental, vision and preventive care. Nikolova, 31, is a second-year law student at the University of Idaho, so student loan reform is at the top of her list, too.
Born in Bulgaria, Nikolova’s family moved as refugees to Twin Falls, Idaho, when she was 1 year old. As a child, she wanted to become a lawyer to set herself up for a presidential run until she learned she was ineligible, having been born outside the U.S. Instead, she sought three undergraduate degrees in molecular biology, biochemistry and psychology from UI in Moscow, where she’s lived since.
Over the years, Nikolova has worked in retail and food service, on a salmon fishing boat in Alaska and as a technician in labs using her degrees.
Her political dreams were reignited in 2015 after seeing Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., bring a snowball onto the Senate floor in an attempt to disprove climate change. Nikolova ranted to her then-husband about what she saw as a lack of scientific literacy among politicians.
“There was so much politicization of facts, of climate science, when ultimately Earth is the only planet we have direct access to,” Nikolova said. “I felt so helpless. I was telling him, ‘What do I do about this? I don’t even know what to do.’ He told me, ‘Why don’t you run?’ ”
Her platform revolves around improving scientific literacy and accountability through a top-down approach. Science education in public schools should be improved, Nikolova said, but she envisions some sort of training for elected officials at the highest levels of national service.
By educating members of Congress on science and tech-based issues, paired with open and constant lines of communication between those members and their constituents, Nikolova thinks a lot of other policy issues could be solved with less political meandering and more accountability for Congress’s actions.
Take the example of cybersecurity and data privacy. If lawmakers were better educated on the technical aspects of an issue, votes would better serve the people, Nikolova said.
“People see the data, see the problem, but don’t trust it, and we can’t have that attitude within Congress,” Nikolova said. “Better trainings for Congress will lead to better questioning on budgets and bills, and better education down to your base through town halls and communication.”
Nikolova, a self-described moderate with liberal-leaning social views, ran for the same House seat in 2016, finishing third in a three-way Democratic primary. That run, while “terrible” in her own words, offered her a chance to reevaluate her strategy for the next try. In the meantime, she pursued a law degree and “voraciously” consumed political news. She said she’s much better prepared for a campaign and for service in Congress.
But she’s still largely funding her own campaign, albeit with better financial advice than her first run, Nikolova said. She said she expects to receive more outside donations when and if she wins the primary. Nikolova has raised less than $5,000 on her campaign, the threshold for when candidates are required to file financial disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Her original campaign plan, which revolved around those open lines of communication like door-knocking and booths at local farmers’ markets, has been put on hold by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s been an “exercise in adaptability,” Nikolova said, and she’s still confident that her passionate takes, legal knowledge and “everyday person” life experience give her an edge over her primary opponent.
According to his FEC filings, Soto raised over $54,000 for his campaign through the end of March. He’s raised an additional $20,000 in the weeks since, according to Soto. The majority came from small independent donors.
A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation, Soto has also garnered financial support from a handful of Native American tribes, as well as a political action committee affiliated with Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.
Born in Nampa, Idaho, Soto left the state for Portland as a teen. There, he completed high school, then received a degree in liberal studies and leadership from Portland State University, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. He ran for Portland City Council unsuccessfully in 2010 while still a student.
Soto served in the U.S. Army National Guard as a military policeman before entering the political world of Washington, D.C., where he was a staffer for Reps. Kurt Schrader. D-Ore., and Norma Torres, D-Calif. Soto later served as legislative director for the National Indian Gaming Association and as a health policy analyst for the National Council of Urban Indian Health.
Soto, 34, said his top platform issue always has been health care reform, a policy he feels is especially relevant as his campaign carries on through a global pandemic. Soto’s father, a Mexican immigrant, lost his health coverage after being laid off. Unable to find new coverage due to a preexisting condition, he struggled to get care for months until finally being diagnosed with advanced cancer and given little time to live.
“That’s the reason I worked as a health policy analyst getting people enrolled in marketplace plans, why I am for moving our country toward affordable, universal coverage through a public option,” Soto said. “With Idaho facing over 100,000 unemployed people right now, that’s especially relevant to me.”
Soto said he was inspired to run for office in Idaho after seeing Proposition 2, a ballot measure expanding the state’s Medicaid eligibility, pass with more than 60% voter support in 2018. The overwhelming “yes” vote surprised him and inspired his grassroots effort to improve the place where he grew up, Soto said.
If elected, Soto said he would work on both sides of the aisle to improve Idaho’s infrastructure, including new developments in public transportation. Soto acknowledged that trains and intracity public transport might be more of a concern for more densely populated southern Idaho, but said there still is work to be done on existing roads connecting North Idaho to the rest of the region.
His background as a veteran and on Capitol Hill gives him an advantage over Nikolova and Fulcher, Soto said. It also makes him relatable to the average voter. Raised in poverty, with a stint in the juvenile corrections system as a teen, Soto said he hoped his story would strike a chord with Idahoans of all stripes, even those who don’t typically vote blue.
Only three Democrats in the past 50 years have held the seat Soto and Nikolova are aiming for, the last being Walt Minnick in 2009.
“I’ve raised everything from small individual donors. I’m backed by people, and that distinguishes me from the incumbent,” Soto said. “My life has been all about overcoming the odds, and I can hit the ground running to join with others and carry on the legacy of that Medicaid vote.”
The pandemic has oddly helped Soto’s campaign. Though he’s a self-described “face-to-face kind of person,” being forced to find remote campaigning alternatives like virtual town halls and targeted social media ads has allowed Soto to reach a broader swath of people than he might have before, he said, especially in North Idaho.
Soto said a large part of his strategy is boosting voter turnout from groups often left out of primary elections, like independent voters, Hispanics and Native Americans. With Idaho’s primary being conducted entirely by mail-in absentee ballot due to the pandemic – a method that often raises voter turnout regardless of demographic – Soto is confident he’ll have a strong showing.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face the winner of the Republican primary, which will see Fulcher run against Nicholas Jones and Libertarian Joe Evans in the November election.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on May 17, 2020 to correct Soto’s age.
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