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Russ Fulcher faces primary challenge for his seat representing North Idaho in U.S. House

By Riley Haun The Spokesman-Review

In his first term representing North Idaho, U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher said he’s upheld conservative values and strong support for President Donald Trump while building strong relationships across Congress despite a strong political divide.

The challenger in the Republican primary for Fulcher’s seat in primary election, Nicholas Jones, believes his experience in small business makes him the better choice to represent the state in Congress.

The winner in Tuesday’s election will go on to face the winner of the Democratic primary as well as a Libertarian in November.

The challenger

Neither burger businesses nor ballroom dancing translate particularly well to politics on their face. Nevertheless, Boise native Nicholas Jones thinks his acumen in at least one, if not the other, make him the right Republican to unseat incumbent Russ Fulcher in the primary race for the U.S. House seat for Idaho’s 1st Congressional District.

Jones, 34, has been an entrepreneur his entire life, starting his first business as a “young buck” still studying at Boise State University. In the years since, he’s started and sold several more businesses – including Bacon on a Stick, a self-explanatory food stand that traveled to fairs and events, and Swift Impressions, a marketing consulting firm – and taught entrepreneurship at Boise State and Northwest Nazarene University.

Currently, he heads Good Burger, a fast-food joint with a few locations in southern Idaho and Utah, and the board and card game store All About Games. He ran for Boise City Council unsuccessfully in 2018, which Jones said taught him that politics doesn’t really translate neatly to business. But Jones feels his eye for small business might be useful nonetheless.

“I’ve seen the birth and death of many companies,” Jones said. “And I’ve seen how poor regulations and red tape affected the bottom line every time.”

Jones is pitching himself as the “voice of the normal person” within Congress, drawing comparisons with incumbent Fulcher, whose business experience was largely in the realm of multinational high-tech firms, not local mom-and-pop shops.

Jones was pursuing a career in ballroom dancing – a long story, he said – when his then-wife became pregnant. She didn’t want to be a parent, but Jones did, so he raised his daughter Jamie, now 11, as a single father until meeting his second wife, Amelia. They now have another daughter, 14-month-old Ella.

Jamie tagged along with Jones throughout his MBA program at the University of Notre Dame and sat through countless business meetings in the first eight years of her life, an experience Jones said grounded him and strengthened his moral beliefs.

Jones described himself as a proud conservative, supporting gun rights and opposing abortion rights, two arenas where he and Fulcher overlap. But Jones said he disagrees with the incumbent in several key areas.

Jones’ approach to reducing the national debt would differ from Fulcher’s as well, he said, because his small-business approach lends him an advantage. The general idea is the same – cut extraneous expenses – but Jones said Fulcher doesn’t know how to work within the little details to do so.

“We agree in a lot of key places, but he can’t identify the minutiae of these big issues like I can – that’s all you do in a small business, identify minutiae,” Jones said. “I kind of understand that oversight, because he comes from a corporate environment. But it’s almost an intentional oversight. You have to man up and face your actions.”

Jones’ campaign is trying to show voters he’s the right choice through sheer transparency. He posts videos to his YouTube channel every Saturday explaining his policy positions; he’s easily reachable on Facebook Messenger if people have questions. His social media ads aren’t targeted just toward those with Republican leanings – he wants to reach anyone looking for an alternative to the norm. That, combined with conservative values familiar to red-state Idaho, can win him the primary, Jones thinks.

“I don’t do Plan B. The plan is to win,” Jones said. “But for discussion purposes, if I lose, I’ll be back in two years.”

But Jones is up against considerable odds. Fighting a primary race against an incumbent is a financial challenge in the best of election years and like many other candidates, Jones’s fundraising efforts have been halted by COVID-19. He said he’s largely avoiding asking voters for donations, since he’s keenly aware that money is tight for many, so he’s instead relying on small contributions from family and friends.

Jones previously told the Idaho Press he was willing to self-fund much of his campaign if need be, up to $250,000, though an Federal Election Commission disclosure was unavailable for Jones’ campaign as of Friday.

The incumbent

Fulcher, on the other hand, had raised over $300,000 by the end of April, according to his FEC disclosures. In contrast with his small-donor or self-funded challengers, about two-thirds of Fulcher’s contributions came from PACs.

Fulcher, who is wrapping up his first term in the House, said he’s relied on those big donors because he knows they are of means and less likely to be impacted by the recent economic downturn. During his 2018 campaign, about 30% of Fulcher’s campaign funds were given by PACs.

“Campaigns have become immensely expensive in recent years, Idaho less so, so we’ve been blessed in the scheme of things to not have to go that far,” Fulcher said. “It’s how the system has evolved. I’m no different from the rest, though maybe less aggressive than some.”

Fulcher, 58, was born and raised on a dairy farm in Meridian, Idaho, where he said he gained most of his early work experience. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boise State University, then joined Boise-based tech firm Micron Technology in its infancy, working in international business development. He later went to another tech firm, Preco Electronics, before being appointed to serve a term in the state Senate.

Fulcher served 10 years in the Idaho State Senate, moonlighting as a commercial real estate broker while not in session. He has three grown children, one of whom, Meghan, runs his re-election campaign. Fulcher and his wife of 31 years, Kara, divorced in 2018.

Fulcher jokes that he’s running for re-election to Congress partially because he’s “certifiably crazy,” but more seriously said he’s motivated to run largely because of an experience during his time at Micron. The company became aware that its Japanese competitors were using predatory pricing to overtake Micron in the industry in the 1980s, and it took an act of Congress to solve the problem. Fulcher served as an industry liaison to Idaho Sen. Jim McClure during that time, which he said inspired his entry into politics.

“I’m very pro-free market, but I’ve seen how it’s sometimes necessary for government to step in and level the playing field,” said Fulcher, a former board member for the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “Without that step, Idaho’s and maybe America’s microprocessor industry would have been snuffed out.”

Over the course of his term, Fulcher said every day in Congress has been clouded either by the specter of impeachment or by coronavirus, so there hasn’t been much of a “normal” for him yet. As such, he and his staff have had to develop workarounds to keep making progress without the use of legislation, Fulcher said. That includes developing a close relationship with President Donald Trump, whose 2020 re-election campaign Fulcher co-chairs in Idaho.

According to Fulcher, Trump is likely to be the focal point of every election in 2020, even his own in a state where 59 percent of voters went for Trump in 2016. Voters will be responding to how they feel their representatives in Congress have reacted to Trump’s “reshuffling of the deck,” Fulcher said.

“He threatens the status quo – K Street, lobby corps, agency heads and even the intelligence community, which has honestly been allowed to grow into a sort of dual government over the years,” Fulcher said. “And Trump is from a business background, so he comes in and sees that, starts firing people. And when a parasite senses the host trying to fight back, it will do desperate, desperate things to stay on.”

By comparison, Fulcher’s opponent, Jones, said he thought fear, not the Trump administration, would determine the 2020 election’s winner.

“People went from good, stable jobs to food banks in under eight weeks,” Jones said. “And that fear can paralyze people. We need someone who can get out in front of people and show them we have a good system to fix things. But it needs to be handled correctly.”

Fulcher acknowledged that the system as it stands, whether that refers to campaign finance or bipartisan rifts in Congress, isn’t ideal. But he asserts that he’s the best candidate to continue in his seat because of the work he’s done to bridge divides and work to the best of Idaho’s advantage within that system.

“I think my life resume is stacked against just about anybody,” Fulcher said. “We don’t want to start over now. I’ve been in every nook and cranny of that state, and people know me. And I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom. I hate getting help, but I’ve learned to reach out to the experts when I need to.”

Fulcher said he and his staff have done more work than “probably any freshman representative” to build relationships with others in the Capitol amidst the most divided political climate in recent memory. That’s one of his proudest accomplishments during his first term, and he thinks Idaho would be better served keeping that momentum going.

He’s even delivered Idaho delicacies, including potatoes and Idaho Spuds, the candy bar made in Idaho, to the desks of colleagues by way of a peace treaty.

“It sounds corny, but I’ve really made an effort to reach out, even when (representatives) show no interest in working with me,” Fulcher said.

The winner of the Republican primary will face the winner of the Democratic primary, either Rudy Soto or Staniela Nikolova, and Libertarian Joe Evans in the November election.

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