BOISE — 1st District Democratic congressional hopeful Rudy Soto launched a campaign tour of the sprawling Idaho district this week, pledging to travel in his campaign-decorated RV to more than 50 communities in all 19 of the district’s counties with a bipartisan message.
Soto, a Nampa native and first-time candidate, is challenging freshman GOP Rep. Russ Fulcher of Meridian. Fulcher, 58, is a conservative who served five terms in the state Senate before being elected to Congress and mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge from the right against GOP Gov. Butch Otter in 2014.
Fulcher is ranked the 16th most-partisan House member, in the annual Bipartisanship Index rankings compiled by the Lugar Center at Georgetown University. Among the few in the 435-member House who ranked as more partisan were Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York; Louie Gohmert, R-Texas; and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
“That is not how you get things done, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Soto said, branding Fulcher as “ineffective” in representing Idaho. “I’ve seen what’s wrong with Washington. We need people that are willing to work across party lines.”
Soto, 34, has Capitol Hill experience, which includes work as a congressional staffer and as legislative director of the National Indian Gaming Association. He said if elected, he’ll join the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a group of 25 House Republicans and 25 House Democrats formed in 2017 that works on bipartisan solutions; the group has had some notable successes on trade, rules reform, immigration and coronavirus response. The caucus is chaired by Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y.
Fulcher responded that the current atmosphere in Congress limits the success of bipartisan proposals.
“While caucus organizations have an important role to play,” Fulcher’s campaign said in a statement, “in the current climate, bipartisan efforts are accomplished due to reputation and professional relationships with other members of Congress.”
He touted his “potato diplomacy” efforts, which have included sending gift packs including an Idaho Spud Bar and potato chips along with a personal note to Democratic representatives. The campaign said his overtures have been “widely embraced.”
Fulcher blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the partisan divide in the House.
“The Speaker only hears bills in consideration of her party,” his campaign said. “This has reduced incentives for Republicans to introduce legislation, and has ultimately led to a litany of extreme policy that passed the House just to die in the Senate.”
When Soto launched his tour Monday in Garden City, he was joined by past Democratic 1st District Congressmen Walt Minnick and Larry LaRocco. Minnick, who made a point of working across party lines when he served his single term in the House, said Soto would be “a voice for common sense in Washington.”
Idaho’s 1st District, which stretches from the Nevada line all the way to the Canadian border and takes in the entire western slice of the state, is heavily Republican; Minnick was the last Democrat to be elected to represent it a decade ago.
Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler said, “It’s just going to be hard, given the congressional district he’s running in.”
Voters are frustrated, Kettler said.
“They express being unhappy with how partisan and polarized our politics have become. So I think there is that sort of feeling you can touch into,” she said. “I think for a challenger, it’s often a kind of a good approach to take. But how effective it’s going to be for reaching a broad population or trying to convince Republicans to vote for him may be limited.”
Republican voters tend to show a “preference for more conservative candidates,” she said. So partisanship “may not be a negative for some Republican voters.”
Soto, who already has made campaign stops this week in Garden City, McCall and Grangeville, said, “We’ve just got to do what we can do, and I figured this was the best way to get around not having the fairs, festivals, parades. That’s why we’re employing this method of outreach.”
He said so far, he’s found local voters intrigued by his background — he’s a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the son of a Mexican immigrant, and a first-generation college graduate — and concerned about what he calls his top issue, health care access and affordability.
“We need that now more than ever, because of COVID, the people that are at risk,” Soto said. “We also lack any veteran representation in the congressional delegation. No one’s worn the military uniform. I think that means something that matters to Idaho voters, and that has shown that I’m willing and able to work with people across different backgrounds for our national security.”
Soto said he’s seen little of incumbent Fulcher on the campaign trail.
Fulcher’s campaign said, “As Congressman Fulcher is diligently fulfilling his obligations to his constituents, he has visited all 19 counties of CD 1, many of them multiple times. Campaigning during COVID has been challenging.”
The campaign said Fulcher plans to hold “multiple tele-townhall events” before election day.
Soto’s upcoming tour stops announced so far include stops in Lapwai, Lewiston, Moscow and St. Maries in the coming week.
“I’m looking to swing up and down the entire state twice before the end of the election,” he said, describing his RV as a “mobile campaign headquarters.”
“I think with my background, with having been born and raised in Canyon County, will appeal to people who look at the person and not just the party,” Soto said, “and care about kitchen table issues and making ends meet, and don’t care about political gamesmanship.”