Early polls in the seven-way GOP race to succeed U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador had the two candidates with the highest name recognition – Meridian real estate broker Russ Fulcher and former Idaho Attorney General and Lt. Gov. David Leroy – leading the pack.
But the two polls that have been made public still showed large swaths of undecided voters in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. That gives hope to the other five candidates in the Republican primary: former prosecutor and state Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene; gun shop owner and state Rep. Christy Perry of Nampa; conservative author and blogger Michael Snyder of Bonners Ferry; Nick Henderson, an Army combat veteran and businessman from Post Falls; and Alex Gallegos, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Nampa.
With 41 days left until the May 15 primary, the leaders are hoping to hold or grow their advantage while the others seek to catch fire.
History suggests anywhere from 63,000 to 72,000 voters may participate in the closed Republican primary. If so, one of the candidates will need 15,000 to 20,000 votes to win. Republican Bill Sali garnered 18,985 votes, or 25.8 percent, in 2006, the last time there was an open field this crowded.
Sali’s advantage was an endorsement from the Club For Growth, which along with its supporters pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign – a relatively small sum to win a congressional seat nationwide.
This year, Fulcher has the Club for Growth endorsement. Not surprisingly, he’s the first to go on the air with television commercials and has led in overall fundraising. Leroy countered with an endorsement from the American Conservative Union, which organizes the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Fulcher started out running for governor, following on his strong showing in the 2014 GOP primary against Gov. Butch Otter. In June, he pulled out after Labrador announced he would seek the governor’s post, and announced he would run for Labrador’s seat instead.
Labrador endorsed Fulcher, as has Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But Fulcher has not endorsed Labrador. That has angered many of his supporters, said Henderson and Snyder, who both endorsed Labrador and hope his supporters come to them.
“I see it as a huge sign of disrespect after all Raul Labrador has done,” Snyder said.
Fulcher said he has worked closely with Labrador.
Snyder portrays himself as the most conservative candidate in a field where the collective views on issues like the Second Amendment, abortion and tax cuts are all pretty close. He said he would get rid of the Internal Revenue Service, the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve, and would close the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management.
His yard signs spread all over the Treasure Valley advertise him as pro-Trump, who pundits say is the most popular politician among Idaho Republicans. Both Leroy and Fulcher embrace Trump in their own ways.
“I think Trump is a change agent,” Leroy said. “If we put conservative legislation in front of him, he’ll sign it.”
Leroy is counting on most of the electorate in the GOP primary to be old enough to remember when he was attorney general, lieutenant governor and even acting governor for 254 days.
“This is a time when experience and aptitude is at a great premium,” Leroy said. “These are problematic, sophisticated, complicated times.”
Fulcher, who traveled the world with Micron and did business with the likes of Apple’s Steve Jobs, sees Trump as the businessman in the same mold.
“They don’t look at the world the way we do,” he said. “That see it as cost centers and profit centers.”
Fulcher said he can talk to Trump and help him get his agenda through Congress, even if the Democrats take control of the House.
“I’m going to advance the ball,” Fulcher said. “If I can get three yards, I’ll take it.”
Malek takes that approach even further. He said he was “the point of the spear” to create Idaho’s state-run health insurance exchange, replacing the federal option with one that is more efficient, user-friendly and has lower costs. At a recent Ada County GOP Central Committee candidate forum, Malek was the only one who said he would vote for the omnibus spending bill that among Idaho’s delegation, only Rep. Mike Simpson backed.
Malek picked up the endorsement of former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, who said Malek has a record of getting things done.
“To me this job is not worth doing if I’m not a problem-solver,” Malek said. “I’m a conservative guy, but there’s a job to be done back there.”
Often this legislative session, Malek found himself opposite Perry on issues like the health care package aimed at helping 35,000 Idahoans without insurance afford coverage. In the end, the House refused to vote on the issue Perry helped carry to the floor, with Malek among the opposition.
“I’m willing to buck leadership and the system for what I think the people wanted,” Perry said. “I think that sets me apart from the others.”
Perry hopes to appeal to women because of her record on family issues and health. But she also expects to pull votes away from Fulcher because of her conservative values, such as her call to eliminate the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and turn its authority over to the states.
And, Perry is appealing to sportsmen, just as Henderson hopes to bring veterans to the polls as a supporter of more flexibility for veterans’ health care.
“I’m all for Veterans Choice because I’ve benefited from it,” Henderson said, referencing a program that allows veterans to see a local health provider if they meet certain conditions, such as lengthy VA appointment delays or long driving distances to a VA hospital.
Gallegos was the last to join the race, in February, and was not at the Ada County forum last week. He said in his announcement press release that he would push to control debt, improve combat readiness and work on veterans’ issues.
“I feel compelled to run because the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is a threat to our children and grandchildren’s future,” he said in the release.
Reliable polling is scarce in this spring’s election. An Idaho Politics Weekly poll in November, compiled through live phone calls to residents of the congressional district, found 54 percent still undecided — though that included residents of all political persuasions. A March 12-13 automated phone poll of Republicans by Magellan Strategies, released by Leroy, had 40 percent of voters undecided.
To leap ahead, Snyder, Malek, Perry, Henderson or Gallegos will need huge influxes of money or field volunteers, or a collapse by the better-known Fulcher and Leroy, said Justin Vaughn, Boise State University associate professor of political science.
“If you’re a voter and you recognize some of the names down the list but you don’t know a lot about them, you’re going to go with the one you know,” Vaughn said.
Am I in the 1st District?
The 1st District begins on its southeast corner with a third of Boise and most of its suburbs, and runs west to Oregon and Washington, and north to the Canadian border. In addition to Ada County, it includes Adams, Benewah, Boise, Bonner, Boundary, Canyon, Clearwater, Gem, Idaho, Kootenai, Latah, Lewis, Nez Perce, Owyhee, Payette, Shoshone, Valley, and Washington.
What about the Democrats?
Three have filed for the 1st District seat: real estate agent Cristina McNeil, of Boise; retired sheriff’s deputy James Vandermaas, of Eagle; and veteran Michael W. Smith, of Post Falls. Watch for coverage of the Democratic primary in a future edition of the Statesman.