In red Idaho, 3 Democrats believe they can still ride a ‘blue wave’ to Congress

Democratic candidates for Idaho's 1st Congressional District. From left: James Vandermaas, Christina McNeil, Michael Smith.
Democratic candidates for Idaho's 1st Congressional District. From left: James Vandermaas, Christina McNeil, Michael Smith.

For the first time in years, the race for the Democratic nomination for the 1st Congressional District has no obvious frontrunner.

Three newcomers hope to capture a much-discussed national “blue wave” of support this fall, and use it to overcome the Republican advantage in the race to replace GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The seat hasn’t had a Democrat since Labrador defeated Walt Minnick in 2010.

But first, there is the May 15 primary. Realtor Christina McNeil of Boise, veteran Michael W. Smith of Post Falls and retired police officer James Vandermaas of Eagle are vying to represent the Democrats this fall.

Since that 2010 race, redistricting has moved the district’s boundaries in Boise to the west, making it even stronger Republican territory than before. That may make it harder this fall for the winner to defeat the victor of May’s seven-way GOP primary.

Prevailing in the Democratic primary, however, may only require 6,500 votes.

Only 12,000 Democrats voted in the 2016 primary and only 11,000 in 2014. The most voters Democrats got over the last decade was 19,400 in 2008, when Minnick was the only candidate.

Democrats are energized this year. The growing interest in the race between governor candidates A.J. Balukoff and Paulette Jordan could bring more party members to the polls, said Justin Vaughn, director of Boise State’s Center for Idaho History and Politics.

Minnick said the winner could have a chance in November if Republicans nominate an extremely conservative candidate.

“It has got to be a strong, adequately funded candidate who runs a professional campaign,” Minnick said.

What does that mean? To Minnick, it has to be someone who started the race a year and a half before the election, and who has gone to the farmers markets, senior centers, veterans meetings and meet-and-greets across the district.

“You need to create a personal identity to replace the disadvantage of not having an R behind your name,” he said.

He said he would not comment on the current candidates.

The contenders

Vandermaas, 60, is the closest to meeting Minnick’s high bar. He jumped into the race about a year ago — shortly after Labrador told a town hall crowd that health care is not “a basic right,” but something “people should have access to.”

Vandermaas supports a “Medicare for All” program that shares expenses among the government, insurance companies and private citizens and, he said, reduces the costs for drugs. “The government should not pay full price for pharmaceuticals,” he said.

He also wants to provide free education to students who would pay it back in public service — he compared the service aspect to the Peace Corps. Their length of service would depend on how long they are in school.

He has made several trips across the district meeting with voters and speaking to groups, he said. He also has raised about $15,000, and said he plans to put more into fundraising if he wins the primary.

Born in Maryland, Vandermaas began his career as a firefighter in Virginia. He later moved to California, where he worked for a police department, including in dispatch, as a crime analyst, on the agency’s SWAT team and also as a union steward. He’s divorced and has three grown sons.

He also ran a small computer and telecommunications business on the side, an experience he said gives him an understanding of the challenges of business ownership and regulation. “My idea is not getting rid of regulations without having a replacement first,” he said.

Vandermaas said he is passionate for public lands, and wary of Republican ideas to transfer federal land to the states. Those states, he warned, will be forced to sell it off to cover their costs.

“I’m against Texas billionaires buying our land and closing it,” he said, referring to the Wilks brothers who purchased forest land, from around Boise to north of McCall. “Idaho is not for sale.”

McNeil, 51, said she is running “to fight poverty,” a commitment that began as a volunteer for Idaho Community Action Network. The organization advocates for health care access, food security, utility and lending fairness, and immigration rights for low-income residents.

“I’m committed to expansion of Medicaid, fighting predatory lending, minimum wage and immigration reform,” McNeil said.

McNeil grew up in Mexico, the daughter of an American father and a Mexican mother, and has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Mexico City. One of her ideas is to expand legal immigration programs to provide more labor for construction and farmers in the state, businesses that sorely need more workers, she said.

She moved to the U.S. in 1995, is divorced and has a daughter, Sophia, who graduates this year from Boise State University.

She and her ex-husband started a real estate business in 2006 soon after they moved to Idaho from California. But the recession forced them to close its doors and she eked through with time on her hands. That’s when she got involved with ICAN, and with the Alliance for Justice in Seattle. She worked around the country on poverty issues from Florida to Mississippi, then left ICAN as its vice president and returned to selling houses full time.

She also got involved in the Idaho Democratic Party, serving as chair of the Latino Caucus. She has lobbied in Washington, D.C., and seeks people on both sides of the political debate to compromise to find common ground and get solutions that improve people’s lives.

“The only way our voice can be heard is to bring all voices to the table,” McNeil said. “At the end of the day we are all one family.”

McNeil got into the race shortly before the end of February’s filing deadline. She said she planned to make a trip to North Idaho at the end of this month and into May.

Smith, 39, served 14 years in the military, first as a Marine and later in the Army. Those years included deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan; they ended, according to his campaign, when injuries kept him from re-enlisting.

He moved to Idaho in 2015, and is married with two children.

He has been in the race the longest, filing in early 2017, but he has done little campaigning outside of North Idaho.

Smith describes himself as a blue-collar politician. He said he is running “to help out the economy,” with a tax plan designed to cut taxes for everyone making less than $500,000, get rid of loopholes and add a new bracket for corporations that have high incomes. The plan “runs off the basis of Eisenhower’s philosophy in which employers are encouraged to create jobs at better wages, or to invest in their company, in order to increase their deductions,” he said.

He also focuses on America’s high incarceration rates, argues “higher education should be a right,” and favors cutting “bloated” spending to defense contractors while protecting enlisted members of the military.

“There is no greater need than for our elected officials to not only understand what it is like to live in the lower and middle class, but to serve the interest of the people and our nation with compassion and integrity,” his campaign website states.

Vaughn said none of the candidates have much name recognition yet, but Vandermaas’ efforts give him an advantage. McNeil’s minority status might attract supporters for Jordan, a Coeur d’Alene Tribe member, he said.

“Even though Vandermaas has been out there longer, there are some contextual factors shaping up for McNeil,” he said.

CORRECTION: This report originally misstated James Vandermaas’ age and where he began his career.