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BOISE — First-term GOP Rep. Russ Fulcher and his two challengers addressed issues ranging from the federal response to COVID-19 to health care, immigration, the state of the country and President Trump on the Idaho Debates on Friday evening.

Fulcher declared that he has full faith in President Trump’s ability to lead the country. “I think that we’re in good hands,” he said. “But no question, we’re in trying times.”

Democratic challenger Rudy Soto of Nampa said, “I think that there’s a legitimate question whether because of all the different medications and all that he’s taking, whether he’s mentally stable. When he’s having Secret Service agents have to suit up fully and put themselves at risk to drive around in a car and wave at people, there are some serious questions there.”

Joe Evans, the Libertarian candidate, said, “President Trump may not be the best president we’ve ever had, but at the same time I don’t think he’s been the worst either. I think that he’s been saddled with a Congress that has been combative and has prevented an awful lot of the opportunities that he’s expressed interest in creating for the United States. But you know, I won’t say anything bad about the man right now.”

The 90-minute program, which aired statewide on Idaho Public Television and is also now available to watch online at idahoptv.org/idahodebates, had a modified format this year due to COVID-19. Instead of an in-person, live debate, each candidate was asked the same questions via video teleconferencing, and the answers were spliced together so viewers could compare them.

Moderator Marcia Franklin, who noted that that meant the candidates didn’t hear each other’s answers and so couldn’t give direct rebuttals, told the audience, “Even though this wasn’t a traditional debate, I hope you feel more informed about your choices, and I encourage you to vote on Nov. 3.”

Here are some of the issues the candidates addressed:

FEDERAL RESPONSE TO COVID-19

Asked if the federal government has responded well to the pandemic, Soto said, “Absolutely not. I don’t even think that we can say they’ve done their best. We have members of Congress that are acting in hyper-partisan ways, my opponent Congressman Fulcher being among them.” He noted that Fulcher voted against the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Fulcher praised the federal government’s pandemic response. “I don’t know of any circumstance, with the exception of the World War II effort, just from my knowledge of history, where the federal government has mobilized the way that it has around something,” he said. “Frankly, I didn’t even think that was possible for the federal government to move that fast.”

He touted the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans to businesses impacted by the pandemic. “You learn from these situations. But I think overall … the federal government has responded pretty well,” Fulcher said.

He said he voted against the bill because “it wasn’t written by the time we were voting on it,” and said, “I know the intention, I know it was good. … Just for me, personally, at this stage, I’ve got to have confidence that I know for sure and I’ve seen with my own eyes what’s in these bills.”

Evans criticized the pandemic response from all levels of government, and said all could have been more proactive early on to educate Americans “on the way that disease travels,” including concerning masks and hygiene. “A lot of these things would’ve gone a lot further if … they hadn’t tried to massage egos in order to make certain people look better than they did with regard to the information they were putting out,” he said.

Soto said he’d support a mask mandate at this point as the virus has spread; both Fulcher and Evans said they wouldn’t, but also said they wear masks when it’s appropriate to do so.

DIFFERENCES FROM OPPONENTS

Asked what distinguishes them from their opponents, the candidates had ready answers. “What distinguishes me from my opponent is four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Evans said. “I am an Army veteran.”

Fulcher cited his background as an Idaho farm kid with deep roots in the state, who built a career in high tech before serving in the state Senate for a decade. “I’ve been blessed with a personal resume that frankly, it’s well-suited for this and representing Idaho,” he said.

Soto said, “Wow, well, where do we start? So, Congressman Fulcher and the rest of Idaho’s congressional delegation has never worn the United States military uniform. I think that’s probably the biggest distinction between us.” He also noted his “different background,” including a troubled youth that he surmounted to go to college and work in Congress. “I’ve seen the benefit of government programs that can help with a hand up,” he said. “So we’re on different sides of the spectrum. He’s very anti-government, and I’m very much for good government.” He also noted he’d worked as a congressional aide for longer than Fulcher has served in Congress.

TOP PRIORITY LEGISLATION

Asked their top-priority legislation that they’d like to sponsor and get passed if elected, Fulcher cited resilient forest legislation he’s co-sponsoring, saying it would allow more local stakeholder input on forest management and “hopefully cut back on some of the wildfires, clean up some of the underbrush and get some economic activity.”

Soto said he wants to work on legislation to make health care more affordable and accessible, along with extending rural broadband access. With Democrats likely to maintain control of the House, he said, “To have one member of the delegation be a moderate Democrat, a centrist Democrat, would be a big boost for our state, because I would have the ear of leadership.”

Evans said his first priority would be to repeal the 2001 and 2003 authorizations for use of military forces that authorized the Afghanistan war, the War on Terror, and the Iraq war. Repealing those, he said, “would be the first step in bringing our troops home. That’s one of my main platform issues.”

REPEALING THE ACA

Asked if they favor repealing the Affordable Care Act. Fulcher and Evans said yes, while Soto said no. “I think we need to strengthen it, we need to fix it, we need to shore it up, and we need to expand and enhance it,” he said.

IMMIGRATION

Both Fulcher and Soto cited their personal experience on the nation’s southern border, Fulcher viewing it as a member of Congress and Soto being deployed there as a military policeman. Fulcher called for stepped-up border security and a “merit based” approach to allowing legal immigration. Soto called for comprehensive reform, and noted that his father first came from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant, then attained legal status under President Ronald Reagan’s administration. On his mother’s side, he’s an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

Evans said he supports open borders. “We should literally be letting people in because they want to work,” he said.

WHITE SUPREMACY, EXTREMISM

When asked if they condemn white supremacy, which Idaho has experience with from Aryan Nations activity in North Idaho that drew national attention over the years, Soto and Evans said yes. Fulcher said he condemns “any race supremacy.”

Soto criticized Fulcher for skipping a recent vote on a resolution to condemn the QAnon conspiracy. “All the people who were supportive of that movement were voting along the same lines — it was like a not-present vote,” Soto said.

Fulcher said, “The purpose of that bill was to try to create a story line and attack the president.”

The conspiracy claims that President Trump is leading the fight against a deep-state child sex trafficking ring run by liberals.

Fulcher said he believes 2020 will go down in history as “a real turning point,” because, “We’ve got a significant conflict within this country, and at the root of it I believe we have those who believe we should maintain our traditional representative republic, and we have a very strong opposing force that would like to see that system change into a much more socialist model,” which he said he’d oppose.

Soto said, “I’m running for everyday Idahoans, Americans. People are struggling to make ends meet. They’re simply seeking a fair shot at the American dream. I have experience overcoming a great deal of challenges.”

Evans said he viewed his participation in the Idaho Debates as “historic,” both for him and for the Libertarian Party, whose presidential candidate, Jo Jorgensen, visited Idaho for a campaign stop in Meridian last month. “What we’re looking for: Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness,” Evans said, “and all of those are made much more available through deregulation at the federal level.”

The Idaho Debates is a collaborative effort among the Idaho Press Club, Boise State University's School of Public Service, University of Idaho's McClure Center, Idaho State University's Department of Political Science, League of Women Voters' Voter Education Fund, and Idaho Public Television.

NOTE: This article has been updated to correct the name of the bill Fulcher discussed voting against; it was the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, not the CARES Act.

The Idaho Debates will feature the 2nd Congressional District race at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 12; and the U.S. Senate race at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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