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Editor's note: This is the first of two stories on the candidates running for the 1st Congressional District seat in the May 19 primary. The second part on Sunday, by Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell, will examine the race between GOP Rep. Russ Fulcher and his primary challenger, Boise businessman Nicholas Jones.

Democrats have won Idaho’s 1st Congressional District seat only three times in the past 50 years, but that isn’t stopping two more hopeful candidates from taking another shot.

University of Idaho law student Staniela Nikolova faces former congressional staffer Rudy Soto in the May 19 Democratic primary.

The winner will move on to the November general election, where they’ll face Libertarian Joe Evans, along with the winner of the Republican primary contest between first-term incumbent Rep. Russ Fulcher and Boise entrepreneur Nicholas Jones.

The 1st Congressional District covers the northern/western half of Idaho.

Nikolova and Soto both bring wide-ranging work experiences to their quest for the job. Nikolova worked in retail, customer service, inventory management and as a lab technician, as well as at a salmon processing facility in Alaska. Soto worked in suicide prevention and child welfare services before becoming a congressional staffer and legislative director of the National Indian Gaming Association; he also served nearly 10 years in the Army National Guard.

A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and son of a Mexican immigrant, Soto grew up in the Nampa area and later moved to Portland. He is the first person in his family to graduate from college.

“I grew up with a lot of family struggles and ended up getting into trouble,” he said. “I bounced through the juvenile correction system, but fortunately there was a support system and services to help me overcome those challenges.”

Watching his father die from cancer in 2014 was a driving factor in his decision to run for Congress.

“He got laid off from Simplot and was priced out of (private) health care plans,” Soto said. “If Medicaid expansion had been in place, maybe things would have been different. But he passed away abruptly because he wasn’t screened (for cancer).”

As a congressional staffer for Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., and congressional fellow in the office of Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., Soto did outreach and educational work on the Affordable Care Act, which authorized the expanded Medicaid program.

After the Idaho Legislature repeatedly rejected expanded Medicaid, voters finally took matters into their own hands and enacted the program through a 2018 ballot initiative.

“That really inspired me, seeing people put party aside and choose to look out for each other,” Soto said. “It motivated me to run. I want to fight for people like my dad, people who just want to work and start a family and own a home — who want a chance at the American Dream.”

His top issues include health care, education and infrastructure.

Like Soto, Nikolova cites health care and education as two of her priorities. Also like Soto, she believes health care is a basic human right and favors some type of health-care-for-all system.

However, she sees universal care as more of a long-term goal. As an interim step, she’d like to provide a basic level of health care for American children.

“I’d like to use taxpayer dollars to fund health care, dental and vision care for children under 18,” Nikolova said. “That would address a lot of long-term (chronic) medical problems and give them a good start in life. It’s also a way to transition to a health-care-for-all system; we could start out with a smaller pool of people and see where the problems are.”

She thinks Congress — and the nation as a whole — also need to “prioritize people over profits.”

“As a capitalist society, I understand how amazing it is that people can start their own business and foster growth,” Nikolova said. “But I also think a lot of decisions made the past 10 years don’t prioritize the American people. Making decisions that are value-based, rather than partisan-based, is really important to me.”

Nikolova initially ran for the 1st Congressional District in 2016, after watching several congressional hearings where members of Congress dismissed the dangers posed by climate change. She remembers one senator (Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.) bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor as evidence that climate change was a hoax.

“I thought it was absurd that we had representatives like that,” said Nikolova, who has three Bachelor of Science degrees from the University of Idaho. “I didn’t understand why we didn’t have more competent people in Congress.”

She enrolled in UI’s law school after the 2016 campaign because she felt she needed a better understanding of the law and the principles on which the country was founded. Now she’s ready to bring her legal and scientific background to bear on issues affecting Idaho.

“I think we (she and Soto) agree on a lot of issues,” she said. “But I have the scientific framework, everyday work experience and legal training that helps make me a more clear, concise legislator. I think I’m the ‘all-package’ candidate. With me, people get someone who is extremely passionate about everything they do, who is well-informed and a jack-of-all-trades.”

Soto said his life experiences make him the better choice for voters.

“My life has been all about overcoming incredible odds,” he said. “I’ve already accomplished the American Dream for myself, by breaking out of the cycle (of poverty). Poverty, the criminal justice system, immigration, veterans issues — I understand those things in a way most members of Congress don’t. I think we need more people in Congress with lived experiences, who can help tackle the tough problems.”

In an effort to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, the May 19 primary will be conducted entirely by absentee ballot.

That means anyone who wants to vote in the election must fill out an absentee ballot request form. Registered voters should already have received the forms in the mail; anyone who still needs a form, or who needs to register to vote, can visit idahovotes.gov/vote-early-idaho/. The forms can also be returned by mail, or in person at the local county elections office.

The deadline for registering to vote and for returning an absentee ballot request form is 8 p.m. May 19. The ballots themselves must be returned by June 2 at 8 p.m., at which time the votes will be tallied.

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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