House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston is in a redrawn district that helps Republicans and says he's working hard to fend off Ron Paul Republican Daniel Santiago, who advocates repeal of taxes on tobacco, beer, wine and spirits.
"I've built a campaign plan, I've been more diligent about raising money, I'm doing more canvassing and identifying voters so we can do absentee pushes at get-out-the-vote activities," said the retired physician who is seeking a fifth term.
With the retirement of Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai of Pocatello, Rusche, 61, is Idaho's highest-ranking Democrat. Knocking him off would immediately make the 27-year-old Santiago a GOP star.
"I love challenges," said Santiago, who is hoping support from a national group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, can help him overcome Rusche's financial advantage. Santiago said he's part of an RSLC push to elect Hispanic Republicans. He said the group has provided in-kind assistance so far.
Santiago is an information technology specialist for Ida Vend Broadcasting, which owns three radio stations in Lewiston and six stations in Moscow. He reported raising just $35 from two contributors through June 13. Rusche began 2012 with about $14,400 and has raised another $10,800 and has $16,900 in the bank.
Santiago should benefit from the addition of Lewis County to District 6, which for the last decade had been comprised of only Nez Perce County, where voters elected Democrats and moderate Republicans like former Sen. Joe Stegner. Lewis County is more Republican, though Rusche said he's been working hard to reach voters, attending Prairie Days in Nezperce, the Craigmont Picnic and Parade and Winchester Rodeo.
Santiago, who is called "Danny" by friends, has been a GOP precinct committeeman since being appointed in 2007. His libertarian leanings include calls for repeal of taxes on alcohol and tobacco and elimination of tax exemptions.
Santiago conceded that lifting sin taxes would stimulate sales of products with high social costs. "But that's a side effect of being fair and honest," he said. "Taxes were created for everybody or no one. Taxes shouldn't be created to punish a certain group, religion or ethnic base. And that's what sin taxes do, they punish a certain group."
His support of Ron Paul for president is something of a sore point. I had to ask three times before Santiago affirmed his support of Paul by name. First, he said, "That's my personal choice. Then, "I supported my candidate and it's unfortunate they didn't win."
Finally, I asked if he was ashamed to be a Pauler. "I'm not ashamed to say I supported Ron Paul. I've just gotten the feeling from most media outlets that nobody likes to paint any picture well of somebody who supported Ron Paul, that they're a crazy. It's quite frankly not the case. I've noticed even from Romney's camp, he's saying a lot of the same things that Ron Paul has said and saying to do the exact same things. He's just saying them a lot softer."
Santiago says he's supporting Romney as the GOP's nominee. "Frankly, he's far better than the alternative."
Rusche said he's well aware that defeating him would be considered a spectacular coup in some GOP circles, citing his rattling cages on ethics, support of a health insurance exchange and Obamacare and opposition to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's "Students Come First" laws.
But Rusche said Lewis County is more moderate than many think and Nez Perce County remains solidly moderate: "I don't know that Danny's a really good match for the district, but like I said, I'm not going to take it for granted."
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