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Tuesday,  July 16 , 2024

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Does Lauren Boebert have her GOP primary locked up — or will a lesser-known candidate break out?

By John Aguilar and Seth Klamann, The Denver Post
Published: June 16, 2024, 11:04am

Money. Incumbency. Near-universal name recognition.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert has uncorked a powerful political brew in her quest to clear a field of five Republican primary opponents, all of whom have deeper roots in Colorado’s easternmost district than the second-term congresswoman.

That time-tested formula has given Boebert, less than half a year after she abandoned her western Colorado seat to run in the 4th Congressional District, a substantial advantage in the June 25 primary election, said Republican political analyst Kelly Maher. The GOP field is simply too numerous — and too susceptible to vote splitting — to keep Boebert from soaring over the top, she said.

“She could win it with a (vote share) in the late 20s,” Maher said. “I don’t see a path for anyone else.”

That Boebert may have it all but locked up, in the estimation of several political observers and limited public polling, is just the latest turn in a tumultuous race set off on the Eastern Plains last fall by the retirement announcement of longtime U.S. Rep. Ken Buck. The congresswoman made her surprise district switch weeks later, joining a crowded field that has refused to consolidate enough to present a single strong alternative to Boebert — though her opponents aren’t ready to concede yet.

If there’s a surprise in store at the end of June in the sprawling 4th District, Boebert’s strongest financial competitor suggests it lies in the suburbs south of Denver.

Former conservative radio host Deborah Flora, the only other woman in the contest, said assumptions about Boebert’s advantages ignore the shifting demographics of the district and its heavy Front Range suburban component. Nearly half of the 21-county district’s electorate resides in Douglas County alone — Flora’s home for a half-dozen years.

“There is greater acceptance of Boebert in rural areas. But in the suburbs, they are more averse to the drama we’ve seen,” Flora, 58, said in an interview last week at a meet-and-greet event in Parker. “A lot of people are talking about this being a two-woman race.”

The drama surrounding Boebert hit its apex in September, when the congresswoman was tossed from a performance of “Beetlejuice” after audience members complained about her vaping, groping her male companion and recording the performance in Denver’s Buell Theatre.

It all has John Manka fed up.

The Larkspur Republican, who came to see Flora at her Parker event, said the 37-year-old Boebert has “gone Hollywood,” showing more interest in playing to the cameras and hurling invectives than in governing.

“Deborah is much better poised. She is very knowledgeable — and no baggage,” Manka said. “She represents what the Republican Party should be.”

But that may not be how every voter in the 4th District primary feels, if a poll released last week by Florida-based Kaplan Strategies is to be believed. It showed Boebert with a gargantuan lead over her Republican opponents — amassing 40% support from a sample of 343 likely primary voters, while her closest competitor mustered no more than 5%. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

The survey, conducted May 31 using online and text responses, found that 40% of respondents remained undecided. But Kaplan, which gets a generally reliable pollster rating from data journalism outlet FiveThirtyEight, noted: “Importantly, 44% of undecided voters indicate they might consider voting for Boebert.”

It’s the latest sign that Flora and fellow candidates Richard Holtorf, Mike Lynch, Jerry Sonnenberg and Peter Yu are struggling to emerge.

Holtorf, a 59-year-old state representative who promotes himself as “pugnacious” and “a fighter” on the campaign trail, hasn’t held back in criticizing Boebert as a carpetbagger who is “running from a fight on the Western Slope,” as he told The Denver Post in January. A third-generation cattle rancher who lives near Akron, Holtorf said voters won’t choose someone to represent them in Congress who only recently made the district her home.

“She wants to be a celebrity. She wants to be on TV, write a book,” he said of Boebert, who moved earlier this year from Silt, near Rifle, to Windsor, southeast of Fort Collins. “Colorado doesn’t want a celebrity; they want a congressperson to lean in and represent them. And not try to be a showboat. And I’m that person.”

The Trump factor

Colorado’s 4th District has been serving up a cavalcade of twists and turns since the five-term Buck announced in November that he wouldn’t run for reelection. In late December, Boebert said she would seek Buck’s seat.

Boebert made the move after it became apparent that her prospects for reelection in the 3rd Congressional District, which she has represented since 2021, had substantially dimmed. Her Democratic opponent, who came within a whisker of beating her in 2022, was far outraising her on the money front. And several fellow Republicans had thrown their hats into the ring to try and bring her down in the June primary.

Then, in March, Buck announced he wouldn’t finish out his term, resigning his post more than nine months before the start of the next Congress. His departure triggered a special election to fill the 4th District seat for the rest of the year — an election that shares the ballot with the primary race.

Former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez, a Republican, is taking on Democratic labor activist Trisha Calvarese for the temporary post. Should he win, Lopez has pledged to serve as a placeholder until a new member of Congress is elected in November.

Not so for Calvarese, who’s also vying to be on the November ballot, regardless of whether she wins the special election. In the primary for the next term, she faces two Democratic rivals — military vet Ike McCorkle and engineer and machinist John Padora — on June 25.

The district’s political breakdown is the most favorable to the GOP out of the state’s eight congressional districts, with 37% of voters affiliated as Republicans, 18% as Democrats and 44% unaffiliated — meaning any Democrat faces a formidable mathematical hurdle.

A big question in sorting out the GOP field for the fall is the impact of former President Donald Trump on the race. He endorsed Boebert in the 4th District, calling her a “trusted America First Fighter.”

Boebert has separated herself from her GOP rivals by unabashedly adopting a hardline “deport-them-all” refrain on illegal immigration, a hallmark issue for the former president. She hasn’t said how far back deportations should go and didn’t respond to a question asking her to clarify the extent of her proposal.

“Everyone knows our system is broken and the first step we need to take is closing the border, building the wall and deporting them all,” she said in a written response to questions from The Post. “This is the top issue this election cycle by far.”

That’s not a policy embraced by her Republican opponents. Flora called a wholesale deportation strategy “not serious.” It’s critical to secure the border, she said, “so those who are coming here for the right reasons can benefit.”

Yu, 52, a Windsor businessman who has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and House in Colorado, said deportations should be for those “who came to America illegally and are not contributing to America.”

He pointed out in an email response to questions that the country needs immigrant workers, “especially in our manual labor positions and rural farm areas.” Agriculture is a critical sector in the 4th District, which encompasses nearly 27,000 square miles of farmland from the Wyoming border to the Oklahoma state line and from the Front Range to Kansas’ western flank.

“That is why America needs to have a true guest-worker visa program that allows immigrants to come legally and work and pay taxes,” Yu wrote. “This will assist farmers who have informed me that they need workers to maintain their labor needs.”

Lynch, 55, a state representative who describes himself as an “FFA kid” who “grew up rural,” called Boebert’s mass-deportation concept “silly” during a televised debate in late May. He echoed the idea that many Colorado farmers rely on foreign workers to plant and harvest their crops every year.

Lynch, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who lives in Wellington, is a fan of Trump’s policies but eschews the MAGA — or “Make America Great Again” — moniker, conceding to Boebert the voters who “will blindly follow anything Trump.”

“I’m running as a guy that supports Donald Trump because he is our nominee. And I love his policies,” he said. “I also realize that unaffiliated voters are not big fans of Donald Trump. So I’m kind of running that line there.”

Trump lost to now-President Joe Biden in Colorado by 13.5 percentage points in 2020.

Sonnenberg, 66, a former state senator who’s now a commissioner in Logan County, called Boebert’s deportation pitch “red meat for the base” but said it would be “virtually impossible to deport them all.” The Sterling farmer and rancher often mentions that he lives in the same house that his father was raised in.

He echoed some other candidates’ chief criticism of Boebert: that she’s bombastic, but not effective.

“If you want someone that’s flamboyant and on TV and screams at the president during the State of the Union, I’m not that guy,” he said, referring to a past Boebert moment. “When it comes right down to it, I’m confident that the people in the 4th understand what it’s like to be represented by someone who actually lives in the district.”

Winnowing went nowhere

Sonnenberg called the race to June 25 an “uphill climb,” given Boebert’s overwhelming name recognition. And her fundraising prowess compared to the rest of the field puts her in a “very good place,” he conceded.

In the first quarter of 2024, Boebert raised more than $460,000, giving her a campaign balance of nearly $1 million as of March 31. All told, she had tallied more than $3.4 million in contributions this election cycle, most of which she raised in the 3rd District.

Among Boebert’s closest fundraising competitors, Flora landed nearly $180,000 in the first three months of the year and had more than $167,000 cash on hand as of the end of March. Sonnenberg raised $158,000 during the same period and ended with more than $224,000. The next campaign finance reporting deadline is Thursday.

The GOP field in the 4th District had as many as a dozen or so candidates jockeying for position until it settled at six contenders in April, following the party assembly and verification of petition signatures by state election officials. Sonnenberg said the idea of winnowing the field even further to give Boebert a formidable rival was discussed by several of the candidates in recent weeks.

“It would be a different story head-to-head,” said Maher, the Republican analyst.

But it never happened. And now it’s too late, she said: “It needed to be done before the ballots were printed.”

Ballots began landing in voters’ mailboxes last week.

Sandra Hagen Solin, a Loveland-based Republican political and policy strategist, was at a recent event that Boebert attended. The congresswoman, she said, exuded “celebrity status” as she shook hands and took pictures with people.

“In that moment, I thought: ‘Yeah, this is done,’ “ said Solin, who is unaffiliated with any campaign but has donated to Lynch. “If other candidates had been there, no one would’ve known them from Adam.”

Trump has turned negative publicity about his multiple legal challenges and other controversies into political capital, Solin said, and Boebert has done much the same.

“It would seem that in a typical political environment, circumstances like (the) ‘Beetlejuice’ (ejection) and the other follies that have followed her would diminish her standing within the congressional district,” Solin said. “She’s been able to withstand any sort of pushback against her, much the same way Trump is continuing to build support.”

In fact, the recent Kaplan poll found that Boebert’s character and judgment were held in higher regard by voters than when the firm last surveyed the district four months ago — shifting from a 31% positive assessment in February to 41% now. Her negatives on that question slid from 45% to 30% in that time.

Boebert has repeatedly apologized for her behavior at the Buell Theatre, saying during a televised debate late last month that she has “owned up to my night out in Denver.”

“I’m not going to continue living life in shame and being beaten up by it,” she said.

Voters are turning to her, Boebert told The Post in her response to its questions, because they are concerned about real issues affecting the country — and their district. Her sponsorship of the Pueblo Jobs Act, signed into law in December, will provide 1,000 jobs for constituents in her current district, she said.

Boebert also claims to have secured $20 million in infrastructure and water projects for Colorado and often boasts of her role in shutting down the Biden administration’s unpopular Disinformation Governance Board.

“I’m hearing the same concerns in the 4th that I hear across Colorado and across America: our southern border is wide open, inflation is out of control, our rural communities are being regulated into poverty, and we don’t have enough fighters in Congress who will actually vote the way they campaign,” she said.

Even so, Boebert came under attack last month from both Holtorf and Lynch, who accused the congresswoman during a debate of having passed little in the way of legislation during her more than three years in Congress.

Overall, the six GOP primary candidates agree on many issues, including continued support for Trump after his criminal conviction last month, for repealing the Affordable Care Act and for passing a balanced budget amendment. But Boebert stood alone in both voting down aid for Israel and Ukraine and asserting that she would still vote to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

“They want a fighter”

Several candidates not named Boebert say they’re just ramping up their media campaigns now, as the primary election moves into view. Sonnenberg said his campaign recently spent $65,000 on TV, radio and social media ads. Lynch said his campaign has been “literally everywhere, all the time.”

Yu said he has spent eight hours a day for the last five months knocking on at least 500 doors each day, reaching what he estimates to be more than 35,000 voters face-to-face.

Holtorf said it’s about campaigning hard.

“So many (candidates) to choose from — a lot of people are still trying to figure this out,” he said. “A lot of people have not made up their mind.”

But Steve Peck, chair of the Douglas County Republican Party, says edging out Boebert is a tall order — perhaps too tall. He stressed that he’s staying neutral in the race, given his role in the party.

“I think it just boils down to — even though she’s not an incumbent from this seat — it’s incredibly strong” to have that status, said Peck. “It’s a combination of high name ID, having access to the committees and votes, political intel and then, of course, donors. Donors want to back a strong horse.”

He’s been telling Republicans to keep hammering immigration, inflation, and law and order as campaign issues.

“I guess the bottom line is CD4 is a very red district,” Peck said. “The base of the Republican Party has been demanding change for a long time, and we don’t feel like we’ve been heard. People like Lauren Boebert and Donald Trump acknowledge the base. They hear the base. They don’t say one thing and do the other.”

Douglas County Commissioner George Teal sees it similarly. He initially backed former state lawmaker Ted Harvey in the primary. When Harvey didn’t make the cut, he turned to Boebert.

“Four of every 10 Republicans I’m talking to love Lauren,” he said. “It’s not a majority, but it’s an absolute plurality. Lauren — they love what she says, they love the issues she’s willing to die for.”

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While Flora pushes the notion of a big-tent Republican Party — the 12-year KNUS talk radio host is fond of calling herself a “Reagan Republican” — Teal isn’t sure that’s what the voters seek this time around.

“I don’t think that Reagan-era statesman is what these Republican voters of the 4th Congressional District want right now,” he said. “They want a fighter.”