Lauren Boebert has won a second term. Many people, even Republicans, hope it will look different from her first

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mesa County is part of the 3rd Congressional District, in which incumbent Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert is in a race that’s too close to call against Democrat challenger Adam Frisch. Signs of support for her in and around Grand Junction, including these along Interstate 70 near Horizon Drive, are hard to miss.

On Thursday night, on a windy plaza with the U.S. Capitol building lit up behind her, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert faced the camera. She had a triumphant message for her supporters.

“Come January, you can be certain of two things: I will be sworn in for my second term as your congresswoman, and Republicans can finally turn Pelosi's House back into the people's house,” announced the congresswoman joyfully.

But the numeric reality behind that victory speech is that Boebert will likely end up beating Democrat Adam Frisch by fewer than 600 votes, making this one of the closest — if not the closest — House races in the country this year.

And given her national profile and Republicans’ 9-point advantage in the district, the razor-thin margin has many involved in Colorado politics questioning how exactly the race could end up this close. 

“We all thought it was going to be a very, very easy win for Lauren,” said Robert Leverington, chairman of the Republican Party in Pueblo County. But he acknowledged that Boebert’s controversial brand of politics has soured some supporters. 

When Boebert burst on the political scene two years ago and ousted five-term incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton in a primary, Leverington said many people considered her “a breath of fresh air.”

“But over the last two years we've watched her become a little bit more arrogant and condescending, and it kind of highlights her youth and immaturity. And I think that's turned off a lot of voters.”

He said he told her campaign several months ago that he thought Boebert came across as “preachy” in some speeches. 

“I don't think they ever conveyed that to her because she never stopped,” he said. “She just seemed tone-deaf.” 

Beyond the congresswoman’s own style, Republican Allan Thayer of Montezuma County blames some “radical groups” that backed her in that area for turning off local voters. In the June primary, Thayer voted for Boebert’s opponent, state Sen. Don Coram, who he considers a good friend. But he supported Boebert in November. 

Thayer, a small business owner in his late sixties, describes himself as a conservative Republican. He said he likes Boebert’s position, but not her presentation.

“Her principles are good, but she's gotta talk when it's her turn. She's gotta not interrupt other people. She's got to just tone it down,” he said. “I want her to be less caustic to people she's trying to deal with, okay? Because she comes on very, very strong and almost leaning towards radical … Listen to what the other people have to say. Compromise. As long as you still get your way, don't give in.”

Despite his misgivings with her approach, Thayer said he was praying for her to win.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mt. Garfield, caught between fall in the Palisade orchards and a storm rolling in from the northwest, Nov. 10, 2022.

Two years of public fights have polarized voters in Boebert’s district

From vowing to carry her handgun on Capitol Hill to Islamophobic comments about Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, to heckling the president during the State of the Union, Boebert’s controversial actions have captured the attention of people around the country.

Her no-compromise conservative stance excites voters like Mary Anne Hilst from Pueblo West. “She's a hot little girl. She's got some good ideas,” Hilst said.

Republican state Rep. Matt Soper of Delta said he knows a lot of people in the district with that view.

“They love that she carries a pistol, that she tells Democrats the way it is, that she harasses the Left, that she's the conservative response to the Squad and people like AOC,” said Soper. 

Soper’s district covers the western half of Delta County and all of Mesa County, except Grand Junction. He won reelection there with nearly 75 percent of the vote, outperforming Boebert in this deep red area by about 8 points. He said the discrepancy is a sign that, for all that Boebert’s approach appeals to many voters, it isn’t working with everyone. 

“They really don't want their congresswoman's name in the national news, every day. They want someone who's more of a workhorse, not so much of a show horse. And it's that 8 percent that just wants to move away from Trump-style politics,” said Soper.

That’s the case for longtime Republican voter Joanne Eggers from Mesa County, who supported Frisch. She said she could write a book about the things she doesn’t like about Boebert.

“I don't think she's achieved much at all for the Republicans when she's been in office. She could have done a lot better. I don't like her stance on a lot of the issues. And I don't like somebody — a woman — walking around with a gun on her hip, I have to tell you the truth,” she said, laughing.

Similarly, unaffiliated voter Frankie Martinez of Pueblo dismisses Boebert as a ‘mini Trump’, who is more concerned about her political career than the district. Martinez describes herself as a fiscal conservative with more liberal views on social issues, like abortion rights and a separation of religion from public life.

“It's all flash, no substance,” she said of Boebert, “just riling up the angry side and trying to bring about this weird civil war culture war thing that seems to be brewing. And that’s just scary.”

Martinez said she voted for Frisch mostly because she wanted Boebert out of office. However, she was also moved by campaign ads that highlighted Boebert’s vote against the PACT Act, which extended health care to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

“I'm not a veteran, but I hate what this country has done to their veterans. I hate what they've done to their young men, sending them to fight and then not giving them any support on the backside. It just all makes me crazy,” she said. “And so I thought that was very damning.”

But for 32-year-old Joe Price, a Libertarian voter from Grand Junction, Boebert has grown on him. He said when she first came on the scene he was a bit wary because she seemed very “pro-Trump.”  

“I was kinda like, we'll see. But I've since seen statements by her that she's very anti-taxation… and very pro-(Second Amendment) and anti-socialism and that's really what speaks to me.”

He said Boebert was the only Republican he voted for in this election and he would like to see more candidates like her who, in his view, support freedom. 

“You have the right to defend yourself. If you don't have the right to defend yourself, then you're not really free,” he said. “Those are very strong beliefs that Lauren Boebert has, and that I have myself.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Flags fly in the evening sun at Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction, Nov. 10, 2022.

As this year’s election wraps up, Democrats take stock and look forward

The vast 3rd District is Colorado’s largest, covering most of the Western Slope and southern Colorado. Voters come from a mix of small rural communities, cities like Pueblo and Grand Junction, and outdoor recreation tourism areas like Telluride and Durango.

Despite its Republican lean, Boebert’s notoriety quickly attracted a wide field of challengers who hoped to try to turn her into a one-term congress member. A dozen Democrats filed the paperwork to run against her this year, although only three made it all the way to the primary.

Of that field, Frisch, a former currency trader who served eight years on the Aspen city council, pitched himself throughout as a potential coalition-builder. 

“I think we need more moderate people on both sides of the aisle,” he told CPR ahead of the primary. “I think the extremists, especially on the right, are not being helpful for our country's civility. And we need someone who's gonna focus on our district, not on their Twitter account.”

This was Frisch’s first time running for Congress, and he focused on reaching out to unaffiliated voters and disaffected Republicans, even earning the endorsement of Boebert’s Republican primary challenger.

“Twenty years ago he would've been a moderate Republican,” said Scott Beilfuss with the Mesa County Democratic Party. “Now he's a centrist Democrat. You're supposed to be a successful business person, according to the Republicans, and here he was. I mean, we handed it right to them: Here's your person and you should support him.”

While Frisch did much better than the last Democrat who ran against Boebert — losing by a fraction of a percent, compared to six points for the 2020 candidateDemocrats actually voted at lower rates this time around, and they made up less of the district’s electorate

Analysis shows Frisch outperformed Sen. Michael Bennet in the district. But he got slightly fewer votes than Gov. Jared Polis (these figures exclude Eagle County, which can't be calculated as easily because it's split between districts).

Given how close Frisch came to unseating Boebert, Beilfuss expects a lot of national attention and money directed at the district in 2024. 

But he said it could be harder to unseat Boebert; she’ll have two more years to secure her incumbency and presidential election years always have higher turnout. That reality makes this narrow defeat even harder to swallow.

“It's all kicking ourselves that we didn't knock a hundred more doors and do this and that, because with the race, this tide, if we would've went a little harder, we wouldn't be in this situation right now. We'd be winning,” he said.

The next race could end up being a rematch of this year; on Thursday, ahead of conceding the race, Frisch filed paperwork to run again in 2024

One set of voters Democrats may look to for help as they look ahead is Latinos. More than a quarter of people living in the district identify as Hispanic or Latino. It’s a diverse group, ranging from relatively new residents working in the district’s ski towns to families who have called the San Luis Valley home for generations, much longer than Colorado has been a state.

Joe Salazar, a former Democratic state lawmaker with family ties to the San Luis Valley, believes the party needs to do more to connect with these voters to have any hope in two years — and that Boebert’s views on immigration could help. 

“They understand that the immigrant community helps keep a lot of those rural towns up and running, helps keep our ranches and our farms up and running,” said Salazar, who lives in Thornton and is active in progressive politics. “And so every time (Boebert) was throwing barbs at them, those individuals are like, ‘what? These workers are like family to us and they're helping keep us afloat.’”

A recent exit poll indicates that while Latinos overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in Colorado, contributing to the party’s historic sweep of statewide races and pick up of state legislative seats, some of the support did drop off. Overall, Latinos were 7 percent less likely to vote for Democrats in Colorado in 2022 compared with 2020, according to BSP Research’s Gabe Sanchez.

“I think if you don't pay attention to certain groups, then they're gonna lose interest,” said Democrat Michael Archuleta in Grand Junction. He said helping to mobilize Latino voters for the next election is a priority for him. 

“And so we just need to keep that interest going. And I think the next two years are gonna be a tale of what happens.”

Montrose resident Scott Sanders, a Democrat, said that even though Boebert was reelected, he’s still optimistic about his party’s chances next time, especially if Boebert doesn’t change her approach.

“To get this close when people were predicting no chance in hell, does feel pretty good, “ he said. “This should be a wake-up call to represent everyone, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Stina Sieg and Andrew Kenney contributed to the reporting of this story.