Some Republicans looking for a Boebert alternative ahead of 2024

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mesa County is part of the 3rd Congressional District, in which incumbent Republican 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 here on Hwy. 50 south of the city, are hard to miss.

Worried about the surprisingly close 2022 election and disturbed by another national news cycle focused on her public behavior, some Republican leaders in Western Colorado are taking the unusual step of lining up behind an alternative to Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. 

County commissioners, donors and the state's last Republican governor have come out to support attorney Jeff Hurd of Grand Junction in his primary challenge to represent Colorado’s 3rd district. 

“I think the 3rd congressional district deserves a sincere and hardworking member of Congress who will advance Colorado values with character and with integrity,” Hurd told CPR News. But he readily acknowledges how difficult it is to unseat an incumbent. “I recognize that I'm definitely the underdog here, at least to start.”

Still, he thinks people are hungry for a different approach. “Someone who doesn't demonize those who disagree, and someone who is a serious negotiator on issues that matter to Colorado.”

Hurd has never run for office before and lacks the name recognition Boebert has. But that name recognition may be doing her more harm than good with some voters these days. 

“Look at what happened in the last general election. The Republican voters, they decided they weren't going to vote for personalities, and the Democrats decided they were going to vote against personalities,” Delta County Commissioner Don Suppes said. “I think we reached the point that we need a statesman to run for this seat and we need somebody that's not going to have any external baggage.” 

Suppes is among the growing handful of local officials on the Western Slope who’ve officially endorsed Hurd. Others include Rio Blanco County Commissioner Ty Gates and Mesa County commissioners Bobbie Daniel and Cody Davis. Even more prominently, Bill Owens, governor of Colorado from 1999 to 2007, announced he's backing Hurd over Boebert.

For many of them, the final straw was what’s become known as “the Beetlejuice incident,” when the second-term congresswoman was recorded carrying on at a showing of the musical at Denver’s Buell Theater.

"Over the last two-and-a-half years, I've done my best to defend the record of Congresswoman Boebert," said Mesa County commissioner Cody Davis. "Haven't always been a fan of her style by any means. But what she did at Beetlejuice… it wasn't a simple mistake. I've had a lot of supporters of Lauren reach out to me: ‘Well, she made this mistake, worship forgiveness,’ all of this. But, to be honest, this wasn't just a simple mistake. This was kind of a violent departure from normal, from statesmanship, from character… you name it.” 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican Mesa County Commissioner Cody Davis, in his office in Grand Junction.

Along with endorsements, money has poured in to back his challenge. Hurd reported raising over $412,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter after jumping into the race on August 16. Some of those contributions came from well known Republicans, like former Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and former University of Colorado President Bruce Benson.

However, while Boebert’s night at the musical has drawn the most attention lately, another matter factors into the calculus for Suppes — 546. That’s the number of votes Boebert won by in 2022 in a district that by most measures leans heavily Republican. 

“The 3rd Congressional District is a pretty important district. The Western Slope of Colorado controls a lot of water, controls a lot of energy, and we need a good reasonable voice in Washington, D.C. The congresswoman barely won her race last year and I don't see those voters coming back after the issue at the theater,” said Suppes.

‘I think they’re speaking for themselves’

The string of endorsements from current and former elected Republicans comes well ahead of the June 25 primary election, giving voters months to decide if they’ll follow those party leaders into Hurd’s camp or stick with the incumbent. 

Mesa County is the biggest population center for Republican voters in this vast district, which covers the western side of the state and stretches as far southeast as Las Animas and Otero counties. Mesa has more than 110,000 active voters, more than 40,000 of whom are registered Republicans.

At the grassroots level, some of the area’s most active conservatives aren’t interested in abandoning Boebert. 

The group Stand for the Constitution has become a local force on conservative and constitutionally minded issues. They’ve backed school board candidates and hosted former Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters after it was announced she was being investigated for tampering with election equipment. 

Tom Keenan is a regular at their Monday meetings at Grand Junction’s Appleton Christian Church. He said Republicans switching to Hurd don’t represent voter sentiment. 

“I think they're speaking for themselves. However, they are coming out of a place that's probably more powerful than I have,” Keenan said.

He noted that the complaints about Boebert were not based on her actual work in congress. 

"If I look at personal issues, we all have them. I have more than one Saturday I woke up wishing I hadn't spent Friday night doing whatever it was I was doing. We (all have) asked for forgiveness. She's asked, and I know her faith, I know she's repented and I know she isn’t going to get caught up in something like that again.” 

While Boebert herself has accepted responsibility for what she did in the theater, Keenan and others at the meeting speculated that the incident was somehow a set-up meant to entrap her.

Stand for the Constitution member Roberta Wilson said she’s pleased with Boebert’s record in congress.

“I think she's tried really hard to do a good job for us here on the Western Slope, And we've seen things come out that she's actually been able to sponsor and get through the Congress,” Wilson said, before drawing a comparison with Democrat Adam Frisch, who narrowly lost to Boebert in 2022. “This other dude that's from Aspen, I think is just horrendous to be even running for the conservative area.” 

Although some of Boebert’s amendments have passed the House, none of her bills have gotten all the way through Congress. She's also claimed credit for getting measures included in appropriations bills that became law, although she voted against them. 

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Colorado U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert at a press conference Tuesday, May 30, 2023, announcing her opposition to the compromise debt ceiling and budget legislation worked out by House Republican leaders and the Biden White House.

Many conservatives were also pleased with her involvement in the fight over Kevin McCarthy’s speakership in January, which won concessions such as a minimum of 72 hours to read bills and allowing a single member to bring a motion to vacate.

The officials that have thrown their support behind Hurd refer to him as a statesman and cite his legal and business background as potential advantages in congress. In response, Keenan said they’re off base in their assessment of what the district needs. 

“I know Jeff, I like him, but he's an attorney. And politics has been filled with attorneys who debate and who want to negotiate. We don't need a negotiator in Congress right now if we're going to save this country,” Keenan said. 

Still, some are open to the idea of a primary debate. Susan Potts believes the endorsements are premature, but generally welcomes the discussion. 

“You know what? If we don't challenge, we're not good people on our side. If we feel we can do better, we should be challenging her,” Potts said. “(Boebert) has to continue to say, 'this is who I am, this is what I'm doing.' And try and not do those other things.” 

Changing tactics this time around

Potts’ prescription for Boebert is exactly what the congresswoman has been trying to do — pivoting from the no compromise, Biden-bashing, partisan MAGA warrior she’s played on the national stage to strike a more district-focused, policy-centered tone in her appearances back home in Colorado.

“We want to talk about the Congresswoman’s track record and what she's accomplished,” said Boebert campaign manager Drew Sexton. He said voters — from her hard core supporters to the unaffiliated — will look past the controversies and focus ultimately on what Boebert’s been able to do while in office. 

He points to her role in changing how the House operates now, as well as her involvement in local issues like water, economic development and trying to delist the gray wolf. Sexton said these examples show that Boebert is listening to her constituents.

“They're not as concerned about what some national outlets may write about this or that. They want to hear about how she's working for them at a legislative level,” he said.

Of the 14 bills Boebert’s introduced so far this Congress, more than half are focused on the district, compared to just under half of her first 14 bills in the last congress. And unlike last term, when she criticized earmarks as corrupt, this year she put in earmark requests, which are a concrete way to get money for projects in the district.

A Republican-control of the House this term has helped too, allowing her to move bills out of committee for the first time.

None of this change in focus is surprising, given how close she came to losing her seat in the last election. But it doesn’t mean there aren't potentially rough waters ahead for her.

“She's a perfect candidate to get challenged in a primary,” explained Elaine Kamark, head of the Primaries Project at the non-partisan Brookings Institute

Kamark said there are two situations where incumbents tend to be at risk in a primary: when they've gotten out of touch with their district, or when they suffer a scandal to the point that voters may fear they could lose the general election. 

The gravity of the Beetlejuice scandal can perhaps be measured in its power to force the usually unapologetic Boebert to apologize. 

“I'm truly sorry for the unwanted attention my Sunday evening in Denver has brought to the community," she said in a statement several days after video of her behavior at the Beetlejuice performance emerged. "While none of my actions or words as a private citizen that night were intended to be malicious or meant to cause harm, the reality is they did and I regret that... I simply fell short of my values on Sunday. That's unacceptable and I'm sorry.”

In spite of her contrition, Kamark said it seems that “the Republican establishment in Colorado, particularly the former governor [Bill Owens], is saying to themselves, ‘Hey, she's damaged goods. We'd better get a new candidate if we want to hold on to this seat.’”

She added that while endorsements don’t necessarily influence voters, it does help challengers with fundraising, which in turn gives them the resources necessary to mount a serious primary challenge. 

Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant and former Colorado GOP party chair, said Boebert’s vulnerability in a general election has been clear ever since her close call last November from a Democrat who got little support from his national party.

He explained that, going into this cycle, “the question was, would there be a credible Republican primary vote opponent to emerge? And I think the answer to that is pretty clear and Jeff Hurd is for real.”

He said there were a lot of Republican voters who were disturbed by Boebert’s behavior during her first term, but stuck with her in 2022.

“I don't think they're going to be there this time. I think that's where the ‘Beetlejuice’ incident really hurt her. I think that tipped a lot of Republicans over in terms of voting for her, not only in a primary, but possibly even a general election,” he explained. 

And for him, it’s less about the vaping and the groping than the words she reportedly told staff as they asked her to leave: “Do you know who I am?”

“That to me, I think, sent a message to the district that she's already been in Washington too long,” he explained. “When you start throwing that kind of a phraseology around, it's arrogant.”

Boebert campaign manager Sexton said her race was always going to attract national attention and lots of challengers, but the campaign will be empowered by grassroots conservatives in the district. About half of the $2 million Boebert has raised this cycle comes from small donors. Hurd only raised $12,000 from small donors.

In a district where registered unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans — and can vote in the primary — grassroots loyalty may not be enough. 

As the incumbent, Boebert does have advantages going into the contest, including national name recognition and the support of the House Republican election arm.

Clark University professor of Political Science Rob Boatright said there are a lot of electoral dynamics that can influence what makes a primary competitive, such as voter turnout, which could work to Boebert’s advantage. 

There will be no statewide offices on the primary ballot in 2024, and the state primary comes in the middle of the summer, months after the presidential one. “People rarely show up to vote because of a House race,” noted Boatright. 

With the primary still eight months away, Hurd has a lot of time to introduce himself to voters, while Boebert will have the months ahead to burnish her record, and hope memories of Beetlejuice fade.