By Jesse Bedayn/AP/Report for America
Fleeing a tough reelection bid in the district where she lives, Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert is moving from the mountains to the plains, in the hopes of finding conservative pastures green enough to salvage her place in Congress.
To win, she'll have to convince a new swath of voters that her brand of white-hot, far-right political activism — built on divisive one-liners and partisan ferocity in the U.S. House — is more needed in Washington than the home-grown Republicans she now faces in the primary.
While Boebert's new district voted for President Donald Trump by a nearly 20 percentage point margin in 2020, more than double the margin in her old district, and some Republican voters are already admirers, others are greeting her with hands-on-hips skepticism.
“She feels she is a better candidate than the ones that we have,” said Robin Varhelman, seated behind a desk at the cattle auction she owns in Brush. “She’s gonna have to explain to people why.”
Varhelman, flanked by the massive head of a bull named Big Red she used to rope, with a cap reading “USA Trump” hanging from its right ear, said she wasn’t sure if Boebert made the switch for the good of the state or her own survival.
After Boebert eked out a victory by just 546 votes in 2022, her home district moved from Republican-leaning to a toss-up for 2024 — threatening the GOP’s already threadbare control of the U.S. House.
The narrow margin in Congress leaves both major parties fighting fiercely for every available seat in 2024. Boebert's move to the new district, where she'll have to take on at least nine other Republicans for her party's nomination, probably gives the GOP a better chance to win both.
That's part of her reason for switching, she said in a phone interview, but she gave another reason for jumping into a race that's already considered safely Republican: “There is need for my voice in Congress."
After attacking the Democrat who nearly upset her in 2022 as the beneficiary of outside money, Boebert has become the outsider and will have to live down the “carpetbagger” label that her new opponents are already lobbing her way.
Boebert’s abdication came after a video surfaced last year of the congresswoman vaping and groping with a date in a Denver theater, which rattled even devoted supporters as she barreled toward an election rematch against Adam Frisch. The Democrat she nearly lost to in 2022 had received triple her campaign donations in this year’s race, benefiting tangibly from her disruptive profile, which grated on donors far beyond state and district borders.
“I can read the tea leaves,” Boebert said. “I don’t want the left to have a chance to buy the seat from us, and their only argument is me.”
Number crunchers, political experts and the National Republican Campaign Committee generally agree that Boebert’s exodus will give Republicans a better chance to retain that district — though newly elected NRCC Chair Rep. Richard Hudson said the organization had no hand in the decision.
Frisch said he’s “taking a bit of a victory lap” after Boebert's retreat, and is plugging ahead with the same bipartisan platform, buoyed by at least $7.7 million in his campaign coffers. Frisch is expected to face Jeff Hurd — a mild-mannered conservative in the old GOP tradition, who said his goal is “making local headlines, not national headlines.”
In Boebert’s new district, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson has endorsed her candidacy, and the NRCC is treating her as an incumbent. Less happy with the switch is Republican state Rep. Richard Holtorf, now one of her opponents.
“By Lauren Boebert district shopping and becoming a carpetbagger so she can keep her office in D.C., she has now become part of the swamp,” he said.
Whether Boebert will join the ranks of American politicians who have relocated and won remains unclear.
That road is littered with many who “could never quite convince voters that they were in this for something other than their own ambition,” said Christopher Galdieri, a politics professor at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, who wrote a book on American politicians who’ve picked up and moved races.
Boebert does have some things working in her favor — she’s not leaving Colorado, she’s a known conservative gladiator on national issues such as immigration and reducing the national debt, and she’s a dedicated acolyte for Trump, whose popularity among rural Republicans remains high.
Rancher Dawn Whitney, who attended one of Varhelman’s recent auctions, said Boebert’s flag-bearing for conservative, Christian and agrarian values is already enough to earn her vote.
“Ranchers and farmers are pretty much the same everywhere,” said Whitney, her calloused hands busy at a word search puzzle as the auctioneer chanted.
“As long as she is country related, I think she’ll be fine,” said Whitney, who cited a well-worn reason voters cling to Boebert: Rural residents often feel their political power slipping and see an outspoken champion in Boebert.
“She don’t back down,” she said.
Still, Boebert is joining a race that is practically guaranteed to elect a Republican anyway, said Galdieri. In effect, that means she’s pushing aside “homegrown options” to run in a safer district.
“Voters notice that,” he said.
While some voters — even if they chafed at Boebert’s style — weren’t as miffed that she changed districts, the June Republican primary is where her opponents can do the most damage. Along with Holtorf, she’ll face Mike Lynch, minority leader in Colorado’s House of Representatives.
“I was a fan of Lauren Boebert when she first got there,” he said. “And then I think, for lack of a better term, she drank the Kool-Aid and became what she was fighting.”
Lynch is facing troubles of his own, after revelations about a 2022 DUI arrest led members of the House GOP caucus to try to oust him as minority leader this week. The no confidence vote deadlocked 9-to-9, allowing Lynch to hold onto his leadership position.
Boebert’s retort is unwavering.
“If there’s anyone who takes on the swamp, it’s me," she said. “I’m the only candidate in this race who’s actually done the work."
Nodding to part of the challenge ahead, she added, “I’m excited to meet people and learn more about the nitty gritty local issues.”
While a segment of the new district’s voters is in a more urban center south of Denver, the region stretches across Colorado’s prairie east of the Rocky Mountains — where some folks’ great-grandparents ate dinner beneath tablecloths during the Dust Bowl. A half-century ago, grandparents wrestled their calves out of blistering winter chills, just as their descendants were doing this week, and as their own children will do as long as things hold steady.
Though Boebert might be escaping tough electoral odds, voters in the new district hold tight to the traditional values borne from that history — the same values that Boebert stepped on in the groping episode at a musical production of “Beetlejuice" in Denver.
That embarrassment was memorable enough to transcend district lines.
“I don’t really care either way what she does, but she’s definitely got to get some sh— together, getting thrown out of a theater,” said Mark Moorman, a Republican who bid at auction on a bull the size and weight of a small car.
Before she switched districts, Boebert had apologized up and down Colorado’s 3rd district as part of her last-ditch strategy against Frisch. She’d undertaken a local press tour and grassroots boot camps geared to emphasize her work on local issues.
Now, on new turf, “that’s totally out the window,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics in Denver. “She’s the national politics candidate. That is her weakness; that is her strength. She kind of has no choice.”
It’s the difference between Republican voter Debbie Spear — “She’s going to have the same target on her back wherever she goes, here, there, Texas. We don’t need that, what is she going to bring more than the candidates we have?” — and the passerby at a ranching store nearby, who shouted out: “The girl from Rifle? Hell, yeah.”
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
CPR News contributed to this report.
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