A crowded debate as GOP candidates for Colorado’s Fourth Congressional District face off for the first time

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Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert looks at her notes during a GOP debate ahead of the primary for the state’s 4th Congressional District in Fort Lupton, Jan. 25, 2024.

The need to secure the border and reduce the flow of migrants and drugs into the country was the top issue for candidates at the first GOP debate for the 4th Congressional District, the state’s most conservative congressional seat. 

With nine candidates sitting on a stage, it was at times a spirited back and forth. 

The field includes Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who currently represents the state’s 3rd Congressional District. Last year she said she would no longer seek reelection to the seat she narrowly held last cycle, and would instead move to the fourth, a much safer Republican district.

The fourth district covers the Eastern Plains and includes a number of communities along I-25. It’s an open race this year after the incumbent, GOP Congressman Ken Buck, announced his retirement.  

When the seat was redrawn in 2021, Republicans had a more than 25 point advantage, so the winner of the GOP primary here is likely to have an easy path to victory in November. It’s a rare opportunity for a politically ambitious Republican to gain a prominent office in a state where Democrats have been on the rise for more than a decade and control state government. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Former state senators Jerry Sonnenberg, center left, and Ted Harvey, center right, listen to Peter Yu speak at the Republican Women of Weld Debate in Fort Lupton, Jan. 25, 2024.

In addition to Boebert, the candidates in the debate included a handful of current or former state lawmakers: Reps. Mike Lynch and Richard Holtorf, former Sens. Ted Harvey and Jerry Sonnenberg, who is now a Logan County commissioner. Also participating were Weld County Council Member Trent Leisy, radio host and parents rights activist Deborah Flora and two businessmen, Peter Yu and Chris Phelen.

A tenth candidate, Justin Schreiber, a self-described real estate investor and U.S. Army veteran, did not attend. 

At the end of the evening, a straw poll of the crowd, composed mostly of family members, staff and local GOP county party officials and volunteers, gave the debate win to Sonnenberg, followed by Lynch and Flora. Holtorf and Boebert rounded out the top five. 

A few sharp moments

The 90-minute debate, hosted by Republican Women of Weld, was held at a recreation center in Fort Lupton. It lacked the fireworks and political knife-twisting many were anticipating, but it wasn’t without some laughter and a few testy exchanges. 

Two candidates pressed Boebert on her decision to abandon her bid in the third district and move across the state. 

“Can you give the definition of ‘carpetbagger?’” asked Lynch, after the congresswoman made a barb about his DUI arrest that became public last week. The disclosure prompted him to step down as Colorado House Minority Leader just a day before the debate.

Flora noted that Boebert had previously blasted a potential Democratic opponent for living outside the 3rd Congressional District, and asked why her case is any different.

Boebert, who's renting a place in Weld County, said she’s proud to be a new resident of the fourth district. She framed the move as a personal choice, noting her contentious divorce as well as her four sons and infant grandson, who was at the event for the first part of the evening. 

“I'm sorry to bring that up,” said Boebert of her headline-grabbing personal life. “I've tried to put it into a very pretty package and bring my ex-husband lots of honor. But since there is nothing private about my personal life, it is out there and my boys need some freedom from what has been going on.”

When she announced her move, Boebert, who was facing a strong primary challenge and a well-funded Democratic opponent, also said it was to ensure the third district stays in Republican control.

On how many of them have been arrested

The revelation of Lynch’s legal troubles prompted moderators to quiz the candidates on their own run ins with the law. Six of the nine candidates — Boebert, Leisy, Holtorf, Phelen, Sonnenberg, and Lynch — raised their hands to indicate they had been arrested at some point in their lives.

“I've been arrested twice and every time it was for fighting because somebody needed a little attitude adjustment,” said Holtorf. “I told my Dad both times that I was winning until the cops showed up.”

Congresswoman Boebert said she was arrested after missing a court date for a careless driving charge, but did not mention several earlier arrests on minor charges.

But Boebert argued voters aren’t concerned about her personal life. “I am not perfect by any means. In fact, I've wrote a book about many of the things that have gone wrong in my life, but that is part of the American dream.” 

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U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert interviewed by reporters at the CO-04 GOP debate in Fort Lupton, Jan. 25, 2024.

The candidates’ top priorities, if elected

Despite their different backgrounds, this was the biggest area of agreement among candidates. All of them cited the urgent need to harden the southern border against migrants and drug traffickers.

“Immigration is the Number One issue facing America right now. Our country is being invaded,” Harvey told the audience.

Yu, who immigrated to the U.S with his family from China, agreed border security should be the top priority. 

“There's not a city right now that you can't go that there's not migrants living in the streets. You can't find a hospital where the emergency room isn't full. We see our children now being pushed out of their school because of the fact we are not taking care of Americans and it is time to stop that,” Yu said. 

For Phelen, a Castle Rock businessman who formerly worked for Colorado Springs Rep. Doug Lamborn, the concern extends beyond security at the physical border.

“We also need to go after fentanyl at the source. We need to take out the cartels and we need to go after shipments, international waters, take them out in international waters,” said Phelen.

On abortion policy

There was less agreement on whether the federal government should step in to ban abortion across the country. 

“The last thing you want is the federal government running your life,” said Yu. He, along with Holtorf, Lynch, Leisy and Phelen, all said states should have the final say.

“We need to also understand what federalism is,” explained Holtorf. 

For his part, Lynch said abortion is a state’s rights issue, but understands why Colorado Republicans want federal action.

“It's really tempting to think that that's a good idea when you live in the most pro-abortion state in the nation.” 

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State Rep. Mike Lynch listens to radio host Deborah Flora at the Congressional District Four GOP debate in Fort Lupton, Jan. 25, 2024.

Colorado’s abortion laws were exactly why Flora said she would support a federal ban; “because when we live in a state where it is now the abortion vacation destination of the United States of America.” (Colorado has seen a significant rise in patients travelling to the state for abortion)

Harvey also argued for a national policy: “States do not have a right to kill unborn babies. Individuals don't have a right.”

On elections

Boebert and Leisy were the only candidates to raise their hands when asked if the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. 

“There was definitely election interference,” said Boebert. 

Leisy added that he thinks the party needs to be more firmly pro-Trump. 

“We have too many RINO establishments in Congress right now that are not working together because they don't like Donald Trump and they don't want to see him elected as president.”