Bereft of Boebert, 3rd Congressional District Republicans chart new path

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.

What happens when the most recognizable Republican in Colorado hops across the Continental Divide ahead of a nationally anticipated election rematch? Candidates in Colorado’s expansive 3rd Congressional District are finding out. 

Lauren Boebert’s decision to pivot to a new district for 2024 inverted the race from a question of whether Democrat Adam Frisch could close a 546-vote gap in November, to an existential one about who Republicans in Western and Southern Colorado will nominate to see the party forward. 

One group likely to have an important say in the primary race ahead is Stand For The Constitution. The homegrown conservative organization in Grand Junction supported Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk now facing criminal charges related to tampering with election equipment, and has been active at all levels of local politics. They were also backers of Boebert. But with her gone from the race, the group recently hosted five of the eight Republicans currently running for her seat. 

Boebert’s surprise switch went largely unremarked upon by the candidates sitting on the chancel at Appleton Christian Church for the Monday night debate. But, when she came up, it was largely positive. 

“It was three weeks ago tonight, out of the blue, Lauren Boebert gave me a phone call. Sorry fellas, she said that I was her favorite,” Russ Andrews quipped, drawing chuckles from the audience. “Lauren and I have pretty much identical policies.” 

Andrews is a financial advisor from Carbondale. During the evening he voiced his plans to address immigration, proclaimed a willingness to work across the aisle, and repeatedly mused about a novel proposal for a public health crisis. 

“The second (plank of my platform) has to do with the predators that are killing 110,000 American kids of military age every year. Those predators are drug dealers. I say that we need to feed them to our newfound wolves,” Andrews said. 

One of the race’s newest entrants, Fruita resident Joe Granado, was willing to push back on Boebert. He said her behavior in 2023 put the seat at risk, prompting him to run. 

“To me, it was obvious that if Ms. Boebert, as nice a lady as she is, if she were to be our candidate, she would lose,” Granado said. Granado added he began the process of running months ago, but only officially filed his paperwork in February, a month after Boebert switched districts. 

Granado stood out from the other candidates by taking away from some of the starker conservative positions that were popular among the Stand For The Constitution audience. At one point he drew scoffs from the crowd for suggesting Congress should have passed a recent bipartisan immigration reform bill that collapsed.

A Reformed Democrat, a Reagan Republican, and Ron Hanks

Rounding out the Feb. 12 forum were Stephen Varela, Curtis McCrackin, and Ron Hanks. 

McCrackin lives in Cedaredge and noted his first two presidential votes were for Ronald Reagan. He voiced support for mandating disclosure of the source of the money for all political donations, while also repeatedly pointing to issues around national spending. 

“I believe that our constitution basically says Congress can spend our money for three ways: They can provide a common defense, they can provide for the general welfare of the nation and they can pay the debts of the country,” McCrackin said. “If you look at things like the American Rescue Plan Act, that was $1.9 trillion. None of it had the authority from the Constitution to be spent like that.” 

Varela, an Army veteran from Pueblo who serves on the Colorado Board of Education, was previously registered as a Democrat, something he noted early on. 

“I had a lady come up to me one day and ask me if I was woke and I said, ‘yes, I am woke. I went to bed a Democrat and woke up a Republican,’” Varela joked. 

Varela was also the most deliberate in going after former state lawmaker Ron Hanks, who notably moved to the 3rd District after Boebert’s announcement in order to compete for the seat. Hanks has been a prominent figure in Colorado Republican politics of late; he lost to Joe O’Dea in the party’s 2022 primary for U.S. Senate. He also served a term in the state House, as well as attended the pro-Trump rally at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, though Hanks did not enter the building. 

Varela not only pointed out Hanks’ weeks-long tenure in the district but also compared their military service. Hanks served more than three decades in the Air Force. 

Tom Hesse/CPR News
Five of the candidates running in the Republican primary for Colorado's 3rd Congressional District attend a forum hosted by the Grand Junction group, Stand For The Constitution, on Feb. 12, 2024, at Appleton Christian Church in Grand Junction. From left, Russ Andrews, Stephen Varela, Ron Hanks, Curtis McCrackin, and Joe Granado.

“I wasn't an officer like Ron. I always joke I was enlisted, I worked for a living. I was in the stuff,” Varela said, as a part of an answer to a question about national defense. 

Hanks took a few shots back at Varela, noting both his history as a Democrat and the fact he was appointed, not elected, to the board of education. Hanks did not mince words when speaking to the audience. He was the lone candidate to stand when answering questions and painted a grim picture of the country’s politics. 

“I've been a conservative my whole life. I will fight for that until the end. If people don't want to vote for that, I am perfectly happy getting back to the things that need to get done, which are getting ready for the 9/11 moment and the civil war that this miserable, unelected, demented resident in the White House has set us up for,” Hanks said as a part of an answer to a question about making Election Day a holiday and ending mail-in voting. 

Despite his recent arrival in the district, Hanks' attacks on Biden and support for the military found purchase among the audience. Ana Elliott said she has a daughter in the military.

“Because of Ron Hanks’ strong affiliation for the military and love for this country, he's got my vote. He's got my daughter's back, he's got the back of all the veterans in the military in this country, which keeps us safe,” Elliott said. 

Alan R. Story lives in Mack and also supports Hank. Story says he likes Hanks’ plan to eliminate the federal education department.

“They don't educate anybody,” Story said. “It's a building, probably four stories high, a block long, all those people getting paid by taxpayers and not doing a damn thing.” 

The support was not universal, however. Ed Arnos lives in Grand Junction and is still making up his mind. His top issue is election integrity and he said some candidates may be too brash in their desires to overhaul systems. 

“There was a lot of talk tonight first about eliminating the federal Department of Education and then they say, ‘Here's what we have to do in education,’” Arnos said. “They're eliminating the only leverage they have to do anything in education.” 

Break from the Hurd

Three Republican candidates were absent from the Stand for the Constitution event: Austin O’Connell, David Karpas, and Jeff Hurd. While O’Connell and Karpas have not yet begun to campaign in earnest — neither has a campaign website — Hurd is considered by many to be the frontrunner to succeed Boebert. 

That’s in part because Hurd began to rack up endorsements even before Boebert switched districts, getting the nod from prominent county commissioners around the district who broke with Boebert after she was caught on camera at a showing of “Beetlejuice: The Musical.” 

With Hurd absent due to a scheduling conflict, Nova Tucker, a Hurd supporter, read a statement on his behalf explaining why she’s backing the Grand Junction attorney.

“(Hurd) believes that the urban divide is crushing our district and it feels like our best export has become our children. They grow up, they leave home to find careers and raise their family somewhere else,” Tucker said. 

Tucker’s statement also included nods to deregulation and water law. 

‘Tell our message’ 

Boebert’s absence from the race also has implications for the Democrats vying for the seat in November. Anna Stout, the mayor of Grand Junction, recently dropped her primary bid, citing that Boebert was “no longer the third Congressional District’s problem.” 

Meanwhile, Adam Frisch, who racked up astonishing fundraising totals last year from Democrats nationwide in part because of Boebert’s visibility, disputes the notion that his campaign was exclusively anti-Boebert focused. 

“We've been trying to tell people why people should be voting for us, not just against her,” Frisch told CPR News. “And so we feel excited and proud that we chased her out, but also that we can have a clearer path to tell our message.” 

Frisch added that he hasn’t been studying the remaining Republican field to craft how he’s pitching himself to voters this time around.

“The conversation about how everything costs too darn much and trying to get inflation under control and the cost of living remains a conversation regardless of who I'm running alongside or against,” he said. 

One group that will be studying the race, and attempting to influence it in some capacity, is the Grand Junction-based Restore The Balance. The bipartisan group formed after Jan. 6, 2021, to oppose extremism in politics. As such, Boebert and her tactics came up a lot in its discussions. 

Tim Sarmo, Chairman of the Board of Directors, said Boebert leaving for Eastern Colorado doesn’t mean they’ll be closing up shop. They plan to host debates and conduct surveys with candidates of both parties, with the goal of guiding voters toward moderate choices. Sarmo said he’s hopeful that the 2024 field will give voters in the district a chance to demonstrate that moderate candidates can still win these races. 

“I have sensed a moderation on the part of folks in the (Grand) Valley,” Sarmo, who was a longtime Democrat but is now registered unaffiliated, said. “I think that I've seen a movement to center-right from Republican officials and the Republican friends that I have. I think I'm seeing a lot more common sense from the standard bearers of the old Republican party.”