With a massive primary field, Republican hopefuls in the Congressional District Four race clock miles and court delegates to stand out

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Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Republican congressional candidate Deb Flora addresses supporters at a brewery in Parker, during an event to unveil her Women’s Coalition. Flora is one of nine candidates working to appear on the GOP primary ballot for CO-04, March 26, 2024.

The back of a Parker brewpub was packed on a recent weekday afternoon as Republican Deborah Flora rolled out her Women’s Coalition, a group of local elected women backing her bid to represent Colorado’s 4th District in the next Congress.

Flora, a former radio host who has never held office before, made a name for herself as a parental rights activist. She reminded the crowd that they had “stood together from the school board to the statehouse. And now we are ready to stand together in Washington D.C.”

On this day, there was an extra little pep in Flora’s step. She had just found out that she’d officially qualified for the Republican ballot for the primary on June 25. 

The coming days will help determine how many other names are on it with her.

Colorado offers three routes onto the congressional ballot. One is for a candidate to gather 1,5000 valid signatures from Republican voters. Another is to garner 30 percent of the delegate vote at the district assembly. There’s also a hybrid option: both collect the required signatures and put your name in the hat at assembly. That route is a bit of a gamble — a candidate must get support from at least 10 percent of the delegates to qualify, no matter how many signatures they have. 

Eight of the nine Republicans in the CO-04 field have submitted petitions, but many are still waiting in limbo to see if the Secretary of State’s office finds they have enough valid signatures. 

That list includes state Rep. Mike Lynch, businessman Peter Yu, former congressional staffer Chris Phelen, and Floyd Trujillo, who served as the 2020 Trump campaign’s Hispanic co-chair in Colorado. They should all know by April 26.

Using petitions alone to get onto the ballot can be a more certain route to qualifying, but candidates lose out on a chance to build grassroots support with the party’s most fervent foot soldiers. So many of those hopefuls may also put themselves forward at this Friday’s district assembly in Pueblo and gamble on delegate support.

A high-stakes sprint to the primary

The 4th Congressional District is Colorado’s reddest — tilting Republican by around 26 points — which means whoever wins the primary is likely to go to Congress. 

Most of the Republicans in the field right now don’t differ majorly when it comes to policy and outlook. They’re all conservatives and tend to hit the same talking points at forums and campaign stops: the crisis at the border, unacceptable crime rates, and culture war issues like abortion and gun rights.

But while it may be friendly territory for Republicans, the fourth is not an easy place to campaign. It's a vast district, stretching from Wyoming to Oklahoma, with population centers in the suburbs of Douglas, Larimer, and Weld counties, plus the scattered rural communities of the Eastern Plains. 

Flora said, so far, she’s put about 10,000 miles on her car and been to more than 160 events.

“I am the person that's going to be focusing on solutions, not soundbites, not celebrity. I'll be a conservative fighter that people can be proud of and I'll be someone that will resonate far and wide,” she said.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Lauren Boebert, Richard Holtorf, Deborah Flora, Chris Phelen and Jerry Sonnenberg at a Douglas County Republican Women’s candidate forum on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

Flora, like many of the other candidates in this race, is putting extra emphasis on her roots in the district, as a way to draw a clear distinction with the candidate with the most celebrity — and money — in the field: Rep. Lauren Boebert.

The two-term Western Slope representative raised eyebrows all over the political world when she decided to try to switch districts last winter. Now, as she barnstorms across eastern Colorado, Boebert said she recognizes the hill she has to climb to win over voters here.

“This is certainly something I've addressed, maybe, like, 789 times now, but happy to continue the conversation,” she said in response to CPR’s questions. “I understand people's concerns, questions, and I am very honest with folks. This was a family-first decision.”

Her recent divorce and other personal problems have been well documented. But moving to the fourth also puts her in a district that should be easier to win, if she can introduce herself to enough voters to make it to the general election.

“I have attended more than a dozen Lincoln Day dinners, maybe closer to 15. I have been at the debates, I have been at the forums,” she said before a candidate event in Douglas County last week. “And I think being present is the biggest part of being a representative.”

(Boebert’s campaign schedule, and her recent move to Windsor, mean she’s been spending a lot less time in her current district lately, but she told CPR she still fights for the third in Congress.)

On the campaign trail, she’s been highlighting her conservative voting record, as well as how she has fought for the state in Congress, including the push to keep a BLM office in Grand Junction and the state’s effort to hold onto Space Command headquarters.

While she has high-profile endorsements from Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson, Boebert hasn’t been able to lock down the same kind of backing from elected leaders in the district.

“People have friends here, they have their dogs in the race,” Boebert acknowledged. But, she said, “Even folks that are supporting someone else go on and on about my record and how they've supported me in the past, and they're apologizing for not getting there yet.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Justin Brown of Commerce City snaps a selfie with Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. Boebert is running in the 4th Congressional District GOP primary. Brown lives in the 8th District.

Boebert has already made the ballot via petition, but her campaign said she will go the hybrid route. It’s a risk for a relative outsider who doesn’t have the political connections that many of the other candidates have spent years developing.

Instead, some of the highest-profile local endorsements have gone to former state Senator Jerry Sonnenberg. Sonnenberg, who is currently a Logan County Commissioner, has the backing of three previous holders of the seat — Cory Gardner, Wayne Allard Allard, and Hank Brown.

Sonnenberg said the former congressmen “recognize the work that I have done in the legislature as a problem solver, as somebody that can get something done.”

He recently narrowly lost out on the Republican special vacancy bid to fill the rest of Buck’s current term, losing to placeholder candidate Greg Lopez.

Sonnenberg, who has worked as a cattle rancher on his family farm in Sterling, is waiting to find out if he’ll make it onto the primary ballot. He too is taking the hybrid route — he submitted signatures but will also go to Friday’s assembly.

“I think the cream will rise to the top and I hope to be part of that cream,” he said.

The final field should be set soon

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Former state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg addresses the crowd at the Elbert County Republican Assembly on March 30, 2024. Lauren Boebert, Ted Harvey, Deborah Flora and Floyd Trujillo were also at the event.

One of the candidates who Sonnenberg will be competing with for support at the assembly is current state Rep. Richard Holtorf, who is also going the hybrid route.

Holtorf was the first candidate to jump in the race; he was considering a primary challenge to Buck when the incumbent announced his retirement last year. While he’s in his second term at the state capitol, Holtorf is trying to stand out in the crowded field by not being the “establishment candidate.”

He cites his agricultural roots, military service, and his work at the state legislature, where he represents a majority of the counties in the district, as reasons why delegates will support him.

But he also acknowledges that he and the other candidates don’t have the name recognition or national money of Boebert.

“This isn't all about the ‘wow factor,’ in my humble opinion. This is arguably one of the most important elections for Colorado Republicans to make a significant change to our representation in this state,” he said.

Only one candidate – former state Senator Ted Harvey, who most recently ran an anti-Joe Biden SuperPAC, skipped the petition route entirely to try to get on the ballot via assembly. That means Friday he’ll need at least 30 percent backing from delegates to stay in the race. If he wins it, though, he’ll also secure top billing on the primary ballot.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Deborah Flora, Richard Holtorf, Ted Harvey, Lauren Boebert and Jerry Sonnenberg, who are all running for the GOP nomination for the 4th Congressional district, get ready to address the crowd in Stratton, Colo., on March 26, 2024.

“I think that the grassroots who get to meet the candidates and know the candidates and find out who they are and what the issues are, that is what politics should be about,” said Harvey, who told CPR he doesn’t believe in the petition process.

Harvey has also run for Congress before in 2008. But his story is a reminder of the limits of assembly support; while he did well with delegates, he finished third in the Republican primary.

Still, the small and influential group of Republican activists who will gather Friday for the district assembly could have a major say in who the district sends to Washington next year.