The race for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District was never supposed to be this close, not during a midterm election expected to heavily favor Republicans and in such a deep-red district, largely along the state’s Western Slope.
Polls and politicos said far-right incumbent U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert was supposed to have as much as a 9-point advantage. Now, all that’s gone as Colorado and the rest of the country watch a neck-and-neck, back-and-forth race unfold. Boebert’s only leading Democratic challenger Adam Frisch by a fraction of a percentage point.
Frisch, a former Aspen City Councilman, held the country’s attention for much of the week, forcing even the most skeptical observers to wonder if he could beat the incumbent congresswoman, of Silt.
Ultimately, Boebert jumped ahead in the vote count Thursday and held the advantage into Friday. Her lead sits a few hundred votes outside of Colorado’s automatic-recount threshold and Frisch’s only hope of a comeback rests with the scattered and undetermined number of ballots flowing in from out-of-state. Those votes aren’t expected to be counted and reported until later next week.
No matter who wins in the end, Democrats and Republicans alike are studying the race, trying to figure out how it wound up like this.
“Did he over-perform or did she underperform?” Justin Gollob, a political scientist with Colorado Mesa University, asked. “It’s hard to ignore the argument that this was an anti-Boebert election.”
Even before Boebert won the office away from then-incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in the 2020 primary election and then Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush in the general election, Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District was considered a relatively safe Republican seat.
The district is the largest in the state and covers the Western Slope and much of southern Colorado, reaching as far north as Pueblo, its largest city. Congressional redistricting, finalized last year, deepened the seat’s Republican bent.
Not only did that redistricting benefit Boebert’s party generally but she also held the power of incumbency, a strong advantage anywhere in the country. Plus she had deep pockets full of cash, a strong fundraising system in place and a louder voice on social media than most politicians.
But the congresswoman was not without her disadvantages, even if they weren’t immediately apparent, according to Casey Burgat, a legislative affairs program director at George Washington University.
While Boebert is widely considered to be a star of the far-right, her constant tweeting and confrontational demeanor pushed voters away as much as it garnered attention. The congresswoman’s first term in office has been marred by controversy far more than it benefitted from policy successes.
Boebert on Thursday blamed her poor performance on low enthusiasm for up-ticket Republican candidates.
Republicans underperformed both in Colorado and across much of the rest of the country. And turnout in Boebert’s district currently sits at 60.8%, nearly matching the 61.1% turnout the district saw in 2018 under Tipton, who was far less successful in exiting the Republican base than Boebert.
Still, Burgat said Boebert’s own behavior is likely the biggest factor in the CD3 race.
America saw a similar effect in the 2020 presidential election when then-President Donald Trump lost ground with some traditional Republican voters, Burgat said.
Boebert has not only embraced Trump’s style of governing but also the former president himself, along with his penchant to spread conspiracy theories and attack political opponents.
Voters shifting away from the congresswoman can be seen as a direct repudiation of her behavior, Burgat said. And, to a lesser extent, Trump.
“Voters sometimes get tired of defending the actions of their representatives,” Burgat, a Colorado native, said. “They get tired of explaining ‘I agree with her on policy but, man, I’m so tired of how she’s representing that policy.’”
Perhaps one sign of the trouble ahead for Boebert was a primary challenge from state Sen. Don Coram. While she beat him in a landslide (65% to his 35%), that still meant a sizeable chunk of Republicans in the district were movingto oust the congresswoman.
Enter Frisch, who began watching Boebert early in her first term and figured she was much more vulnerable than her contemporaries in Congress like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan.
Frisch said after the June primary that he believed he could grab some of the Republicans that supported Coram and like-minded independent voters. So he hit the district broadcasting an even-keeled message and continually lambasting Boebert’s position in what he calls the “anger-tainment” industry.
“I knew I could earn the trust of some Republicans and a lot of independents and build a coalition,” Frisch told The Denver Post Tuesday night. “Now people are listening with a little more seriousness.”
“She was acting like she had a 75% win margin like Marjorie Taylor Greene but she never bothered to look and nobody bothered to let her know that she only won by five points in 2020,” Frisch added.
Eventually Frisch gained steam, landed spots in the national media and even began raising more money than Boebert. But he had outside help.
Among the most prominent anti-Boebert campaigners was David Wheeler, head of the American Muckrakers political action committee, which helped unseat the similarly controversial U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn in his North Carolina primary bid earlier this year.
Wheeler amplified stories – some of dubious origin – highlighting Boebert’s negative traits and uplifted Frisch’s positive traits.
Among the most impactful stories, Wheeler said, were those surrounding several dogs shot and killed on Boebert’s property (she didn’t shoot them) and a recording of a 911 call after Boebert’s husband confronted neighbors during an argument.
In the end, Gollob said Frisch’s strongest argument for voters on the fence was probably just that he wasn’t Boebert.
Plus, the congresswoman committed a few unforced errors, Wheeler said. She spent a lot of time outside of her district when she should have been courting votes. He called it “Campaign 101 malpractice.”
“Look where she spent her time in the last month,” Wheeler said. “Florida, Tennessee. She was in North Carolina on Sept. 23. That is un-freakin’-heard-of.”
Little reason existed on paper for the congresswoman to change course, Gollob noted. Most political experts considered Frisch to be such a longshot that there wasn’t much polling done in the district. The few polls published showed Boebert with a sizable lead, but Frisch argued he was still within striking distance of the congresswoman.
In the meantime, Frisch kept his head down and stuck with campaign fundamentals, Wheeler said. Ultimately, all the factors combined against Boebert.
“It’s the cumulative effect of all the bulls—,” Wheeler said.
Boebert lost ground in many of her district’s most populous counties. She received a lower percentage of the votes this year in Alamosa, La Plata, Mesa, Moffat and Pueblo counties than she did in 2020. She also lost in her home territory of Garfield County by over 13%, more than twice her losing margin there in 2020.
Boebert’s race against Frisch isn’t yet finished. Even if either candidate wins with enough votes to avoid an automatic recount, they can still request one themselves, so long as they’re willing to pay for it.
Out-of-state ballots can continue to be counted as long as they arrive by Wednesday and votes needing additional signature verification can be fixed until then too. In a race this close, those scattered votes could make all the difference.