FORT LUPTON, Colo. (AP) — Republican primary candidate Mike Lynch didn’t sugarcoat the question to his opponent on the crammed debate stage, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, who hopped into the race last month partly over fear of a loss in the district she currently represents.
“Could you give the definition of ‘carpetbagger?’” Lynch asked to low murmurs from the crowd at the first Republican primary debate in Fort Lupton, a community in Colorado’s 4th District.
It was expected. The candidate before Lynch had asked the same question, if more delicately put. The accusation had already been lobbed at Boebert after she joined the packed primary race, escaping a rematch against Democrat Adam Frisch, who nearly beat her in the last election.
With Republicans hanging onto control of the U.S. House by their fingertips, Republicans and Democrats are wrestling fiercely over every close race. That includes the seat Boebert holds in Colorado’s 3rd District, which was considered solidly leaning to the GOP but changed to a toss-up for this year after Boebert won by only 546 votes in 2022.
The updated assessment partly prompted her flight to the new district and the criticisms that followed. On stage, Boebert didn’t hesitate in response to the attack.
“The crops may be different in Colorado’s 4th District but the values are not, and I’m a proven fighter for the values that you all believe in,” said Boebert, her voice forceful over the wide room in a recreation center.
The crowd, a who’s who of local Republicans and voters, sat around tables where red popped among dark suits, including red solo cups and Boebert’s signature lipstick.
Boebert built herself into a household name with a style of pugilistic politics that has turned otherwise tame moments in Congress into slugfests, along with hard-liner conservative stances and unwavering loyalty to former President Donald Trump.
While Colorado’s congressional representatives do not have to live in the district they represent, only the state, Boebert is moving to Weld County in her new district, jokingly described by the moderator as “the most heavily Republican seat on the planet Earth.”
The corner of the Great Plains is a sweep of prairie grass and farms broken only by ranching towns where auctioneers chant the weight and price of cattle near every week. Voters supported Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in 2020, more than double the margin in Boebert’s old district.
Jerry Sonnenberg, a popular former state senator with a tactically deployed baritone, was among the six of nine candidates on stage who raised their hands when asked if they had been arrested, to raucous applause.
Another, Rep. Richard Holtorf, the Republican whip in the Colorado House, has been most outspoken about Boebert’s move. Deborah Flora, a filmmaker and radio host, was the first to levy her question of switching districts at Boebert on stage.
State Rep. Lynch also exchanged barbs with Boebert. Lynch was Colorado’s House minority leader until he stepped down Wednesday after a 2022 arrest for drunken driving came to light, an issue that was largely met with forgiveness by fellow contestants.
Boebert was caught on video vaping and groping with a date in a Denver theater in September, but the embarrassing episode went unmentioned at the debate.
Still, the scandal may be hard to shake in Boebert’s new electoral stomping grounds, where voters hold tight to conservative Christian values some feel she transgressed.
The congresswoman must rely on her national name and convince skeptical voters that her voice is needed in Congress more than those of her homegrown opponents, some of whom have lived in the district their entire lives and represent parts of the area in Colorado’s Legislature.
Boebert focused on her experience in Congress as the key factor separating her from the candidates on stage.
“Everyone will talk like a Freedom Caucus member but there is only one who governs as a Freedom Caucus member,” she said. “I am here to earn your support, earn your vote. This is not a coronation.”
Boebert’s primary rivals largely seemed hesitant to directly attack her onstage, which was reminiscent of the Republican presidential primary candidates who avoided criticism of Trump in early debates.
The debate also largely centered on national political issues including border security, abortion and fentanyl, on which Boebert could laud her stubbornly conservative voting record. Her opponents didn’t raise local issues they may have thought she was unprepared to represent.
Before switching districts, Boebert had been expected to face a rematch against Frisch, who had already raised more money than she had.
Political experts generally agree Republicans have a better chance of holding onto the 3rd District without Boebert in the race.
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.