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Lauren Boebert Wants ‘Mercy.’ Some Republicans Want an Alternative.

Nov. 4, 2023

The “Beetlejuice” incident continues to haunt the once-unrepentant congresswoman from Colorado. The state’s old guard is lining up behind a primary challenger.

At a casino bingo hall in southwestern Colorado, Lauren Boebert, the Republican congresswoman, bounced her 6-month-old grandson on her knee. “The election’s still a ways away,” she said, as the guests arriving for the Montezuma County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner trickled into the room. “And in talking with people at events like this, you know, it seems like there’s a lot of mercy and a lot of grace.” The month before, Ms. Boebert, then in the midst of finalizing a divorce, was caught on a security camera vaping and groping her date shortly before being ejected from a performance of the musical “Beetlejuice” at the Buell Theater in Denver for causing a disturbance. The footage contradicted her own initial claims about the incident, and the venue’s statement that Ms. Boebert had demanded preferential treatment added to the outrage. The episode has proved surprisingly sticky for Ms. Boebert, a politician who more than almost any other has embodied the gleefully provocative, no-apologies politics of the party’s right wing in the Biden era. Several local Republican officials have since announced their endorsement of Jeff Hurd, a more conventional Republican challenging her for the nomination this year.

Mr. Hurd’s candidacy has become a vessel for Republican discontent with the perceived excesses of the party’s MAGA wing. His backers include old-guard party fixtures such as former Gov. Bill Owens and former Senator Hank Brown. Pete Coors, the brewery scion, former Senate candidate and 2016 Trump fund-raiser, announced his endorsement in a statement provided to the Times, describing Mr. Hurd as “a principled leader of character whose conduct and behavior will never make us regret our support.” Other Hurd supporters are more narrowly concerned about extending the party’s recent run of defeats in the state, and some are one-time fans of Ms. Boebert who complain that she has been changed by her political celebrity. “That crap she pulled in Denver pissed me off,” David Spiegel, a 53-year-old road traffic controller and Montezuma party activist, told Mr. Hurd as he mingled with guests at the dinner, near where Ms. Boebert was sitting.

Polls have not yet been released in the primary race, and the question of whether Ms. Boebert, whose political celebrity far exceeds her official influence in Congress, has actually fallen in favor among the party’s voters remains theoretical for now. In interviews around the district, it was easy to find supporters who still stood by her.

“She’s aggressive, she’s young, she’s got better ideas than most of them,” said Charles Dial, who runs a steel fabrication and recycling business in deep-red Moffat County, which Ms. Boebert won by more than 59 points in 2022. He shrugged off the theater incident and compared the attention it generated to “what they’re doing to Trump.”

But Mr. Hurd’s endorsements suggest a concern among some party stalwarts that if Ms. Boebert remains a spirit animal for the right, she may be a wounded one.

In 2022, despite the solidly Republican lean of her district, she won re-election by just 546 votes. The near-loss established her as the most vulnerable of the party’s most base-beloved politicians, and has made her defeat this year a sought-after trophy for Democrats.

Adam Frisch, an Aspen businessman and former city councilman who ran as a Democrat against her in 2022, is hoping to challenge her again next year, though he first faces a primary contest against Anna Stout, the mayor of Grand Junction. Mr. Frisch has pulled in nearly $7.8 million in donations, more than any 2024 House candidate besides Kevin McCarthy, the recently deposed Republican speaker, and Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic minority leader.

In August, before the theater incident, a poll commissioned by Mr. Frisch’s campaign found him leading Ms. Boebert by two points.

In a rematch with Mr. Frisch, “I’ll definitely vote for Lauren,” said Cody Davis, a Mesa County commissioner who switched his endorsement from Ms. Boebert to Mr. Hurd. “But at the same time, I don’t think she can win.” Ms. Boebert burst onto the political scene in 2020 after winning a primary upset in Colorado’s Third District, which spans the entirety of the state’s western slope and nearly half of the state’s area.

Then a 33-year-old owner of a gun-themed, pandemic-lockdown-defying bar and restaurant in the small town of Rifle, she was an immediate sensation in the right wing of the party, which had transparently longed for its own answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the social media-savvy young left-wing Democratic congresswoman from New York.

“She was a firebrand,” Kevin McCarney, at the time the chairman of the Mesa County Republican Party, recalled admiringly. Last year, Mr. McCarney defended Ms. Boebert in the media after she was criticized for heckling President Biden as he spoke about his son’s death in his State of the Union speech.

“I was still standing with her until her little escapade,” he said, referring to Ms. Boebert’s behavior during “Beetlejuice.” After that, Mr. McCarney endorsed Mr. Hurd. A 44-year-old attorney from Grand Junction, Mr. Hurd is, by his account, a lifelong conservative but a newcomer to politics. The son of a local medical clinic director, he attended the University of Notre Dame and was planning on becoming a Catholic priest when he met his wife, Barbora, at an American Enterprise Institute seminar in Bratislava. He went to law school instead.

Soft-spoken and cerebral — he cites the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” as his favorite book — Mr. Hurd holds similar policy views to Ms. Boebert on gun rights and conservative but less absolute views on abortion. He is presenting himself as a reprieve from the turmoil, tabloid headlines and Trump-centricity that Ms. Boebert has represented to her detractors. Mr. Hurd appears only peripherally in his first campaign ad, in which Barbora describes her journey to American citizenship after a childhood in Communist Czechoslovakia and warns that “we can’t take this freedom for granted” — a Reagan-revivalist pitch that also nods toward his concern about the risk of authoritarianism within his own party.

Asked if he had voted for Mr. Trump in past elections, Mr. Hurd declined to answer, but then described a vision of the Republican Party where “we believe in, you know, the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power in elections.”

“When we as Republicans lose an election,” he went on, “we need to figure out how we go about winning the next one.” Ms. Boebert was early and vocal in promoting Mr. Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. For some Colorado Republicans, the primary contest for her seat has become a proxy battle in the ongoing conflict within the party between an old guard of politicians and donors and the right-wing grass-roots activists that have come to dominate its state and county organizations — a fight in which 2020 election denial is a major dividing line. Others are simply concerned that Ms. Boebert could easily lose to Mr. Frisch, a self-described conservative Democrat. “We all know what happened last cycle,” said Bobbie Daniel, a Mesa County commissioner who supported Ms. Boebert last year and is now backing Mr. Hurd. “There wasn’t a lot of room for error.” Mr. Frisch’s near-victory came as a surprise in a race that few in either party expected to be competitive. “We got blown off by everybody,” Mr. Frisch recalled. His campaign effectively ran out of money two weeks before the election, at which point his operation was “just me doing another couple of thousand miles in the pickup truck,” he said.

He will not have that problem this year. Mr. Frisch and outside Democratic groups have already reserved $1.2 million in advertising for the race — more than any other 2024 House race so far and more than 100 times what Republicans have spent in the district, according to Ad Impact, a media tracking firm. Drew Sexton, Ms. Boebert’s campaign manager, noted that her campaign last year spent little time trying to shape voters’ impressions of Mr. Frisch, and argued that 2024 would be a different contest. “A lot of folks sat out the midterm election, whether it was apathy or a belief that there was a red wave and they didn’t need to participate, or just the fact that President Trump wasn’t on the top of the ticket,” he said. “Those folks are going to come back in droves this cycle.” On the stump, Ms. Boebert has worked hard to show supporters that she is not taking their votes for granted. In her speech at the Montezuma County dinner, she had only one applause line about investigating the Biden family and had many particulars about water policy. There was also contrition. “You deserve a heartfelt, humble apology from me,” she told the crowd. Many of her backers have accepted the apology, if not unconditionally. “Lauren’s made it harder for herself,” said Kathy Elmont, the secretary of the Ouray County Republican Party, who has supported Ms. Boebert since her first campaign. “But I look at it as a Christian.” She recalled the passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus admonishes a crowd against stoning an adulterous woman: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” But Mrs. Elmont pointed out that wasn’t the last of the story. “He ended with, ‘And sin no more,’” she said.

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