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Republican congressional candidates face off in Durango

Updated: Jun 20

Five contenders sought to distinguish themselves from one another

By Reuben M. Schafir Herald Staff Writer

Friday, Jun 7, 2024 5:00 AM

Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates from left, Ron Hanks, Curtis McCrackin, Lew Webb, Russ Andrews and Stephan Varela attend a debate Tuesday evening hosted by the La Plata County Republican Central Committee at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Candidates have a similar message, but varying modes and styles of communication. That seemed to be voters’ primary take-away after Tuesday’s debate among five of the six Republican candidates running for the GOP spot in the 3rd Congressional District race.

In a generally cordial rhetorical volley, candidates Stephen Varela, Ron Hanks, Lew Webb, Russ Andrews and Curtis McCrackin took 90-second turns to address voters’ concerns, which ranged from water conservation and management to gun control to state and national party leadership.

Four of the five candidates agreed to support the winner of the GOP nomination; Hanks, to a reception of “boos” from the audience, said “it depends on who it is.”

Jeff Hurd could not attend because of a scheduling conflict. The candidate took some heat about his absence from candidates and audience members. A spokesman for the campaign declined to provide more details on the conflict that prevented Hurd’s attendance.

Amber Morris listens to Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates Tuesday. The debate was hosted by the La Plata County Republican Central Committee at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The debate, hosted by the La Plata County Republican Central Committee at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango, lasted more than two hours and was attended by about 100 people in-person, and about 160 people online.

Former committee chairman Travis Oliger and former County Commissioner Brad Blake moderated the event.

The winner of the June 25 primary will face off with presumptive Democratic nominee Adam Frisch, the former Aspen city councilor who came within 546 votes of unseating Rep. Lauren Boebert in 2022. Boebert opted to run in Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, to the east, where Republicans have an even stronger base.

How to stand out in a field of six

With a crowded field, the candidates hammered on concise, specific messages in an effort to distinguish themselves from one another.

Varela, who has been targeted by some of his opponents over his past membership of the Democratic Party, spent much of the night talking up his conservative bona fides.

“I started off as a Democrat, like Reagan, like Trump, like many others – Lauren Boebert,” he said.

Although often brief in his responses, Varela pulled out several of the talking points addressing now-ubiquitous GOP issues.

“We’re not going to have a military to serve and protect us because they are confusing our boys in school with being girls, and our girls vice-a-versa,” he said, outlining his biggest fear for the nation. “They are destroying every single thing that has made us American.”

Hanks tried to position himself as the definitive MAGA candidate. He has done so effectively, such that a Democratic dark money group began to run ads boosting his campaign, under the assumption that his extremism would make him easier to beat.

Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates debated Tuesday evening at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango. A little more than 100 people gathered for the debate. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

During the debate, Hanks repeatedly referenced the “deep state,” called the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol a “peaceful protest,” and said he thinks former President Donald Trump will be reelected in November and will need a “conservative Congress that does not sandbag him.”

Webb sought to stake his claim on the “outsider” identity, noting that his background is in business as he made an overt comparison between himself and Trump.

“Our government is totally corrupt,” he said. “I am not going to Washington, D.C., to make friends, to get along, to reach across the aisle or to compromise. I’m going to Washington, D.C., to pick a fight – a big one, one that we all have to win. Papaw is going to Washington, D.C., and they’re not gonna like me very much.”

Andrews relied on a folksy persona imbued with hard-line conservatism in his pitch.

He asked attendees to raise their hands if they owned a gas stove, a truck, a firearm or a bible.

“I got bad news for you, folks,” he said to the room full of raised hands. “They’re coming for your truck, they’re coming for your gas stove, they’re definitely coming for your firearms, they don’t have much use for Christianity.”

Allen Maez keeps time during the Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates debate on Tuesday in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He also pitched a slate of unconventional ideas, which included a proposal to incentivize small-scale harvest of beetle-kill timber by introducing broad tax breaks to increase forest and watershed health.

McCrackin made himself out to be the moderate of the evening.

His pitch focused almost entirely on fiscal responsibility and the need to draw back federal spending. He proposed a constitutional amendment to mandate that Congress balance the country’s budget, 12-year term limits for members of Congress, and he said he would seek to do away with the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president sole power to establish a national monument (some regional leaders within the district have decried the potential use of the act on parts of the Dolores River).

More than any other candidate, however, McCrackin’s message focused on respect, at one point going so far as to implicitly call out a lack thereof within the party. (He saw the same among Democrats, he added.)

“Why would somebody 18 years old today join the Republican Party?” he asked. “I would look at the Republican Party and go, ‘These people are crazy.’”

On the issues

When asked whether they would support mandatory gun safety training when applying for a concealed carry permit, McCrackin and Webb indicated they would support such training. Andrews, Varela and Hanks said they would not.

All five candidates indicated they would stand behind Israel and the military aid the U.S. gives it.

Hanks and Andrews were the only two candidates who definitively said they would join the Freedom Caucus if elected, a group of far-right representatives. Webb and McCrackin indicated they would need to learn more about the group, and Varela did not answer the question.

Brad Blake, left, and Travis Oliger were the moderators for a debate among Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The candidates had a wide range of ideas when it came to addressing water, and the lack thereof.

Hanks said he sees a need for more water storage, while McCrackin suggested the use of conservation easements.

Webb and Andrews both made mention of the need for healthier forests.

Varela said he’s “a little bit more ambitious when it comes to water,” and said he would propose saving water in the upper Colorado River Basin by building desalination plants on the Gulf of Mexico and forcing lower basin states to pay for it. He recognized that the cost is high – prohibitively so, many experts say – but he called the proposal a move toward long-term sustainability.

With respect to the state party, which broke from previous norms and endorsed Hanks in accordance with a rule change that allows leaders to back candidates in contested races, Hanks’ four opponents called the party “corrupt,” called the move “inappropriate,” and said state party had “abandoned its principles” and lost its way a little bit.

Voters ponder: Who do you like best?

In huddled conversations after the debate, many voters said they were impressed by the candidates.

“Everybody’s consistent on the policies, pretty much,” said David Qualls, who lives south of Durango. “Everybody hates the invasion of the country. Everybody hates the spending, so we’re united on all of that. The variance of issues is not really that big, so it’s a matter, really, of selecting who you think you like the best.”

A little over a hundred people attended a debate among Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates Tuesday in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For Qualls, that candidate was Varela.

But for some others, Hanks’ rhetoric was most effective.

“I am leaning strongly toward Ron (Hanks),” said Valeria Maez of Montezuma County. “I think he’s a very conservative guy and he’s absolutely right about the current administration and the trouble we’re in.”

Maez said Hanks was “absolutely right” about the border – he said during the debate, with little factual basis, that the Biden administration has allowed “brigade-size forces of Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida” to enter the country.

Odis Sikes listens to Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates during a debate Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Sheryle Hunter of Ignacio said she too was swayed by the way Hanks spoke of the “invasion” at the border, and would likely vote for him.

Standing near Hunter, Cathy Patterson said she would vote for Webb.

“I met him at a meeting and Lew said he would not bend,” she said.

McCrackin was the only candidate to highlight a willingness to work across the aisle – something that has become increasingly necessary as the Republican majority in the House has slimmed. But Patterson said that wasn’t important to her.

However, the possibility that Congress gets nothing done “just turns my stomach,” she said.

Ballots must be received by 7 p.m. June 25.

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