Democrat Adam Frisch’s narrow loss to Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in the 3rd Congressional District came as a surprise to many political observers, as the Aspen businessman came within 600 votes of unseating the conservative and controversial congresswomen in a race that was expected to be a breeze for the incumbent.
Based on precedent and statistics heading into the 2022 general election, it should have been a straightforward victory for Boebert. She won her first election in 2020 by six points and the 3rd District, which includes the Western Slope and sweeps east to encompass Pueblo, grew more conservative following the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.
That’s not what happened.
As results came in beginning on Election Night, it was clear Frisch was performing much better than expected — and even better than the campaign’s internal polling, which at one point showed him within two percentage points of Boebert. He maintained his lead over Boebert for nearly two days, and then fell behind her by the slimmest of margins as county clerks finished counting ballots and curing rejected ones.
Frisch eventually conceded on Nov. 18 when he trailed by 551 votes, putting Boebert ahead with a less than one-point victory. The result will trigger an automatic recount under state statute, but it is unlikely that process will yield the hundreds of votes in Frisch’s favor needed to overturn the result.
“I was quite surprised that it was so close. I teach U.S. Government and the day of the election I stand up, credibility on the line, and say that there’s no way Lauren Boebert is going to lose this race, given the fundamentals and partisan lean in the district and all,” said Ryan Strickler, an assistant professor at Colorado State University Pueblo. “I had to go to the next class and kind of eat crow a little bit.”
Strickler said that while it can be hard to analyze a race so soon after it happened, the outcome seemed to be more about Boebert than Frisch.
Boebert has become a leading figure on the Republican Party’s far-right wing, consistently making headlines with inflammatory and controversial comments. Frisch ran as a moderate alternative to Boebert, leaning more towards centrist policies than left-wing ones.
“My take is that a lot of people who voted for Frisch were voting against Boebert rather than voting for (him). That means Frisch did a decent job putting himself in the center and painting himself as a moderate. I think that gave some voters who are weakly Republican a permission structure to vote for him,” Stickler said.
Frisch referred to himself as a “conservative businessman” and repeatedly said he would join a “Get Things Done” political party if there was one. He was against President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan and advocated for an energy approach that would continue relying on oil and natural gas.
Joel Johnson, a professor of political science also at CSU Pueblo, said that Boebert’s polarizing personality probably both hurt and helped her.
“I think some voters who voted libertarian or didn’t turn out last midterms did turn out this time and voted for Frisch, who was seen as more of a responsible and moderate candidate,” he said. “But if the theory is that her brand of politics is too polarizing and too show-boaty and it drives voters away, then how do you explain that a businessman like (GOP Senate candidate) Joe O’Dea, who tried to paint himself as a moderate, did worse?”
O’Dea lost by about 14 points to incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
“But I think both were going on in her case. I think she lost votes from moderate Republicans and some libertarian-minded voters,” Johnson said.
“I think it’s too early to truly unpack what happened, but there are a few things that pop out for me: She received the same vote total, in Pueblo County anyway, as (former U.S. Rep Scott) Tipton did in 2018. That’s kind of amazing, in a sense, because 2018 … Democrats didn’t do as well as some people were expecting, and it’s in some ways a mirror image of this election, where the Republicans didn’t do as well as people were expecting,” he said.
In 2018 in Pueblo County, Tipton received 31,787 votes and won both the county and reelection. Boebert got 31,102 votes in the county, fewer than Frisch’s 35,390.
Pueblo’s role in the outcome
Pueblo County ended up being decisive in the race. As Frisch led early in the ballot counting, many of the remaining ballots were in Pueblo and pundits speculated that an influx of ballots from the county could pull overall in Frisch’s favor.
That speculation perhaps rested on a belief that the region is bluer than it actually is.
“There’s all these crosscurrents in Pueblo that make it swingy. Slightly overall Democratic leaning, but not as much as people assume,” Strickler said.
Pueblo can be a political wild card when it comes to statewide and national elections. The county went for former President Donald Trump — just barely — in 2016, and then for Biden — again, just barely — in 2020.
Pueblo West and the more rural parts of the county, especially, lean Republican, Pueblo County Democratic Party Chair Mary Beth Corsentino said.
“We have a fairly high Democrat registration, but we are definitely a purple county more so than a blue county,” she said.
It is not consistently Democrat or Republican, but the area, built on working class labor and steel mill production, can be more susceptible to populist politics, which some feel Boebert represents, Johnson said.
“I think that that sort of more populist brand of Republicanism is something that is more attractive in Pueblo than a Joe O’Dea, Mitt Romeny, Paul Ryan type,” he said.
That hypothesis has support, as Boebert did better than other more traditional Republicans in Pueblo County. She outperformed Senate candidate Joe O’Dea, who tried to paint himself as a moderate on the campaign trail, and also did better in vote total than Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl in the county.
“I’m disappointed that our margin wasn’t greater because people worked very, very hard for Adam here,” Corsentino said. “And we’re proud of what they did, but it would have been nice to have been part of what could have put him over the top.”
Lessons for 2024
Frisch pulled off the razor-thin margin with almost zero national support. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives, did not target the congressional district with messaging, outreach or fundraising.
Meanwhile, the group poured over $2.5 million to oppose state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer in her bid for the 8th Congressional District, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The DCCC mostly directed money to districts that President Joe Biden performed well in during the 2020 cycle and had other political dynamics likely to play in the Democrats’ favor. The 3rd Congressional District’s nine-percentage-point lean towards Republicans and the fact it hasn’t had a Democratic representative since 2008 didn’t fit into that strategy.
It simply was not seen as competitive enough for a Democrat to win, despite it becoming one of the most competitive in the country.
“In this election, the voters of Colorado’s 3rd District put MAGA Republicans on notice: extremism, hate and division isn’t welcome in Colorado. While we narrowly came up short this time, voters will have their say again in two years,” DCCC Spokesperson Chris Taylor wrote in an email.
He declined to comment on whether the committee felt there was a missed opportunity in the district this election cycle or how Frisch’s performance might inform a 2024 strategy.
“Our plan from the very start was to build a tri-partisan coalition, and we did that in the face of deep national skepticism that we could do this,” Frisch said in his concession statement.
Frisch filed a statement of candidacy on Nov. 17 to run again in 2024, but told the Pueblo Chieftain it was in order to raise more money in case the recount turns out to be in his favor and he needs to mount a legal challenge.
Strickler said he was heartened by the 2022 results because they showed that politicians will pay a penalty for “election denial or anti-democratic values.”
“Maybe we will see some walking away from the more extreme elements in 2024. But for District 3, my take is that it is still a Republican leaning district. I don’t think it means that this is a complete toss up district, but maybe it is a little more competitive than the independent redistricting commission assumed,” he said. “Perhaps with the right candidate with the right message and set of circumstances, it can continue to be competitive in the future.”
Turnout should also get a boost in 2024 with the presidential election. That, combined with this year’s outcome, might lead Democrats to put more resources into the district and not view it as unwinnable, Johnson said.
“This should have been an easy win for Republicans this year,” he said. “I think the Democrats, looking forward, have an easy roadmap to win this seat the next time around. Boebert will be in a very tight race (in 2024) is what this shows.”
Reporting from Quentin Young contributed to this story.
This article first appeared in Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: [email protected]. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.