Lauren Boebert won. But did Democrats miss a chance to flip her Colorado district?
Erin Mansfield and Rachel Looker, USA TODAY – December 1, 2022
When former currency trader Adam Frisch from western Colorado looked at far-right Republicans who won seats to Congress in 2020, he found something surprising: While many of them won their seats by 20 or more percentage points, his own, Rep. Lauren Boebert, failed to get the same numbers.
She won 51%-45% over her Democratic challenger and lost her home county by nearly 1,800 votes. It gave Frisch an idea: If a moderate Democrat like him could get through a primary, they might be able to beat Boebert in the general election.
He was almost right.
Frisch lost to Boebert by about 500 votes in a down-to-the-wire race last month in the midterm election. But he did so as a largely self-funded candidate, who ran a campaign without any financial help from national Democrats and struggled to get national pollsters and pundits to take him seriously during the bulk of the campaign.
In an election where far-right candidates faltered and Democrats fared far better than expectations, did Democrats miss an opportunity to unseat one of their most outspoken critics?
“I said, ‘Listen, this could be the emotional win for the country and the party if you actually put some investment in here,’” said Frisch recalling his pitch to national Democratic campaign leaders for money after winning the June primary.
There’s no expert consensus over whether money from national Democrats would have helped Frisch get over the finish line, or whether national support would have created more ammo for the Boebert campaign to tie the moderate Democrat to figures like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Even Frisch is cautious to say whether more money would have helped his campaign or made him look too much like a national Democrat, or created a kind of arms race between the two parties.
What is known is Boebert, known for her disparaging comments against Muslim colleagues and opposition to LGBT rights, heads into a second two-year term in the House with a Republican majority. The chamber’s possible next speaker, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pledged to give far-right members committee seats, offering the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a louder microphone.
Frisch said he kept reaching out to national Democrats as the race got closer, and didn’t get a substantive response. Chris Taylor, spokesperson for the Democratic party’s congressional campaign arm, said his group “engaged with Team Frisch multiple occasions throughout this election cycle” but did not address any of Frisch’s detailed accounts of his outreach.
Frisch nets a primary win, then seeks support from Democrats
Frisch is a moderate Democrat who campaigned on issues like fighting inflation and maintaining energy production in his home state. He said it was hard to win the Democratic primary as a moderate, but after he won in June, he began pitching to national Democrats.
Frisch said he was in Washington, D.C. in July when he first made an appeal to the House Democrats’ campaign arm, also known as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC. He said his campaign’s polling showed him down by 7 percentage points to Boebert, but campaign staff thought Frisch should have been down by 12 percentage points because of the makeup of the largely rural district and Boebert’s incumbency.
Despite some encouraging words, the DCCC did not agree to provide financial help, and Frisch was outgunned. Boebert raised $6.7 million to Frisch’s $5.2 million, and $2.2 million of Frisch’s money came from his own pocket. Boebert also got a $413,000 ad boost from the campaign arm of the House Freedom Caucus, but no similar PACs bought their own ads for Frisch.
Around the time of the DCCC conversation, pundits and pollsters projected Democrats would lose the House by a wide margin. Frisch said he understood party leaders might prefer to put money into closer districts, as opposed to his district, which the Cook Political Report says the average national Republican could win by about seven percentage points.
“The mindset was, ‘We have other easier races that we can focus on by a longshot,’” Frisch said. “I appreciate numbers are important, but what about the emotional win?”
As internal polling showed him getting closer to Boebert, Frisch said he kept reaching out but “never received a response of substance” in the lead-up to Election Day. His campaign did receive legal help from the DCCC after polls closed and it became more likely there would be a recount of the close race.
Frisch said he would have spent any additional money on media buys in the vast western Colorado district that encompasses about half the state.
‘Hard to say’ if more money to Frisch could have flipped district
Experts told USA TODAY more support for Frisch wouldn’t necessarily equate to a win for the Democrat over Boebert in the Republican-leaning district.
“It’s hard to say that one strategic decision would have made a difference in that complex environment, but it could have,” said Kyle Saunders, political science professor at Colorado State University.
Saunders said the DCCC and other organizations that contribute to campaigns have limited resources and must “behave strategically” when deciding which candidates to support during an election season.
Almost half of the voters in the district, or 45%, are registered as unaffiliated voters. Another 31% are registered Republicans and 24% are registered Democrats. Saunders said most of these unaffiliated voters are not independents and estimates 70% are likely to lean toward one party or another.
“They’re just as partisan as the people who say they are a Republican or Democrat,” he said.
David Wasserman, House editor for Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election analysis newsletter, rated the race as solid Republican but said pundits like him and Democrats clearly underestimated Boebert’s vulnerability. Still, he cautioned against assuming help from national Democrats would have put Frisch over the finish line.
“Had national Democrats invested more in this race, it might not have helped Frisch because, No. 1, Frisch was well funded on his own, and No. 2, attempting to nationalize this race might’ve played into Boebert’s argument that D.C. liberals and Nancy Pelosi are out to get her,” Wasserman said.
He pointed to how Democrat Marie Perez beat Republican Trump acolyte Joe Kent for a seat in Washington without any help from national Democrats.
“It may have been beneficial to Frisch to come across as a homegrown campaign,” Wasserman said.
What does this mean for 2024?
Headed into 2024, Boebert will be a twice-elected incumbent serving in a House led by Republicans, and Frisch will be better known in Democratic circles for having almost unseated her.
Incumbents have high name recognition in their districts and need to spend less to get their message out. Incumbents running for Congress raised more than twice as much as their challengers, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets, an organization that tracks money in politics.
Wasserman said Frisch could double how much he raises if he runs in 2024 because of his increased name recognition. However, he cautioned that won’t necessarily propel him to victory.
“The problem, if Trump is back on the ballot, the district’s electorate is likely to become more favorable to Republicans, judging by the low turnout on the Republican side this time,” said Wasserman, referring to former President Donald Trump.
Taylor, from the DCCC, said Colorado voters this year stood up to “extremism, hate and division” and showed that they were not welcome in their state.
“While we narrowly came up short this time, voters will have their say again in two years,” he said.
Frisch did not address whether he would run in 2024, but said he is working to understand what went wrong in his 2022 campaign.
“When losers lose, they blame other people,” Frisch said. “When winners lose, they try to figure out where they could’ve done better, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out.”