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Frederick Engebretson in an unaffiliated voter in Mesa County, shown at his home on Reeder Mesa near Whitewater outside Grand Junction. “Since the riot, I have mixed feelings about (Lauren Bobert),” he said. “There was talk going around that she sided with all those morons. Whether that’s factual, I don’t know, but it has raised some questions with me.” (The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel)

Lauren Boebert is best known for her far-right Republican views

But it wasn’t Republicans who were solely responsible for sending the Garfield County woman to Congress, a Colorado Sun analysis of voter registration data and the 2020 election results shows. Unaffiliated voters, who since at least February 2019 have made up the largest voting bloc in Boebert’s 3rd Congressional District, were the deciding factor in her victory last year.

“I like what she says,” said Joshua Burt, a 43-year-old unaffiliated voter in Rangely. “Sometimes she’s just a little too extreme, but she’s a good person. I would definitely vote for her again.”

Unaffiliated voters are often perceived in Colorado as being left-leaning, or, at the very least, moderate. But the 3rd District, which stretches across the Western Slope and into Pueblo, proves the theory isn’t universally applicable.  

“I think that this fairytale of the very liberal, young unaffiliated voter is not necessarily true,” said Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster who leads the Colorado firm New Bridge Strategy. “The millennial from another state that just moved in and registers as unaffiliated — there’s definitely many of them. But there’s not as many of them in the 3rd Congressional District.”

The Sun’s data analysis shows that if Democrats want a chance to oust Boebert next year, they should focus on winning over and turning out more unaffiliated voters. But it’s a tricky group to persuade, given that many unaffiliated voters often have a partisan preference. In the 3rd District, that preference is more often than not Republican.

That means Democrats must find a way not just to activate unaffiliated voters, but they must activate the correct unaffiliated voters or find a way to persuade those already loyal to the Republican congresswoman to change their minds. 

The Sun teamed up with several newspapers in cities across the sprawling 3rd District to interview unaffiliated voters, selected at random from the state’s voter rolls, to learn what motivates them at the ballot box and how they feel about Boebert. The voters were asked a standard set of questions about their political leanings and the issues that matter most to them. 

Editor’s note: The Colorado Sun teamed up with The Aspen Times, The Durango Herald, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, The Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today, The Ouray County Plaindealer and The Rio Blanco Herald Times to report this story as part of a broader partnership to cover political issues in the 3rd Congressional District.  

 In Congress, Boebert is battling public lands expansions and fighting to halt President Joe Biden’s environmental agenda. But unaffiliated voters who support the congresswoman generally said they like Boebert because of her staunch defense of the 2nd Amendment and because they don’t think Democrats have offered up a good alternative.

Those who oppose Boebert think she is too conservative and dislike what they view as her blind allegiance to former President Donald Trump. They’d like to see her focus instead on the public health effects of COVID-19 and moving the country past the pandemic. 

There are also voters who said they supported Boebert in 2020 but are on the fence about doing so again after her controversial first months in office and the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol that came as she spread false claims about last year’s presidential election results. 

“People do have partisan feelings even if they don’t necessarily want to check a box”

Of the roughly 513,000 active, registered voters in the 3rd District, 40% are unaffiliated, 32% are Republicans and 27% are Democrats. The rest are affiliated with third parties. 

Boebert handily beat Democratic former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush in 2020, with 51% of the vote compared to Mitsch Bush’s 45%.

The unaffiliated-heavy lean isn’t unusual among Colorado’s seven congressional districts. In fact only one — Denver Democrat Diana DeGette’s 1st District — isn’t dominated by unaffiliated voters. 

Around 40% of Colorado’s registered voters are unaffiliated

But in the two other congressional districts represented by Republicans — Doug Lamborn’s 5th District centered on Colorado Springs and Ken Buck’s 4th District on the Eastern Plains — the percentage gap between Republican voters and Democratic voters is greater than what it is in the 3rd District.

In the 4th District, Republicans represent 47% of active, registered voters versus Democrats at 21%. In the 5th District, Republicans represent 36% of active, registered voters compared to Democrats at 20%.

On paper, it appears that if unaffiliated voters in the 3rd District voted the way their counterparts do in Aurora, and Boulder, Denver and Broomfield counties, Boebert likely would not be in Congress. (The district’s lines will be redrawn ahead of the 2022 election.)

Weigel, the Republican pollster, said age and location can help determine if an unaffiliated voter leans left or right on the political spectrum. And, she points out, just because someone is registered as unaffiliated, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a partisan preference. 

Coloradans are automatically registered to vote as an unaffiliated when they get their driver’s license. They can choose a party later through a follow-up mailer sent by the state. 

“People do have partisan feelings even if they don’t necessarily want to check a box and say they are one party or another,” Weigel said. “They do tend to associate with one party or another, no matter what box they checked on a form.”

Take Stephanie Cooper, a 38-year-old unaffiliated voter in Grand Junction, as an example.

“I lean more conservative … so I vote for more Republicans,” she said. Cooper has been unaffiliated for about a decade and is registered that way because she doesn’t “like the direction that either major party is going.”

Democrats battling to unseat Boebert next year say they, too, are learning it’s a mistake to assume all unaffiliated voters are equal. 

“I think we assumed that they are more moderate and that might not be an assumption we want to make,” said James Iacino, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in the 3rd District in 2020 and is now his party’s chair in the district. 

Iacino said he and other Democrats are talking to unaffiliated voters across the 3rd District to learn from their mistakes in recent election cycles and seek a path to victory. His first challenge is to identify which unaffiliateds may lean to the left. But it’s more nuanced than just that.

“How do you get those unaffiliated, left-leaning folks activated while not getting those unaffiliated, right-leaning folks activated?” he said. “It’s complicated.”

Mitsch Bush even tried to market herself as an “independent” last year, but that didn’t work to persuade unaffiliated voters. 

The 3rd District has been represented by a Republican since Scott Tipton unseated Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. John Salazar in the 2010 election. Tipton held the seat until Boebert ousted him in the 2020 GOP primary.

Boebert’s proponents believe that the congresswoman can attract moderate voters — and even some Democrats — by speaking to them about the issues they care about. Her backstory of being raised by a single mom, getting pregnant young and working her way up the economic ladder also resonates, Boebert’s supporters say. 

“It doesn’t seem to matter who we talk to, most people absolutely adore her,” said Alamosa County GOP Chairwoman Cheryl O’Dowd. “They like the fact that she’s willing to stand up and let her voice be heard. She’s willing to stand up for us.”

Lauren Boebert, then a Republican candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks during a get-out-the-vote-rally at the Grand Junction Motor Speedway in Grand Junction on Nov. 2, 2020. The event was hosted by the Mesa County GOP and was also attended by then-U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Polling suggests there’s some truth to that theory, but really only when it comes to unaffiliated voters. 

A March 1-4 poll of 500 registered voters in the 3rd District conducted by Global Strategy Group, a Democratic pollster, revealed that 41% of those surveyed have a favorable view of Boebert while 39% have an unfavorable view of her. The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Here’s what the results were by partisan voter registration:

  • When it comes to Democrats, 10% said they have a favorable view of her, while 73% said they have an unfavorable view of her
  • Among unaffiliated and third-party voters, 36% said they have a favorable view of her, while 42% have an unfavorable view of her
  • 72% of Republican voters said they have a favorable view of Boebert, while 15% said they have an unfavorable view of her

“Somebody like Lauren will help put the train back on the tracks”

Vincent Ehrnriter, a 55-year-old unaffiliated voter in Grand Junction, has never registered for one party or another. “I prefer to call myself an independent,” he said. “I am an educated person. I can make my own decisions.”

Ehrnriter said he has voted Republican for the past 12 years, including “right down the ticket” in 2020.

“She can be a little loud, but her points are valid,” he said of Boebert. “Somebody like Lauren will help put the train back on the tracks.”

The issue that matters most to Ehrnriter is ensuring his vote is protected. He said his vote and the 2020 U.S. election were “stolen.” (There is no proof of widespread election fraud in 2020 that would have overturned the results of the presidential contest.)

“If this isn’t fixed, we have no more country,” he said. “It’s over.” 

Max Lord, a 29-year-old unaffiliated voter who lives in Aspen and works as an audio engineer, voted for Boebert last year. He said his main issue is gun rights.

“I’m happy to see her in the House,” Lord said. “I think she might have taken the job without knowing the difficulties of it. But I applaud her ability to handle it for all the (flak) she gets.”

Frederick Engebretson, a 74-year-old unaffiliated voter in Whitewater, about 10 miles south of Grand Junction, also likes Boebert’s views on guns.

“All I know about her is what I saw on TV. She has a restaurant and she had been arrested,” he said. “One thing I know I like about her is that she is very pro-Second Amendment, as am I.”

But the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 made Engebretson rethink his views on Boebert. He said he’s not sure if he would vote for her in 2022. 

“Since the riot, I have mixed feelings about her,” he said. “There was talk going around that she sided with all those morons. Whether that’s factual, I don’t know, but it has raised some questions with me.”

Frederick Engebretson in an unaffiliated voter in Mesa County, shown at his home . “Since the riot, I have mixed feelings about (Lauren Bobert),” he said. “There was talk going around that she sided with all those morons. Whether that’s factual, I don’t know, but it has raised some questions with me.” (The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel)

It’s voters like Engebretson who Democrats will have to try to win over in 2020. Richard Hirano, 57, a printer repairman in Craig, is another example of the kind of voters liberals may target to oust Boebert from his seat.

Hirano, changed his registration to unaffiliated from Republican, voted for Trump in 2020, saying he was the lesser of two evils. He’s not sure if he will vote for Boebert in 2022.

“She has said some really stupid things,” he said. “That is the problem with Trump, too, I think sometimes they just need to keep their mouths shut and focus on the issues, but they put too much of their opinions out there, which forces us center people to question why we voted for them in the first place.”

Bill Crosby, 38, an insurance agent in Steamboat Springs, is still trying to make up his mind about Boebert.

“I would consider voting for her in 2022, depending on how she shows herself for the next year and a half, and depending on how things look nationally at that point,” he said. “She has definitely spoken her mind, for better and for worse.”

“I don’t agree with the way she has handled herself”

While there are 3rd District unaffiliated voters who either support or are on the fence when it comes to Boebert, there are plenty who also vehemently oppose her. 

Tim Taplin, 54, a software developer and school board member in Ridgway, said he thinks Boebert has “been more of a disaster than anyone thought she could be.”

“I definitely tend to be more on the liberal side of things,” he said. But he’s looking for the right candidate to represent him in the U.S. House, not just one who isn’t Boebert. 

Taplin voted for Mitsch Bush, Boebert’s Democratic opponent, in 2020, though he wasn’t “a huge fan” because she was “probably too extreme in her views and not really willing to work the middle.” 

Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democratic candidate in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks to supporters during a rally in Montrose on Oct. 27, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s picking how to take the next step forward and who’s going to do a better job moving things forward, even if their approach is not the one you’d like,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious that our current representative is not interested in that.”

Jody Meakins, a 72-year-old retired teacher and unaffiliated voter who lives in Meeker, said she is turned off by Boebert. “I don’t like that she struts around with a gun.”

Meakins biggest concerns are education and infrastructure.  When asked if she would vote for Boebert, Meakins said: “Hell no. Never.” 

Anthony Medved, a 37-year-old building inspector in Durango, said he would “never vote for (Boebert).” He backed President Joe Biden in 2020, but said he typically casts votes for both Democrats and Republicans. 

“What sticks out to me (is) she’s far right,” Medved said of Boebert.

Medved’s sentiment was a recurring theme in the discussions The Sun and its partners had with unaffiliated voters. 

Sara Francis, a 42-year-old records management specialist in Battlement Mesa, called Boebert a “Trump loyalist.” 

“I know that she rage-tweets much like former President Trump did,” said Francis, who voted for Mitsch Bush last year.

Unaffiliated voter Sara Francis, who lives in Battlement Mesa. (The Glenwood Springs Post Independent)

A 76-year-old unaffiliated voter in Pueblo, who asked that his name not be used, said he thinks Boebert is “just so Trumpian and anti-democracy.”

Joseph Buckley, an unaffiliated voter in Crestone who is in his late 60s, dislikes his congresswoman and would not vote for her in 2022 for the same reason. He was especially upset about “her whole radical act and being basically a blind Trump supporter during the insurrection.”

“I don’t agree with her policies,” said Buckley, who said he decides who to vote for based on the candidate and not their party. “I don’t agree with the way she has handled herself in the Republican Party.”

Colorado Sun correspondents Carrie Osgood, Sandra Fish, Sue McMillin and Nancy Lofholm contributed to this report. Also contributing reporting were: Jason Auslander of The Aspen Times; Dylan Anderson of Steamboat Pilot & Today; Erin McIntyre and Liz Teitz of The Ouray County Plaindealer; Niki Turner, Lucas Turner, and Sophia Goedert of The Rio Blanco Herald Times; John LaConte of The Vail Daily; Ray K. Erku of The Glenwood Springs Post Independent; and Patrick Armijo of The Durango Herald.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul