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Clockwise from left: State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer; Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann, Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine; and political newcomer Tyler Allcorn. The four are Republicans running to represent the 8th Congressional District. (Colorado Sun photos)

JOHNSTOWN — Republican candidates vying to represent Colorado’s most diverse and most competitive congressional district have vowed to stop the “far left’s radical agenda,” said they would not fly a gay-pride flag, and blown up boxes labeled “gun control” and “lockdowns” in a campaign ad.

But to win the general election in the new 8th Congressional District, which runs north of Denver into the heart of the conservative stronghold of Weld County, they’ll have to appeal to the huge number of unaffiliated and politically apathetic voters in the district. 

People like 41-year-old Nate Pacheco, a Weld County father who works in retail and said he didn’t know he lives in a new congressional district. 

Like Laurie Jones, a former personal caregiver and unaffiliated Weld County voter, who worries about a shortage of teachers and disciplinary problems in schools, and a sense that people can’t agree on anything. 

And people like retired truck driver Clay Taylor, who worries about the price of gas and supports the Second Amendment but is open to a discussion on gun regulation: “What’s going on now is not working.”  

The 8th District race is expected to be one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country this year, with control of the U.S. House in the balance. It’s rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election prognosticator, and voters in the district in recent years have backed both Democrats and Republicans on the statewide ballot. 

The district includes Denver suburbs that have seen rapid growth in the past decade, where residents lean more liberal. It also stretches north into territory declared a Second Amendment sanctuary by Weld County commissioners, a solidly Republican area where oil and gas and agriculture are king. 

Conservative pundit Kelly Maher, a voter in the new district, thinks Democrats face an uphill battle to win the district. Anger over inflation and soaring fuel prices are at a fever pitch and President Joe Biden’s approval rating is at a new low

“I think there’s clearly a lot of frustration with the current direction of the country,” Maher said. The Republican who wins the primary “is going to end up in a good spot.”

The four Republicans running in the June 28 primary are Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, who proudly claims she is the most conservative candidate in the race; state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a political fixture in Weld County and northeast Colorado; Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann, who works in oil and gas; and Tyler Allcorn, a former Army Green Beret who is making his first foray into politics and doesn’t live in the district.

Whoever wins the primary will face Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, of Thornton, in November.

While the GOP candidates in the primary are duking it out over who has the most conservative credentials, the general election race will almost certainly be different with Caraveo and her Republican opponents battling for the middle. 

Most diverse congressional district in Colorado

Drawn last year through Colorado’s first independent redistricting process, the 8th Congressional District has fairly even numbers of registered Republican and Democratic voters, making the 46% bloc of unaffiliated voters in the district the fulcrum. 

The district also has the fewest registered voters among Colorado’s congressional districts. And it’s the most diverse congressional district in the state; nearly 40% of residents are Hispanic, compared with about 20% statewide. 

The race will be a test of Republicans’ ability to connect with Hispanic voters and hew to universally appealing messages about inflation and gas prices. High costs and typical midterm backlash to the president’s party offer Republicans an edge, while recent outcry over mass shootings and a leaked U.S. Supreme Court decision in an abortion case may provoke outrage on the left, political observers said. 

Republican candidates are likely to be less comfortable talking about divisive social issues where their position might differ from unaffiliated moderate voters, said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. 

“For the most part, a lot of Republican candidates feel like their safer grounds are just sort of general dissatisfaction with the country,” he said, adding: “It’s going to be a heavily watched race, and the parties want to pick people who they think are competitive for it.”

Political parties — particularly the GOP — have in recent years focused on riling up their most ardent supporters in primaries, rather than trying to win over swing voters, he added. But that strategy may be less effective in Colorado because unaffiliated voters can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries.

“I don’t really see too many of the Republican candidates, anyway, reaching out to those voters,” Masket said. 

Sonny Subia, a Democrat and Colorado director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), thinks Kulmann has the best chance of attracting new voters in the general election. Kulmann has portrayed herself as a political outsider and the commonsense mom in the race, which might appeal to some Hispanic voters who find family values important, he said. She also seemed to bring together different groups while making decisions as mayor of Thornton, he said. 

The other candidates — who have sued to overturn a “red flag” gun law (Saine), backed referring to the ballot an 11-county effort to secede from Colorado and form a 51st state (Kirkmeyer), and been endorsed by co-founders of the Trump Leadership Council (Allcorn) — may be too divisive to win the general election, said Subia, who lives in Greeley.

“It could come down to 1,000 votes,” he said, with Hispanics and other people who haven’t voted before taking the winning “candidate over the top.”

“That’s going to be the secret sauce,” he said.

Already, national groups have TV ad time for the fall booked in Colorado that likely is aimed at the 8th District. The Democratic House Majority PAC, which works to elect Democrats to the U.S. House, has scheduled $4.4 million worth of ads, while the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, which works to elect Republicans to Congress, has $4.1 million on the books.

And outside groups on both sides of the aisle are trying to influence the outcome of the GOP primary.

Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative nonprofit with deep pockets, spent nearly $277,000 on canvassing, mailers and digital ads to support Kirkmeyer. Colorado Conservatives for Retaking Congress spent $50,000 on ads falsely labeling Kulmann and Saine as “liberals.”

Jan Kulmann, candidate for Colorado Congressional District 8. Republican Primary debates at Grizzly Rose in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday, May 21, 2022. Photo Steve Peterson
Tyler Allcorn, candidate for Colorado Congressional District. Republican Primary debates at Grizzly Rose in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday, May 21, 2022. Photo Steve Peterson

And an unknown group sent three mailers contrasting Saine with Caraveo on the issues. The union insignia and mailing permit indicate a Democratic group is behind the mailer, which appears to be an attempt to highlight Saine’s conservative credentials. But no group has disclosed the spending with the Federal Election Commission as is required.

Kirkmeyer, meanwhile, has spent $88,000 on TV advertising, based on contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission, compared with $47,000 by Kulmann and $16,000 by Saine.

Little disagreement on most issues

There’s little daylight between the candidates on most of the biggest issues: They all want to secure the border, support the country’s oil and gas industry, back law enforcement, and, generally, get government out of the way. 

They oppose abortions and regulations on gun ownership. All but Saine say Biden won the 2022 election. 

Saine is the conservative bomb thrower in the race, with her campaign pushing Facebook ads with messages mentioning the “Fake News Media,” opposing mask and vaccine requirements, and calling Caraveo a “Marxist Democrat” and an “abortionist.” 

“The Biden-Harris-Schumer-Pelosi gang’s Socialist-Communist Agenda is reaching into every facet of our lives,” reads one of her campaign fliers, which features an image of Saine holding a rifle.

At a June event at The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Saine answered questions and told a crowd of mostly parents she wanted to represent “everyone’s right to freedom.” She described hearing concerns about high gas prices, soaring costs for food and other items and vaccine requirements — all of which she said demonstrated lack of choice. 

“Her voting record has always matched what she said she was going to do,” said Hana Ciembronowicz, a Weld County homemaker who is volunteering with Saine’s campaign. “So many politicians speak with a forked tongue, say one thing and do something else.” 

The other candidates in the race aren’t conservative enough, particularly on the issues of abortion and, she said, “government getting in-between parents and their children on issues of school choice and medical decisions.”

Saine was among the most right-wing members of the Colorado House, where she served from 2013 to 2021. She sponsored bills to ban all abortions and repeal a state ban on high-capacity magazines. She once was arrested after carrying a loaded firearm through airport security by accident. She’s pushed to make Weld County a “pro-life sanctuary.” 

But she says she’s been effective, driven by a desire to scale back government and represent her constituents. She emphasizes middle-of-the-road efforts she’s supported in the statehouse and at the county level. Bills to punish repeat drunk drivers, help adoptees get their birth certificates and give struggling companies a break on late property tax interest payments. Regulations to treat the solar industry the same as other energy producers in Weld County. 

“I wasn’t there to benefit myself,” she said. “I was very consistent with my voting.” 

Still, some believe Saine is too conservative to win the district. 

Three Weld County commissioners serving with Saine have endorsed Kirkmeyer, who was a Weld County commissioner from 1993 to 2001 and from 2009 to 2020.

“Barb is much more balanced,” said Mike Freeman, the longest serving commissioner. “She’s extremely intelligent,” he added, citing her expertise working on oil and gas, agriculture and land use issues, and her ability to forge coalitions.

Kirkmeyer said she grew up poor on a dairy farm in north Jefferson County. She had six brothers and sisters. Her great uncle and grandmother lived with the family in a house her dad grew up in. They didn’t have indoor plumbing until she was 5 years old, she said.

The kids were expected to help out on the farm and to join 4-H. When they turned 9, the parents selected a heifer calf from the herd and said they had to pay them back for it. 

That taught Kirkmeyer fiscal responsibility early, she said — a lesson that runs through her campaign’s platform. She says she led Weld County to zero debt while serving as a county commissioner and has attacked Kulmann, the mayor of Thornton, for her city’s debt load and AA bond rating. (Kulmann said the debt was due to capital projects promised for decades. In a statement, she said she was a fiscal conservative and called Kirkmeyer a “career politician,” a label Kirkmeyer has embraced as demonstrative of her track record.) 

Kirkmeyer gathered Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, former Weld County Human Services Director Judy Griego and people working in agriculture and other industries at a Greeley coffee shop in late May to ask their advice about how to approach various issues. 

Colorado State Rep. Lori Saine, R-Weld County, second from left, talks with Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, while in the foreground Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Littleton, talks with Rep. Dan Thurlow,-R-Grand Junction, on the closing day of the 2015 Colorado legislative session, at the Capitol, in Denver, Wednesday May 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Freshman Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Weld County, works at her desk before a session of the Colorado Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP)

“I really just want to talk about what’s important to you guys,” she said. “What do you think from a … federal perspective that I could be doing?”

The conversation included details about a federal farm bill and the pressure farmers are facing with high fertilizer and gasoline prices, produce coming from other countries, and the Nebraska governor’s plan to pipe Colorado water across the state line. 

“Some of these old farmers are just ready to throw in the towel,” one man said. 

The group also discussed the nexus of guns and mental health, and a recent mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school. 

“Being a grandmother and dropping off my granddaughter at school — the thought of her being in that situation is … I’m sorry,” one woman said, choking up. 

She asked if it would be possible to have the National Guard or another federal group “serve and protect our children — our future in this country.”

“They could be trained down the road to do mental health when they see a child getting out of control,” she said. 

Similar topics came up at the pancake breakfast in Johnstown about a week later, where Kulmann — with her daughter, 14, in tow — sat down to frozen orange juice, eggs and pancakes. In an interview with The Sun as she ate, she answered a question about gun regulations by talking about mental health and education, saying she’d seen her own children struggle during the pandemic. 

Kulmann received calls from her son’s school saying he wasn’t participating in online classes. He didn’t want to come out of his room. Her daughter cried each day saying she missed her friends. 

Kulmann was again asked about guns as she walked around the cavernous fire station, where the breakfast was held, introducing herself to prospective voters. 

When one man asked about firearm restrictions after mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Kulmann said more conversation was needed on mental health. 

Less of everyone “yelling at each other,” she said. 

Kulmann said the top issues she hears about relate to cost — like construction workers complaining about how expensive it is to drive big trucks to and from jobs. She was elected in 2013 to Thornton’s city council, where she survived an attempt from a neighborhood environmental group to recall her for her work in oil and gas.  She also agreed to unblock on social media two anti-fracking activists who sued her.

Allcorn, the fourth candidate in the race, lives in western Arvada, which is in the 7th Congressional District, but decided to run to represent the 8th District because he felt he identified with its demographics: He’s an immigrant and his father worked in oil and gas, a job that took Allcorn’s family from Saudi Arabia to southwest Asia, the Middle East and Europe. They settled in Houston, where Allcorn went to high school. He was born with Canadian citizenship. 

“I want to make sure that I’m representing the people that I can relate to,” Allcorn said. 

After leaving the military, Allcorn worked for a company that helps veterans find employment. He’d been in the job a few months when the U.S. pulled its troops out of Afghanistan, a calamitous withdrawal that he said sparked his desire to run. 

He’d fought to liberate the oppressed overseas. “Now, here at home we’re seeing oppression crop up,” he said, pointing to the federal government. “That goes against everything that I have fought for overseas, that my friends have died for and suffered for.”

Allcorn says his knowledge of foreign affairs and military service distinguishes him from the other candidates. 

He’s also not a career politician, a contrast he draws with his opponents.  

“I bring a fresh new perspective,” he said.

To Maher, the conservative commentator, there’s no clear frontrunner in the Republican primary at this point, though she personally won’t support Saine and Kulmann due to a spat over a debate Maher was set to moderate.

The winner may simply be the one who reaches the most voters, Maher said. “In a four-way you’re talking about mostly a name ID game.”

Colorado Sun staff writers Sandra Fish and Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma