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Barbara Kirkmeyer, running for 8th Congressional District in Weld County, on June 13, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Barbara Kirkmeyer, a conservative state senator and a fixture in Weld County politics, won the Republican primary in Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District on Tuesday, teeing up what’s expected to be one of the nation’s most competitive U.S. House races.

The Associated Press called the race just after 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Despite the lack of a clear frontrunner in the Republican primary, Kirkmeyer, a former Weld County commissioner who grew up on a dairy farm, took an early and commanding lead.

As of 9:45 p.m., Kirkmeyer was handily beating her primary rivals: Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann, an oil and gas engineer; political newcomer and former U.S. Army Green Beret Tyler Allcorn; and Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, a former state lawmaker and the most far-right candidate in the race.

Kirkmeyer had secured 41% of the vote by 9:45 p.m. Kulmann was in a distant second with 23% of the vote. Saine had 20% of the vote and Allcorn had just 16% of the vote.

Kirkmeyer’s victory sets the stage for a face-off in the 8th District, which runs from the northeast Denver suburbs into the heart of ruby red Weld County, between experienced lawmakers who occupy the further-right and further-left wings of their parties.

Kirkmeyer and her general election opponent, Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, will have to win over unaffiliated and moderate voters who are expected to be the deciding factor in who will be the first person to represent the 8th District in Washington, D.C.

Nearly 45% of the 8th Congressional District’s active registered voters are unaffiliated, meaning they can vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries. Twenty-five percent are Republican and 28% are Democrat. About 40% of the district is Latino, and it has a larger share of non-white voters than any other in Colorado. About 20% of Colorado residents are Latino. 

Kirkmeyer quickly pivoted to general election campaigning, in remarks she gave from a Western-style chophouse in north Denver as the results came in Tuesday. 

State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer talks to the crowd gathered at her watch party. (Shannon Najmabadi, The Colorado Sun)

Saying she would be competing in the November election against “one of the most liberal and most partisan legislators,” Kirkmeyer said she’d keep focusing on quality-of-life issues like inflation, a balanced federal budget and increased energy production. 

Caraveo “doesn’t understand what are the roots of this district and what’s important in this district,” she said, from a private room at Mickey’s Top Sirloin where supporters of her campaign watched the returns come in.

“I look forward to having discussions with her and asking her why the heck she didn’t take care of our district and take care of this area,” Kirkmeyer said, adding “it should be fun.”

The district is rated a toss up by the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election prognosticator, though political experts say high inflation, gas prices and cyclical backlash against the president’s party offer Republicans an edge. 

The diversity of the new congressional district was on display at a Westminster polling drop-off site an hour before polls closed Tuesday night.

While one 57-year-old woman said she was “horrified” by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the right to an abortion, 64-year-old Melissa Martinez, a registered nurse in pediatrics, said she thought the ruling was “excellent” and that abortion was the No. 1 issue she looked at when deciding which candidates to back. 

“You’re either pro-life, or you’re not,” she said, referring to common exceptions in various state laws allowing abortions in the case of rape or incest. 

Martinez said she liked Saine, who sponsored legislation as a state lawmaker that would have made all abortions illegal, including in cases of rape and incest. It also would have made doctors who perform abortions subject to criminal penalties, including life in prison or the death penalty.

One man with a red bandana around his neck said cost of living, cost of fuel and lack of law and order were the issues he was most concerned about. An unaffiliated voter who works as a machinist, Eddie Templeton, 60, also said he thought Saine would do the best job representing the district in Congress and that he was familiar with her work in Weld County, where she has served as county commissioner since 2021. 

He said he was “tired of crime.”

Economic conditions may give GOP the edge

With control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the balance, national groups have already pumped large sums of money into the race hoping to influence the outcome

The House Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and 314 Action Fund, a political action committee that backs Democratic candidates with a background in science, both tried to sway voters to Saine by emphasizing her conservative credentials in TV and digital ads. 314 Action Fund, which endorsed Caraveo, spent more than $161,000 while House Majority PAC spent $138,000.

House Majority PAC’s ad featured Saine’s conservative positions on hot-button issues in a way that would be appealing to far-right Republicans. It fit into a strategy among the national Democratic groups to boost the most conservative — and controversial — Republican primary election candidates in hopes they’d be less likely to win over the electorate in a general election. 

The 314 Action Fund ad attacked state Kirkmeyer for not being conservative enough. 

(Kirkmeyer cast her victory Tuesday as a defeat of Pelosi. “The last 10 days were kind of a whirlwind. We were doing really good and then all of a sudden Nancy Pelosi thought she should get herself into this race,” she said. “Don’t meddle in our primaries in Colorado. You’ve got it all wrong back in Washington. And we don’t need you here in Colorado.”)

Republican groups also spent money on the race. Colorado Conservatives for Retaking Congress — a political action committee funded by a dark-money group that does not have to reveal its donors — spent at least $80,000 on text messages and mailers falsely labeling Kulmann and Saine liberals. The texts and mailers appeared to be aimed at supporting Kirkmeyer’s bid. 

Americans for Prosperity Colorado Action, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers, spent nearly $344,000 backing Kirkmeyer, including through mailers and door-to-door canvassing. Let America Work, another federal super PAC, recently spent $447,000 on mailers and digital ads to support Kirkmeyer and oppose Saine, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Tom Emmer, congratulated Kirkmeyer in a statement and attacked Caraveo as a “radical” who  “supports socialist policies that will make life harder for Colorado families.” 

“Barb will fight back against Democrats’ failed policies that have caused record-high prices,” he said in a statement. 

Kulmann, one of Kirkmeyer’s three opponents in the primary election, said in a statement she was “disappointed by the outcome, but that’s life.” 

“I respect the voters’ verdict, and I will eagerly campaign alongside Barb Kirkmeyer. The stakes are too high for division or intramural drama in the Republican Party,” she said.

Allcorn and Saine thanked their supporters on Twitter and called for Republican unity going into the general election.

“Tonight didn’t go as we had hoped. But the threat from the Communist-Marxist Democrats is real and Republicans need to unite this Fall to defeat Hickenlooper, Bennett and Caraveo and take our state and country back before it’s too late,” Saine wrote.

“Congrats to @Kirkmeyer4CO on her victory,” Allcorn wrote. “I look forward to supporting Republicans across Colorado in November. #GOP”

The Colorado Democratic Party, meanwhile, labeled Kirkmeyer a “MAGA Republican,” an identifier associated with former President Donald Trump. They also called her extreme and out-of touch, and said they were confident Caraveo would prevail in November.

“Kirkmeyer’s record as a former county commissioner and state legislator is filled with extreme stances — like pushing a motion for several Colorado counties to secede from the state, undermining Colorado’s red flag law, and denying the existence of climate change while stating we must dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency,” the statement said. 

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

Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma