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Congresswoman-elect Yadira Caraveo, in red, with her sister Ariday, left, mom, Elsa, and father, Hector, in the family’s backyard Nov. 10, 2022. Caraveo narrowly won Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District and will be the first Latina to represent Colorado in Congress. (Sandra Fish, The Colorado Sun)

THORNTON — Yadira Caraveo’s family was never political.

But her parents, Elsa and Hector Caraveo, had big aspirations after moving to suburban Adams County from a small town in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1970s, then having four children.

“We expected all the kids to go to college and have an education,” Elsa said Thursday outside her home in Thornton. “But we never expected to have a congresswoman-elect.”

Yadira Caraveo, 41, a Democratic state representative and pediatrician from Thornton, defied the political oddsmakers last week when she eked out a victory over Republican state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer of Brighton to become the first person to represent Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District. She will also be the first Latina to represent Colorado in Congress.

“I’ve been an underdog my entire life,” Caraveo said. “I remember people telling me, ‘You can’t go to medical school, people like you don’t become doctors.’ This was just another challenge to rise up to through hard work.”

Created by Colorado’s first independent congressional redistricting commission in 2021, the 8th District stretches from the northeast Denver suburbs into Greeley, encompassing the area that had the state’s most population growth from 2010 to 2020.  Nearly 40% of 8th District residents are Latino. 

This is the story of how Caraveo rose from the daughter of immigrant parents to a pediatrician, to a state representative to, soon, congresswoman.

Captivated by the 2000 presidential election

Elsa remembers Caraveo, her oldest child, being captivated by the 2000 presidential election, when Republican President George W. Bush defeated Democratic Vice President Al Gore in an election ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“She didn’t know about parties — Republican or Democrat,” Elsa said. “It’s just that she was so interested in it.”

Caraveo said she was captured by the ability of people to make a difference through politics.

“I think it was  the idea of people voting to have somebody represent them,” she said. 

Her parents “talked about community so often, and the ability to give back. And in politics, I saw the ability for these people who were running for office to do that at such a grand scale.”

She said she probably still has VHS videotape from the 2020 election.

“I started volunteering in high school,” she said. “I think Al Gore was the first person that I knocked doors for. I rearranged my fourth year in medical school so that I could volunteer as much as possible for the Obama campaign. But I always thought that it was going to be a hobby.”

She attended Regis University in Denver, then received her medical degree from the University of Colorado to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.

It was a dream her mother shared.

“Growing up, I always wanted to be a doctor,” Elsa said. “But I couldn’t do it because we didn’t have the resources. Then, when she became a doctor, I was so happy.”

Caraveo went to work as a pediatrician, predominantly serving low-income families.

“I was talking to patients about how much it costs to live in Colorado, whether they could make ends meet, how they were struggling to put their kids through school and having to have conversations about whether they could afford health care,” she said.

That motivated her to turn her political hobby into something more.

And after four years in the state House — championing policies to lower drug prices, regulate oil and gas development and more — Caraveo decided to run to represent Colorado’s new congressional district. 

Used to being an underdog

Competitiveness was among the criteria driving Colorado’s congressional redistricting commission last year as it created the 8th District, and the Cook Political Report placed it among the 36 toss-up contests for the U.S. House.

But from the start, polling showed an edge for Kirkmeyer, who served two decades as a Weld County commissioner before being elected to the state Senate in 2020. Kirkmeyer had good name recognition and was a proponent of the oil and gas industry, a top employer in Weld and Adams counties.

FiveThirtyEight gave Caraveo less than a 10% chance of winning. Over the summer, an internal poll conducted by Caraveo’s campaign showing her trailing Kirkmeyer by 8 percentage points was accidentally released. By August, the race had tightened. 

Caraveo outraised Kirkmeyer significantly, but Republican political groups spent far more on the race than their Democratic counterparts. But Caraveo, used to being the underdog, says she didn’t get discouraged.

Much of the money in the race went toward TV ads highlighting the significant differences between the candidates on policy issues.

Caraveo’s campaign attacked Kirkmeyer on her opposition to abortion, while Kirkmeyer slammed Caraveo’s support for stricter oil and gas regulations. The Republican also aired ads late in the campaign falsely claiming that Caraveo voted to legalize fentanyl.

In the end, one candidate’s message resonated more than the other’s.

“Obviously I’m disappointed it didn’t turn out the way we’d wanted it,” Kirkmeyer told The Sun on Thursday. “We put everything out there and we didn’t leave anything on the table.”

The power of the Latino vote

Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a candidate in the 8th Congressional District, makes remarks to reporters Nov. 8, 2022, in Thornton. She will be the first Latina to represent Colorado in Congress. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The results of an exit poll conducted among Colorado Latino voters indicate the demographic made a big difference in Caraveo’s narrow victory. 

Seventy-five percent of Latinos said they voted Democratic in the 8th, compared with 72% statewide who said they voted Democratic in their congressional contest. That’s based on a survey of 531 voters between Oct. 24 and Nov. 8, with an oversampling in the 8th District. The results were released Thursday.

“We can definitely say without the Latino electorate going hard for (Caraveo) she would not be the first Latina to go to the House to represent Colorado,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico political scientist and partner in BSP Research, which conducted the poll.

Caraveo said Latino voters typically welcomed her at their doors and public events.

“I had so many people pull me aside, give me hugs, give me kisses on the cheeks and say, ‘It’s so great to finally see somebody like us, not just running for Congress, but possibly representing us,’” she said.

She said she wants to bring to Congress what she learned being a pediatrician.

“Health care is always going to be a top priority,” she said. “A lot of my effort is going to go into that system to make sure that it’s not about insurance companies or drug companies. It’s about patients and doctors, the people that medicine should really be centered around, and lowering costs.”

Caraveo said she hopes for an appointment to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and that she wants to work with other doctors in Congress on health care issues.

“Everybody was just crying, jumping, hugging”

When Kirkmeyer called to concede on Wednesday night, Caraveo’s family was at the Democrat’s campaign headquarters. Caraveo was leading Kirkmeyer at the time by just a few hundred votes, so the call was unexpected. 

Caraveo’s lead was up to nearly 1,900 votes — or less than 1 percentage point — by Friday morning. Libertarian candidate Richard Ward appears to have cost Kirkmeyer the race. He had 4% of the vote as of Thursday night.

But most of the votes left to tally were in Adams County, where Kirkmeyer’s campaign knew Caraveo had a big advantage. 

“Everybody was just crying, jumping, hugging,” Caraveo’s mother, Elsa, said.

And they’ll be in Washington, D.C., when she’s sworn into office in January. 

“We’re very proud of her,” Elsa said. “And we know she’s gonna do awesome things, for our community and for everybody.”

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...