PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Retreating from the turmoil in Washington, D.C., Rep. Lauren Boebert arrived in bucolic southwest Colorado to turmoil of a different sort — the lingering impact of an embarrassing moment when she was caught on tape vaping and groping with a date during a musical production of “Beetlejuice.”
The scandal threw a wrench into an already tough reelection bid. After Boebert won her last race by just 546 votes, she began revamping her campaign strategy. It now includes apologies to voters at campaign events for an episode that has rattled even loyal Republicans.
“Most of us were like ‘holy cow,’” said Beverly Cuyler, a long-time Boebert supporter. “And one of the big reasons for that is a gap between how she presented herself as a Christian and what ended up happening.”
Expected to face a rematch with Democrat Adam Frisch, in a race that could determine which party controls Congress, Boebert tackled the embarrassment head-on at the Lincoln Day Dinner in Archuleta County.
“I owe each and every one of you here a deep, heartfelt apology,” she said as murmurs of agreement faded to attentive silence.
It’s an unusual tone for Boebert. The congresswoman’s unapologetic, Trumpian style had propelled her to MAGA stardom nationwide; now, she’s fighting for political survival at home.
Boebert, who defended former President Donald Trump’s claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election and stood in the vanguard of his Make America Great Again movement, appears clear-eyed about the challenge ahead.
She’s offered olive branches to local newspapers she once spurned as biased. So-called ballot harvesting, which she’s decried as an underhanded Democratic tactic, will be part of her campaign strategy. Her supporters can attend boot camps to become versed in her talking points, which have partly shifted from national priorities to more local matters, a strategy endorsed by the state GOP.
“Her misstep in 2022 was not being as focused on (the district), so she’s making adjustments to not make that mistake again,” said Dave Williams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.
Frisch has raised at least $7.7 million — the third largest House campaign chest nationwide — to Boebert’s $2.4 million. He’s asking voters to help him “stop the circus,” reviving a slogan from the 2022 election.
“Democrats certainly smell blood in the water,” Boebert said in an interview, sitting in a long hall in southwest Colorado before the Lincoln Day Dinner.
Boebert said she’s always focused on district issues in past campaigns, but added that this time around they are pushing more aggressive messaging on the ground — emphasizing legislation she’s helped push through Congress that directly impacts southwest Colorado.
“Certainly when you had the closest congressional race in the entire country, you know, it’s a big deal,” her new campaign manager, Drew Sexton, said in an interview. “There was a need to kind of beef up on staff after, you know, the last cycle and, you know, kind of wanted to have a different approach.”
It’s a balancing act. Boebert has cultivated a national profile as larger-than-Colorado, a far-right agitator who ascends to the stage of conservative conferences to geysers of sparks. In speeches across the country, she’s blurred the line between political rally and religious revival.
But she also has a job as a policymaker, where she’s focused on nuts-and-bolts issues that matter to her constituents: forest management, water rights, jobs, and public lands. For many supporters, the two roles overlap.
Her district’s vast expanse includes ruddy red mesas standing sentry over ranches owned for generations, coal mining hamlets in the Rocky Mountains, and a streak of frontier libertarianism among its residents — where God and big government are both feared.
Voters take deep pride in their way of life, and many feel it’s being forgotten and demeaned. Boebert’s full-throated defense of agrarian, conservative, Christian values helps explain how she got to Congress in the first place.
“Our voices get drowned out by bigger cities,” said Cody Perkins, 31, who arrived at the Lincoln Day Dinner bedecked in an American flag suit. “I just like that she’s not afraid to speak up. … We need a voice.”
Those values are the same reason Perkins cringed when the videotape surfaced of Boebert at the theater in Denver.
Boebert’s apology, Perkins said, was “definitely needed.”
“I hope we can all move past this,” he said.
For other Republicans, Boebert’s provocations are disheartening.
“It should be a lot easier to get a Republican candidate into the district. We shouldn’t be pulling teeth to get votes,” said Dusty Mars, 44, who voted for Boebert in the past but isn’t sure what he’ll do in the primary.
Mars will vote for the Republican candidate in the general election, he said, but hopes for one “that will represent our values in a way that doesn’t offend other people.”
Dennis Anderson, who publishes several newspapers in the district, said Boebert appears to be returning to her 2019 roots as a scrappy, electrifying candidate fighting for the people. While campaigning in the district this election, Boebert seems “more empathetic” than her disruptive national profile.
“Lately, it feels like she’s been knocked back down to earth a little bit,” he said.
At events and debates in the last election, Boebert railed against then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who became a foil for bloated government, a broken system and Democratic demagoguery.
“She was very focused on being a foot soldier for Donald Trump, being kind of a thorn in the side for the Biden administration,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics in Colorado.
Boebert’s updated campaign strategy — not all that far removed from Pelosi’s election adage of “owning the ground” — seemed a smart way to pivot, said Masket, who expects Boebert to do better in the 2024 election anyway. He thinks Trump’s presidential campaign will draw more Republicans to the polls.
Pelosi’s dethronement, which Boebert said freed her up to push for laws that help her constituents, also raises fresh questions about Boebert’s effectiveness as a lawmaker.
In trainings where supporters learn her messaging, the aperture has shrunk to local policy and legislative changes Boebert fought during the first speakership battle — leaving efforts to impeach President Joe Biden out of the frame.
Boebert’s demands during McCarthy’s weeks trying to get elected speaker included 72 hours to read a bill before a vote — an issue that attendees at the Lincoln Day Dinner in Colorado enthusiastically applauded.
Still, after her narrow victory last time, Boebert will have to win back some unaffiliated voters and moderate conservatives who defected to Frisch last time.
Boebert says she is intent on sending a message “that I can work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle… and not compromise my principles.”
While everyone is familiar with the congresswoman’s stance on hot-button national issues, Boebert and her campaign are emphasizing her work on lesser-known policies — including her bipartisan efforts to retain jobs as a chemical depot shutters in her district.
After Colorado’s largely city dwellers voted to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, Boebert has also proposed legislation to give ranchers greater recourse to defend their flocks.
That legislation received raucous applause at the Archuleta County event from the voters seated around folding tables. But when Boebert turned her attention to the scandal, a hush came over the room.
“I let you down. I fell short of my standards, and I’m taking full accountability of what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard,” said Boebert, “And I will never put myself in a position to dishonor you.”
Some voters said she still has work to do. Many, including Cuyler, said they appreciated her words.
“She screwed up. She needs to up her game,” she said. “But, you know, we still love her.”
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.