IGNACIO — Colorado’s West Slope firebrand, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert traded blows with her most formidable challenger, state Sen. Don Coram, Thursday morning at Ignacio’s Sky Ute Casino.
The hour-long debate between the two, vying for the Republican nomination in the massive congressional district, ranged in topics from gun control, the environment, labor and immigration. But in a broader sense, the debate — Boebert’s first since entering politics — served more as a competition between the candidates’ personalities.
Boebert, still serving her first term, identified herself as a through-and-through conservative, frequently name-checking President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Coram identified himself as a seasoned legislator able to work with his Democratic colleagues.
Top of mind for moderator Dave Woodruff, Durango chapter president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, was the deadly shooting Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old man stormed into Robb Elementary School, killing 19 students and two adults before police shot and killed him. Considering that shooting, he asked the candidates what role Congress has in reducing mass shootings, particularly school shootings.
Both called for a need to boost security at schools and invest more in mental health care.
More common attributes among mass shooters tend to be a sense of resentment, wish for notoriety, obsession with other shooters, past domestic violence and access to firearms, The Washington Post reported after deadly 2019 shootings in El Paso, Tex. and Dayton, Ohio.
In the debate, Boebert said gun control and new laws were not solutions to the problem.
“We cannot legislate away evil,” she said.
Instead, she spoke of arming teachers.
“Gun-free zones have proven to be deadly,” she said.
Coram said after the debate that he’s reluctant to obstruct a person’s right to own firearms, but added that there are some people who “should not have weapons.” He also acknowledged that the rising tide of white nationalism is a “huge problem” connected to mass shootings, but said he isn’t yet sure how to address the issue.
In an interview after the debate, Boebert declined to discuss connections between white nationalism and recent mass shootings. Instead underscoring her emphasis on mental health issues and then mentioning video games as well.
“This is a problem of culture,” she said. “Of godlessness that is here overtaking America.”
Both candidates were also asked about the 2020 election and differed on the topic.
Coram acknowledged that Biden legitimately won the presidency and he has yet to see any legitimate evidence on fraud that would have changed the course of the election.
During an interview with The Denver Post, Boebert would not say whether Biden was legitimately elected and referred back to her unsubstantiated claims during the debate that hundreds of thousands of ballots were mailed out illegally. She also called for ongoing investigations into the election.
As the candidates debated a 100-acre wildfire burned just west of downtown Durango, perhaps 20 miles away. Wednesday afternoon helicopters hovered over the blaze, dumping massive buckets of water onto the flames.
Some snowpack remains in the mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley to the east, though it’s essentially all melted in the four-corners region.
Woodruff asked the candidates how they would protect their district’s public lands, protect against wildfires and conserve water as the Colorado River continues to dry.
Coram touted his experience with water issues in the statehouse and said many of the problems boil down to forest management and investing in technologies that already exist, which can help predict the path of wildfires. He said forests are the state’s largest reservoirs.
“We can do better, we must do better,” he said.
Boebert also spoke to forest management and said the best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to prevent wildfires by stopping the bark beetle epidemic and by removing dead or dying trees creating a “massive tinderbox.”
She praised recent projects like the construction of the Wolf Creek Reservoir and castigated a Front Range project that would have piped water out of the already dry San Luis Valley to Douglas County. She opposed that project, as did many others including Gov. Jared Polis and U.S. senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, all Democrats.
“This is something I stopped,” Boebert said of that pipeline.
She didn’t. Douglas County commissioners voted this week not to use emergency pandemic funds from the federal government for the project but Commissioner Abe Laydon told The Denver Post the company behind the work – Renewable Water Resources – is welcome to keep pitching officials on the work.
Woodruff also asked the candidates about America’s labor shortage, how immigration might play a part in boosting Colorado’s workforce and how they might help people immigrate to the country legally.
Boebert launched into a self-described rant about the frustrations of small business owners and cursed the federal government for overreach during the pandemic with shutdowns and regulations.
“The government had no right to choose winners and losers,” she said.
Boebert also called for securing America’s southern border and decried the millions of “illegal aliens invading our country.”
Coram said some foreign embassies could vet prospective immigrants and assign them to domestic employment.
“But we need to bring workers and not drug dealers and criminals,” he said.
Boebert accused him of supporting amnesty and so-called chain migration.
“I’m not in favor of illegal immigration either,” Coram replied, but added that undocumented immigrants in Colorado still deserve education and healthcare.
As the debate moved forward the crowd devolved into booing some comments from the candidates and laughing at others. At one point Boebert joined the moderator in calling for “order” and Coram laughed and said “this is fun.”
The two accused each other of corruption. Boebert said her opponent used the legislative process to line his own pockets, to which he suggested she bring any facts she might have forward in court.
In return, Coram noted that Boebert’s husband took in hundreds of thousands of dollars working as a consultant for an energy firm, a fact she didn’t disclose during her initial campaign.
She replied by addressing her husband from the lectern.
“Thank you for working so hard, babe,” she said.
Both candidates came out of the gates swinging before a crowd of perhaps 300 people, supporters of each split down the middle of the room like a wedding. Those supporting Boebert sat to the right, those for Coram sat on the left.
“I thought we agreed to no notes,” Coram said to the moderator before the debate began. He gestured toward Boebert, who was holding a sheet of paper at her lectern.
Boebert pushed back, saying the opposing campaigns agreed that “paper” would be allowed, which Coram said after the debate was technically true but a detail that would have to be ironed out before their yet-to-be-determined second debate, slated for Pueblo.
“She shows up with a paper full of answers all ready,” Coram told reporters after the debate. “She can’t think on her feet.”
The jabs continued into their closing statements.
“I’m just a legislator, not an instigator,” Coram said. “I’m not looking for a reality TV show. I’m looking to do the job.”
Boebert touted her conservative bona fides and cut into Coram’s record on immigration saying taxpayers are “paying for illegal aliens to get a gender studies degree.”
By the end of the debate, it appeared as though the candidates changed few, if any, minds in the room. The side seated in favor of Boebert cheered for the incumbent and Coram’s side cheered their support for him.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, Boebert has two distinct advantages, more money and a larger national audience. She’s outraised and outspent each of her opponents many times over and still has even more left over, campaign finance data filed with the Federal Election Commission shows.
By the end of March, Boebert’s campaign reported raising $4.42 million, spending $2.59 million and still had $2.19 million cash on hand.
Coram reported raising just 2% of that amount, spending 1.3% as much and had $55,251 cash on hand, just 2.5% of Boebert’s remaining coffer.
Republican party members and political scientists expect that whoever wins the Republican nomination for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District will likely win the seat, though Democratic candidates are also gearing up for a fight.
While some Democratic challengers have raised more money than Coram they still lag behind the incumbent. Boebert has raised more than 116%, spent more than 135% and retains 115% more cash on hand than all of those opponents combined.
Faced with the financial realities of the campaign, Coram noted that outside money doesn’t necessarily translate to votes within Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.