What happens to democracy when you lift the ceiling on campaign spending caps in a highly unequal country?
The answer is simple. You get Lauren Boebert versus Adam Frisch for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
Democracy in the United States has been backsliding since 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and outside interest groups can spend as much as they want on campaigns. Elections, they reasoned, are free speech and, thus, it’s unconstitutional to limit campaign spending.
The ruling empowered the country’s wealthiest constituents to take over the political landscape, essentially sucking the life out of campaigns run by everyday Americans. Few examples reflect the consequences of Citizens United as well as Boebert versus Frisch for CD3.
Boebert exploded on the political scene in 2019 when she attended a Beto O’Rourke rally in Aurora and announced to the world, “I’m here to say, hell no, you’re not (taking our guns).” Since then, she’s built a career on defending the right to bear arms while using her congressional platform to empower far-right militia groups and conspiracy theorists. For example, on Jan. 6, 2021, while insurgents prepared to march toward the Capitol, Boebert tweeted “1776.” Several months later, when asked about the QAnon conspiracy theory, Boebert said, “If this is real, then it can be really great for our country.”
Boebert’s power stems from her ability to raise unprecedented out-of-state cash. So far, her 2022 campaign has raised $5.2 million. One of her largest donors is the House Freedom Fund, which is the financial arm of Congress’ most conservative caucus, the House Freedom Caucus. The fund emerged in 2015, and among its founders are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump’s former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
Opposite of Boebert is Frisch, a Minnesota native who cut his teeth in New York City trading currencies in emerging markets. Today, Frisch lives in Aspen, where money, not politics, is the common denominator. Frisch’s finances pale in comparison to Boebert’s war chest, but the source of his funds is equally revealing. His early campaign was leveraged by a personal contribution of $2.2 million. Since then, he’s raised $1.7 million across 23,000 donors and more importantly, he’s drawn even in polls with Boebert. A year ago, Frisch set out to build a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to defeat Boebert and restore order to CD3. And so far, it is working.
Still, in a district composed of largely working-class voters who live in the shadows of affluence, it’s hard to imagine a well-heeled man from Aspen crossing the finish line ahead of Boebert. But even if he does, Frisch’s wealthy bravado is not a remedy for America’s declining democracy, it’s a symptom.
Here it’s important to recall that Frisch’s success in the primaries came at the cost of a truly original candidate in Pueblo’s Sol Sandoval, who spent over a year on the road, telling constituents about her life as a working-class daughter of immigrants. Ultimately, Sandoval lost to Frisch by 290 votes. It’s impossible to know whether she could have successfully challenged Boebert on the main stage, but what is clear is that Sandoval’s failure to emerge from the primaries is a product of an electoral system that prioritizes money above all else.
Personally, I hope Frisch prevails, as he is clearly the lesser of evils. But regardless of who wins CD3 in November, the outcome will represent another step in the wrong direction for American democracy.
Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.