Sol Sandoval is getting into community activist mode, rearranging chairs in the rec center in Colorado City, so that she and about a dozen voters can talk about why she wants to represent Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
It’s been more than 10 years since a Democrat has held this seat and the redistricting process increased its Republican lean to a nine-point advantage. But Democrats think incumbent Rep. Lauren Boebert’s controversy-filled first term could provide them with an opportunity this fall.
“I’m choosing to sit down with people. I’m choosing to listen,” Sandoval said to the group who came to meet her in this small town on the southwestern end of Pueblo County. “I’m choosing to take the difficult questions.”
Despite campaigning for almost a year and half, this meet-and-greet has the feel of a new campaign. The conversation ranges from Sandoval’s biographic details – she’s the daughter of immigrants, the first in her family to graduate from college, a single mother, a community organizer and a gun owner – before getting into her vision for the district.
“I'm running because I want to help people. I want to serve people,” she said. “And the reason why I want to do it is because I know what it feels like to not be served, to not be represented, to not be listened to.”
Sandoval doesn’t have a canned stump speech. Instead, she takes questions and there is a back and forth with the group. They talk about health care, water, education and providing opportunities to keep young people in the district. She tells them about a rancher in the San Luis Valley who sends her a daily prayer.
“Here is this man,” she said, “his hands are cracked and dry and, you know, he’s a hardworking man, but I could see the pain in his eyes watching, you know, his child leaving his home because there are no opportunities.”
If there is a thread that runs through the conversation on this night, it is that she is willing to talk with everyone and anyone. And Rev. Kevin Olsen, who has worked with Sandoval and participated in the group, emphasized Sandoval’s compassion, a value he wants in any representative, and which he believes, “is just 180 degrees from somebody like Boebert.”
That pitch appeals to unaffiliated voter Donna Hambric of Rye, who also doesn’t see that quality in Boebert.
“I think we could have a more positive representative of both our liberal and our conservative points of view,” she said.
But in a district that’s a hodgepodge of red rural communities, liberal mountain towns and purple working-class cities, some Democrats worry that Sandoval, who got onto the ballot by the district assembly – a grassroots process dominated by Party faithfuls – might be too liberal for the wider electorate.
In contrast, the other two Democrats in the race are running as centrists and both collected signatures for the ballot.
“I think we need more moderate people on both sides of the aisle,” said Adam Frisch, a former Aspen City Council member who entered the race a year after Sandoval. “And I think the extremists, especially on the right, are not being helpful for our country’s civility. And we need someone who’s gonna focus on our district, not on their Twitter account.”
Frisch has a business background. And while he comes from the resort town of Aspen, he stresses his rural roots. He grew up on an American Indian reservation, where his father was a health provider, and his family still has agriculture ties.
“I really wanna make a stand that rural America should be fought over by two parties. Not just one,” he said.
And despite Pitkin County being known as a playground for the rich and famous, he said his part of the district faces the same challenges as the rest of it – from a lack of affordable housing to concerns about water supply. He thinks voters all across the Western Slope are motivated by kitchen table issues – like inflation.
“Everything costs too darn much: The gas is out of control, health care,” he said. “And having a strong business background, I think I can add something to that conversation.”
About a dozen people showed up for a recent meet-and-greet outside a coffee shop in Montrose. If he makes it to Congress, Frisch said he wants to be part of the Problem Solvers Caucus and work across the aisle. As if to make that point, he warmly greeted state Sen. Don Coram – who is running in the district’s GOP primary – when the two men ran into each other at the coffee shop before Frisch’s event.
Republicans might have the advantage based on the district’s past election results, but Frisch is optimistic. He thinks a moderate Democrat stands a fighting chance against Boebert.
“There are a lot of people that are really frustrated – moderate Republicans, unaffiliated – that have voted for her before; they wanted to try a fresh face and try to give it a shot,” he said. “And I think she’s disappointed a tremendous amount of people, and upset a lot of people and embarrassed a lot of people.”
But while many at Frisch’s event liked his moderate stance, Democrat Michael Hoffman worries that in this political climate, it might take something more – especially against an incumbent who has shown she can energize the populist Republican base.
“I think it’s gonna take somebody who is very charismatic and who comes across with a strong personality to go against Lauren (Boebert)’s strong personality,” Hoffman said. “People are looking for a strong personality, more so than policy issues. And I don’t think people think much beyond that.”
Enter the third Democrat in the primary – Alex Walker, who has taken a page from Boebert’s social media playbook. When the political newcomer jumped in the race in early March, his launch video went viral because of its scatological theme (think: lots of poop, raining from the sky on unsuspecting residents of the district).
Walker said he’s worried about the direction the country is headed and wants to help clean up the mess of the last few political years.
“I’m running because people in my generation aren’t stepping up and we need somebody to make politics accessible to a new generation of change-makers,” said the 31-year-old.
The openly gay engineer is focusing on issues such as affordable housing, bringing better tech jobs to the district and making health care more accessible.
Despite his late entry, Walker is upbeat, focusing on the number of unique impressions his social media offerings have reached. But he did not do much to publicize a recent in-person swing through the district. A campaign stop at a brewery in Telluride only appeared to attract a few people.
He said he’s trying to pull in donations from young, disenfranchised voters nationally. But while his intro video might appeal to the TikTok generation, older voters, like Democrat Joel Ohlsen, had a different take.
“I’m concerned about his initial introduction to his candidacy,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to have been what most people would, uh, sort of take a shine to.”
Walker argues that in order to be successful, the Democrat in this race needs to get his or her name out nationally to raise money. He has the least cash on hand of the Democratic candidates, with just under $70,000, according to the most recent campaign filings. Sandoval has just shy of $100,000, while Frish has the most in the bank, with just over $1.6 million, the vast bulk of which he has lent himself. They all lag behind Boebert, who has more than $2 million in campaign cash on hand.
Walker is also taking another lesson from Boebert’s first run for political office: holding lots of voter events.
“She won by going physically everywhere,” he said. “Just about the only noble thing she did in pursuit of this seat was talking to voters. And that is exactly what we need to replicate.”
Sandoval and Frisch are also logging miles in the district, which takes up almost half the state. And they’re all staring down the clock: The primary is now less than two months away.