Last year, Democrat Adam Frisch launched what most thought was a longshot bid for Congress against one of the nation’s most famous conservative firebrands: Rep. Lauren Boebert. It ended up becoming the closest House race in the country, with the Republican incumbent squeaking through by 546 votes.
Now Frisch is running again as less of a longshot and more of a certified contender, arguing the proof of concept he delivered last time will mean swing voters will be even more open to backing him in 2024.
“People want to vote for a winner,” Frisch tells TIME, noting that that’s especially true for those thinking about crossing partisan lines for the first time.
The rematch could be one of the most intense House races of 2024. Boebert first won office in 2020 and quickly drew outsized attention for an approach to the job that ignited her far-right base, including heckling President Joe Biden during the State of the Union and promoting conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and the 2020 presidential election.
“I don’t say this with pride, but it’s going to be probably one of the more expensive, one of the more nationally-focused races,” Frisch says.
The rural district Boebert represents, Colorado’s Third, is larger, by area, than Pennsylvania. It encompasses most of the state’s Western Slope, including Aspen, and stretches to Pueblo, near the southeast corner of the state. It’s Republican-leaning, but has pockets of Democratic support and a libertarian streak.
Frisch, a former Aspen City Council member, argues Boebert is the only “brand-name, nationally-known” Republican representative who stands a real chance of losing reelection next year.
Before losing a nail-biter of a general election, Frisch made it through an even closer contest, winning the Democratic primary by fewer than 300 votes out of more than 60,000. He gives credit for the close margins to his pragmatic approach to being a Democrat, even as Boebert had become a favorite target of national progressives.
“I fully appreciate the last thing people are looking for is a fairly wealthy, straight, middle-aged white guy from a mountain town, let alone Aspen,” he says of the Democratic base. “I knew that going in there.”
When the general election came around, though, it paid off. Almost no one had thought the race would become one of the closest in the country, but Frisch’s moderate brand brought him within 600 votes of winning.
Now that he’s proven he’s a real contender, he may have the tools that he was missing last time. In the first month and a half since he launched his campaign on Valentine’s Day, Frisch raised $1.7 million from about 45,000 donors.
“It’s hard when FiveThirtyEight says you’re supposed to lose by 45,000 votes,” he says of his last bid. “It’s hard for fundraising. It’s hard for media.”
Frisch filed paperwork to enter the 2024 race less than ten days after the election. Some of the decision had to do with the wave of support he received—“There were a lot of people calling from the district and Denver and D.C. asking for us to give serious thought to getting back in,” he says—but he stresses that he was listening more closely to farmers and ranchers around the district.
“Some people under their breath sheepishly told me they voted for me,” he recalls them saying. “They’ve never voted for a non-Republican before.”
Boebert told the Associated Press in January that her close call last year made her “more focused on delivering the policies I ran on than owning the left.” But, she added, “I’m still going to be me.”
That balance is illustrated by the accomplishments she’s touting on her congressional website this week; a flurry of press releases detail her recent push to impeach Joe Biden over the situation at the Southern border, as well as amendments she filed on House bills that passed with bipartisan support, and efforts to protect Colorado’s water infrastructure and its veterans.
“Adam’s cowboy boots and the actors he hires as ranchers for his TV ads aren’t fooling anyone,” Boebert wrote in a statement to TIME. “Nobody fights harder for the people of rural Colorado than me.” She touted achievements in Congress including “protecting the San Luis Valley’s water from a Denver water grab” and “co-leading the bipartisan Dolores River bill” with the state’s Democratic Senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper.
If Boebert is getting serious, so is the Democratic Party. Colorado’s Third District is among those that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting, meaning Frisch is all but guaranteed to have the party more squarely behind him than he did last time.
“We’ll get some support, because last time, we got 0.0 dollars from the Colorado Democratic Party, and we got 0.0 dollars from the national Democratic Party,” he says. “Without a doubt, both parties are watching this race.”
But he admits some ambivalence about no longer being viewed as an underdog, particularly given how all of the outside attention means less control over the messages being used to sway voters to back him.
“There’s a lot of—I don’t know what you call it, soft side PACs, super PACs—all those organizations are out there,” he says. “I would rather them just kind of stay away. Some of them are good, but some of them are not really focused on the job. They’re coming up here—you know, calling her a fascist and going after her personal family and everything else like that, to me, is counterproductive for our country.”
“We would love to just control our own message,” he adds, “but we can’t get involved legally whatsoever with that.”
What he can do is emphasize, again and again, that he’s not looking out for Democratic Party interests; he’s interested in the concerns of ranchers, farmers, veterans and ordinary families. His focus is on water infrastructure, energy, agriculture, and jobs. He repeatedly signals that he would take a collaborative approach with Republicans in Congress, telling TIME that he’s a fan of the bipartisan Problem Solvers’ Caucus. He namechecks one of its members, Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat who he says he grew up with.
Frisch’s message to Republicans who consider voting for him, even if they’re backing Republicans for the rest of their ballots: “I’m not asking you to change party, I’m not asking you to do anything else except think about your family, your business, and your community.”
If he talks like voters in the district live in a cooler-headed, less-polarized age of American politics, his approach to retail campaigning is similarly nostalgic. Frisch is all about traveling around the state in a red pick-up truck and meeting voters where they are. Last week, he attended an energy conference in the town of Craig where he says others there noticed that he stayed for the whole thing, whereas the congresswoman stopped by only briefly for a photo op. (“Congresswoman Boebert attended the energy conference for about two hours, and she connected with all the attendees and heard their concerns,” a Boebert spokesperson wrote in a statement to TIME. “She has a large district, and she has a full schedule traveling … Congresswoman Boebert’s team attended the entire Craig energy conference. It is easy for an unemployed politician to spend two days promoting himself at a conference.”)
But Frisch’s strategy of talking to all kinds of voters all across the state seemed to benefit him last time when few took him seriously. The extra investment he may see in 2024 will be important, he says, but it’s not what matters the most.
“The real work is in the dirt, on the gravel roads, going to barbecue joints, and breweries and bakeries; I put on 20 pounds last time,” he says. “I got most of it off, whatever. Just getting out there and doing that.”
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