Don Coram has been training race horses for much of his life and has a succinct formula for what it takes to get across the finish line first: “You train to win. And you win the race at the end.”
Ditto for his own political race.
Coram is coming out of the gate late. Just six weeks out from his June 28 Republican primary contest with U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in the 3rd Congressional District, and two weeks before county clerks begin mailing out ballots, Coram hasn’t been a familiar face on the campaign trail. He has served 11 years in the Colorado Legislature representing Southwest Colorado, but he is a dark horse in his bid to unseat Boebert, the first-term congresswoman from Garfield County with a national following.
Most political insiders give Coram, who lives in Montrose, only a longshot likelihood to come from behind in such a short time period. His chances, they say, are similar to the winning thoroughbred Rich Strike’s 80-1 odds going into the recent Kentucky Derby.
Whoever wins the GOP primary is likely to win the general election, too, in the Republican-leaning 3rd District, which covers the Western Slope and wraps around into Pueblo.
“It’s all position and tactics,” said Coram, the day after a marathon-to-midnight end to his time at the Colorado Legislature, first as a state representative and, for the past five years, as a state senator.
Coram’s limited campaign presence up to this point has made some of his supporters nervous. Some express dismay that he hasn’t been getting out in the 50,000-square-mile district since he announced outside a Grand Junction coffee shop in early January that he would challenge Boebert. In the meantime, Boebert has been running weekly front-page ads in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that refer to her opponent as “Corrupt Coram.” She pops up regularly in the local media as she makes the rounds at award ceremonies and community meetings, dropping incendiary pronouncements about state and national hot topics.
Coram brushes off her attacks on him as “lies – all lies.” And he cites several reasons for his seeming absence on the campaign trail, mainly that he was at the Colorado Capitol finishing up his work as a state lawmaker.
“I had to finish the job I was elected to do,” he said about closing out the legislative session that ended on May 11.
Coram also opted to petition onto the primary ballot rather than attempting to go through the Republican caucus process that this year favored the farthest right candidates. That meant waiting until mid-April for the Colorado Secretary of State’s office to determine he had enough valid signatures to make the primary.
More waiting followed. Within a week of the certification, four voters filed a lawsuit alleging that Coram’s petition shouldn’t have been accepted because it contained nearly 400 invalid signatures. A ruling in his favor was handed down April 28.
Coram said he felt it was prudent to wait for the court’s decision before he spent campaign money on items like signs and radio ads. He wanted there to be no doubt his name would be on the primary ballot as the only Republican challenger to Boebert.
“People will see me now. We have a great ground game planned,” Coram said.
That game, in his first week of intense campaigning, included stops in Aspen, Cortez, Meeker, Pueblo, Montrose and Grand Junction.
He appeared Tuesday at a meeting of a newly formed group of moderates called Restore the Balance at Colorado Mesa University. That group consists of about 2,000 people of all political persuasions who have signed a pledge to advance civility in politics and to combat extremism. Coram has signed that pledge.
A stream of supporters at the event shook his hand and told him they had switched parties from Democrat to unaffiliated just to vote for him in the primary.
“This has been happening everywhere we go,” said his campaign manager JD Key.
Democrat John Salazar, who knows what it takes to win the 3rd District – and also how it can be lost – said now that Coram has hit the ground running, he can’t stop. Salazar represented the 3rd District for three terms from 2004 to 2011 but was knocked off by Cortez businessman Scott Tipton in his 2010 bid for a fourth term. Tipton held the seat until he was ousted in the 2020 GOP primary by Boebert.
“He (Coram) is very popular in this valley,” said Salazar, who now farms near Manassa. “But I know he is going to have to get out there in the district a bunch.”
Dick Wadhams, a veteran of more than 40 years of GOP political campaigning in Colorado, warned it is time – maybe past time – for Coram to woo the 758,000 residents of Colorado’s largest geographic congressional district.
“He is going to have to make his case very aggressively now,” Wadhams said.
Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP, said Boebert will be a formidable opponent.
She was relatively unknown when she bested Tipton in the 2020 Republican primary. She stomped across the district in high heels and skinny jeans with a Glock strapped to her thigh and a Trump-style litany of cutting zingers for liberals and “woke” causes. She offered support for fringe causes. She sailed past Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush in the general election after Mitsch Bush ran a lackluster campaign that relied heavily on Zoom amid the COVID pandemic.
Wadhams said Boebert has displayed a vitality and a natural ability to know what to do and say on the campaign trail and, even though she has alienated some centrist Republicans, she is still very popular with voters who see her as a powerful persona in the national political realm.
The fact that she has accomplished little in terms of legislation doesn’t matter to voters, Wadhams said. He said voters don’t expect a lot of legislative wins for freshman representatives.
Boebert also has the advantage of being flush with campaign cash. She has outraised Coram by a huge margin. At the end of March, Boebert had $2.2 million on hand. Coram had $55,000.
The cash advantage means Boebert can get her message out, whether it’s through advertisements in the Daily Sentinel or on TV.
But Key, Coram’s campaign manager, brushed off the lopsided financial warchests.
“She has the dollars, but we know that dollars don’t vote,” Key said.
As evidenced by his welcome at the Restore the Balance meeting in Grand Junction, Coram may get a boost from affiliation-switching Democrats in his primary bid even though they are overshadowed by Republicans in most of the district’s counties.
Unaffiliated voters currently make up the largest voting bloc in the 3rd District, and the number of unaffiliated voters have increased in each of the district’s counties since the first of this year.
As of May 1, 42% of the district’s voters were unaffiliated, while 31% were Republicans and 25% were Democrats, according to voter data from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. But while Republicans may not make up a majority of the district’s voters, the district is considered safe for the GOP.
Republicans are favored by 9 percentage points in the 3rd District, according to analysis of election results in the district dating back to 2016 completed by nonpartisan legislative staff. As a result, some Democrats see their best chance of ousting Boebert is through Coram, not through one of their party’s three candidates running in the Democratic primary for a chance to win the seat.
Anti-Boebert political activists across the district are urging Democrats to become unaffiliated voters and cast ballots in the GOP primary to help oust Boebert. In letters to editors and media interviews around the district, former Democrats have said they made the change because they are sick and tired of what they call Boebert’s showboat antics, including yelling at President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address.
“Personally, I think our congresswoman is an embarrassment to our district,” said Thalia Oster, a Gunnison attorney who recently switched her voter registration from Democrat to unaffiliated to vote against Boebert in the primary.
Oster, her husband, and four friends have taken on the task of trying to convince others to do the same.
They began their campaign in December after a dinner together that included a lot of bemoaning what they see as Boebert’s shortcomings, along with the overall shift to extremism in politics. They decided to call themselves the “Gang of Six” and focused on writing letters to every print newspaper in the 27 counties of the district.
Their prime message: Boebert needs to be voted out even if it means quitting the Democratic Party to help make that happen.
“Lauren Boebert is so divisive that she has unified a coalition against her,” Key said.
Mike Ritchey, a retired journalist and one of the Gang of Six, said he is encouraging votes for those who are serious about legislating, not grandstanding. In Ritchey’s estimation, Coram is one of those who takes his servant-of-the-people political role seriously. But Ritchey has been worried about the near silence emanating from Coram’s campaign.
“We encourage him to pick up the pace. We want to see him out there cranking people up and getting them out to vote,” Ritchey said.
Key said that is happening. He laid out what voters in the district can expect to see over the next six weeks before the June 28 primary.
The campaigning-in-earnest began the day after the state Legislature wrapped up. That Thursday happened to be Coram’s 74th birthday and he spent it doing media interviews and attending a private fundraising event in Denver. Key said he has stacked Coram’s calendar based on coalitions and lists he built while Coram was wrapping up in the Legislature.
“We have had time to plan,” he said. “We will be knocking doors. You will see yard signs and 4×8 signs going up. We are working on a couple of videos. We will get him on the radio. There is going to be a hell of a blitz right at the end. He is totally focused on this race now. And he is a workhorse. He will be constantly on the road.”
A big part of those travels will land Coram in the Pueblo area which Coram called “the key to the race” with its 122,000 voters and a majority of Democrats and unaffiliated voters overshadowing Republicans.
In her general election win in 2020, Boebert acknowledged Pueblo’s importance by saying her win was for “the steel workers in Pueblo.”
Key said Coram will not be holding Boebert-style, large-scale rallies as he travels the district. Instead, he said Coram will be meeting at farm bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, Cattleman’s Association meetings and other venues where he can interact directly with voters.
The campaign is finalizing details for two debates. The first is scheduled for Thursday morning at the Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio. The second, planned for Pueblo, is still up in the air. Coram proposed four debates, but Boebert accepted two.
Boebert’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.
Wadhams said Coram has another matter to tackle if he is going to be successful. He said Coram likes to stand on his long record of getting things done for voters in his statehouse district. But that tack didn’t work for Tipton when he was defeated by Boebert. He had done plenty for his constituents, but they were ready for change.
To run against a whirlwind like Boebert, Wadhams said, “you have to retool your message and your appeal to voters. Don has to create that similar energy for his campaign.”
Coram finds that fodder for a joke.
“I’ve thought about campaigning with a Smith & Wesson and skinny jeans, but I’m not skinny,” Coram said.
For his nail-biting supporters, Coram offers this consolation: “Just know that I will be out and about in the district. You will see me now.”