If Republican congressional candidate Marina Zimmerman topples Lauren Boebert in next year's GOP primary, she'll have a sleepwalking dog to thank, in part.
Zimmerman, an industrial crane operator and first-time candidate who lives in the far southwest corner of Colorado, knows she's facing long odds challenging the incumbent, whose brash, confrontational approach to politics has helped make Boebert the most prominent Republican in the state.
Although Zimmerman understands that Colorado voters only rarely toss out incumbent members of Congress in a primary — it's only happened twice in the last 50 years — she has a good model for what works: Boebert herself.
Boebert is one of the two primary challengers since 1972 whose campaign unseated a sitting member of Colorado's congressional delegation.
The first occurrence was in the 1972 Democratic primary, when young environmentalist Alan Merson upset 12-term U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall, the entrenched chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and one of the most powerful members of Congress, though Merson lost the general election to Republican Jim Johnson.
It wasn't until 2020 that another candidate managed the same feat. That's when Boebert, a political neophyte with a gun-themed restaurant in Rifle, rode a shoestring campaign and a simple "time for a change" message to a nearly 10-point win over Republican Scott Tipton, who had represented the Western Slope-based 3rd Congressional District for five terms.
Shortly before she declared her candidacy in December 2019, Boebert got some national attention for a video clip that went viral, depicting her challenging Democrat Beto O'Rourke on his plan to confiscate guns.
Tipton, who raised almost $1 million through the primary, did his best to ignore Boebert, who only spent around $120,000 up to the primary.
When Boebert attempted to claim the mantle of the true Donald Trump supporter, Tipton, one of the president's two honorary campaign co-chairs in Colorado, turned around and brandished Trump's "Complete and Total Endorsement."
Boebert persisted, taking incessant shots at the incumbent — at one point linking Tipton to the ultra-liberal Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in a modestly budgeted ad about pandemic relief that only ran on Fox News Channel — and securing top-line on the primary ballot by winning the most support from Republican delegates at the district assembly.
It wasn't a setback, though, for Tipton, who brushed off tea party challengers in two previous primaries, because he had already petitioned himself onto the primary ballot — mindful, perhaps, that Trump's other state co-chair, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, nearly lost his seat a few cycles back when another young Republican upstart came within a handful of votes of costing Lamborn a berth in the primary with a surprisingly strong showing at the 5th Congressional District assembly.
Heading into the primary last summer, however, Tipton's pollsters made a crucial error when they determined that irregular primary voters — essentially, Trump supporters who hadn't voted in previous GOP primaries — weren't going to show up when Trump wasn't on the ballot, and told Tipton he had a comfortable lead.
But they did show up, in sufficient numbers to skew the results and hand the nomination to Boebert, who went on to receive Trump's backing within days and then won the heavily Republican district four months later.
Zimmerman, who calls herself a "common-sense conservative," is hoping to flip the seat from Boebert using a similar playbook, though with some aspects run in reverse.
Instead of trying to out-Trump the incumbent, she says she's running to reclaim the Republican Party from Boebert and other zealous Trump adherents she believes are ruining the GOP.
"I’m passionate about wanting to get the country and the Republican Party back on track, put this craziness behind us," Zimmerman said in a recent interview. "I’m a conservative, but I want things put back right and for us to move forward. Rise up and reboot. That’s what we have to do."
Zimmerman didn't vote for Trump last year — "I voted for Biden, but it was a vote against Trump," she said — and is worried too many Republicans are falling for Trump's complaints that the election was rigged.
"I think it’s time to face the fact that the Republican Party made a lot of mistakes and they lost the election," she said. "It’s time to move forward, to repair it and move forward. It’s not helping, and I don’t think it’s a winning strategy to continue with the Big Lie. Let’s just face the fact that nobody likes to lose, and if somebody gives you a reason to say 'I didn't actually lose,' you’re going to jump on that, but the fact of the matter is Joe Biden won the election. Now we have to figure out — and I think we know what went wrong — and fix that."
Boebert's steady stream of invective and insults — with new tweets sparking outrage on a nearly daily basis — are part of the problem, Zimmerman said.
"Why are people leaving the party right and left? Because of that kind of nonsense. We want to put this party back together and preserve our conservative ideals, then we better stop with this nonsense and get back to work."
She said doesn't plan on ceding any ground to Boebert on traditional Republican issues but intends to wage her campaign on questions of style and effectiveness.
"I’m pro-Second Amendment, pro-life," she said. "We owe veterans everything. I want a strong defense. Everything’s about a sustainable balance between corporate well-being and the needs of the American people. There is a balance to everything. Extremism is never good, and it’s not sustainable."
Zimmerman, who was born and grew up abroad while her father served in the Air Force, says her blue-collar background — she worked industrial construction around the country as a crane operator and owned and ran a concrete business that worked across the Western Slope — gives her a practical perspective toward solving problems that Boebert lacks.
Boebert, she said, "does very unserious work, and I think that’s all she’s about is trafficking in this conspiracy, anger thing. That doesn’t get anything done. It’s so important to fight back against some of Biden’s extreme policies, but you cannot fight back if you don’t have a respected voice at the table.
"She thinks everything in binary thinking, that everything’s black and white. It's not. You can’t just say 'no' to everything and run off and expect that to be good enough. You actually have to do the work."
Zimmerman has been a candidate since April but said she hasn't started raising money or putting a campaign together until recently. Instead, she said she's been traveling the district talking to voters.
"I felt until people knew me and knew what I stood for and what I believed in, I wasn’t going to get any fundraising anyway," she said. "I don’t have to match Boebert’s money, I just have to have enough to get my message out."
She said she's encountered a different electorate than the one portrayed in the media.
"The notion that Boebert and this whole conspiracy theory sort of nutjob thing is big in this district — it’s not," she said. "I’ve only run into two different folks in that camp. Everyone else, including business owners, says, 'We’re so glad to have an alternative, we’re so glad you're running.' They want her out and want a more reasonable voice, a more respectable voice at the table."
It turns out Zimmerman has even had a viral video moment that could rival Boebert's confrontation with O'Rourke.
Chances are if you were watching TV a decade ago, you've seen her dog, Bizkit, a blonde Labrador retriever mix who was afflicted with an exceedingly rare case of canine sleepwalking.
"She was the only dog anyone had ever heard of who would get up and run around and bark and carry on in her sleep," Zimmerman said. "They couldn’t solve it — she kept us up at night."
Zimmerman decided to keep a camera handy and one night in early 2009 "when she did a major sleepwalking event" recorded a 23-second clip of Bizkit running in place on the floor and then getting up and waking herself up by charging into a wall. She posted it to YouTube but didn't pay any attention for a couple weeks.
"Then I went back to check and it had millions of views," she recalled. "After that, I was in my living room one day with my back to the TV and someone said, 'There’s Bizkit!' Anderson Cooper was showing the video and talking about her!"
Zimmerman eventually licensed the video to numerous producers — Animal Planet devoted a couple shows to Bizkit and Dr. Phil featured the dog in a show about dreams, but it was late night host Jimmy Kimmel who made Bizkit a star, using the clip "constantly," Zimmerman said with a chuckle.
Zimmerman added six more videos to the series that have racked up nearly 20 million views between them — one depicts the pup barking maniacally in her sleep, another shows her acting out the frightening soundtrack of a horror movie playing in the background — but none have come close to the popularity of the original, which has been played more than 34 million times on YouTube and seen by countless millions more in the numerous occasions it showed up on TV.
Colorado has ranked high among states that use the form of direct democracy to resolve thorny questions, take care of government housekeeping matters and tackle problems the legislature won't.
Ernest Luning: "Across the decades — but especially lately — it appears that Colorado voters are less inclined to pick their U.S. House members from the traditional fields that yield federal lawmakers."
While the congressional map won’t be set in stone until the state’s high court gives its thumbs up, it isn’t too early to identify some winners, some losers and a split decision.
Since 1971, none of the state's sitting House members have wound up in hostile districts or found themselves drawn together with another incumbent. Except once, 50 years ago, when the redrawn map spelled defeat for the Coloradan who managed to carve out what could be the most congressional power ever wielded by a lawmaker from the state.