Lauren Boebert Joe Neguse

U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert and Joe Neguse

It was fun while it lasted. 

For five days, Colorado political watchers got to play “what if?” with a potential 2022 race between two of the state’s brightest stars, U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse, the Democrat, and Lauren Boebert, the Republican.

During that brief period before harsh reality brought the flights of electoral fantasy down to earth, the pairing loomed as the kind of starkly defined contest that comes along only once.

From the evening of Sept. 3, when Colorado’s independent redistricting commission released its latest draft congressional map, until just before midnight on Sept. 8, when Boebert injected a dose of reality into the conversation, everyone could treat the possibility of a face-off between Neguse and Boebert as something that might actually happen.

Alas, ’twas not to be.

The long-awaited district map was the first draft to emerge from the redistricting commission since final census numbers became available last month. The boundaries, drawn by the commission’s nonpartisan staff, also reflected testimony gathered at hearings around the state and maps submitted by various interest groups.

It’s important to note that the map released on Sept. 3 has been described as a starting point for what could turn into a weeks-long discussion about the ultimate boundaries of Colorado’s eight congressional districts — one more than the seven districts the state has had since 2002.

The commission will be hearing additional testimony and trying some different approaches to meeting the state constitution’s mandates before a mid-October deadline to approve a map. That deadline could change, since census figures were delayed this year, and the whole thing could wind up in court, so suffice it to say, we’re still a ways from anything final.

Still, when the new map appeared with Neguse and Boebert located in the same district — a redrawn 2nd Congressional District, covering the northwest part of the state from Boulder County to the Utah border — Colorado’s political chattering class lit up and the hashtags started flying.

Under the proposed map, the 3rd Congressional District Boebert currently represents would transform from roughly the western half of the state to a southern district with an influential Latino population, satisfying one of the redistricting commission’s constitutional requirements.

Neguse, the African American son of Eritrean immigrants who burst onto the national scene earlier this year as a House manager prosecuting former President Trump’s second impeachment trial, immediately seized on the cartographical quirk.

“So, if the redistricting map released tonight holds, looks like I may be running for re-election against . . . Lauren Boebert,” Neguse tweeted from his campaign account.

The next morning, the first of several Neguse fundraising warning supporters about the risks of running against Boebert went out.

“Ernest, this is a very different campaign than it was 24 hours ago,” wrote Teddy Adams, Neguse’s campaign manager. “Defeating Boebert will require an army of grassroots donors, a huge field operation, and aggressive outreach that can overcome Boebert’s Twitter megaphone — and we can’t accomplish any of those things without your help. Will you chip in to our campaign today?”

Neguse didn’t have to break much of a sweat in his two roughly 26-point wins in the 2nd CD, which covers Boulder and Larimer counties and the mountain counties up Interstate 70 to Vail. It’s currently one of the more Democratic-leaning seats in the state, and neither of his Republican challengers — Peter Yu in 2018 and Charles Winn last year — raised much money or got any visible support from the state GOP.

But a run against Boebert would be a different animal entirely. Not only is the pistol-packing restaurant owner from Silt the most visible and outspoken Republican in the state, she’s the only current serving Colorado Republican with a national profile — and a fundraising reach to match.

“Make no mistake, such a campaign would be very expensive,” another Neguse fundraising email proclaimed. “Rep. Boebert has an enormous right-wing following and over a million dollars in her campaign account already.”

Rather than try to motivate her supporters by depicting Neguse as a formidable opponent, however, Boebert took a different approach, attacking the redistricting process and mocking liberals at the same time.

“Redistricting update: First it was adding part of Boulder, now it's all of Boulder,” she tweeted, referencing an initial map released earlier this summer that includes some mountainous precincts in western Boulder County as part of Boebert’s 3rd CD.

“The Dems are so worried about me I suspect the next redistricting map will include Berkeley, California, too. Don't worry rural Colorado, I got your back!”

Of course, the Democrats didn’t draw the map, and even the most innovative redistricting procedures don’t include annexing a famously liberal city 1,000 miles and three states away.

But the tongue-in-cheek tweet, complete with an attached photo of a smiling Boebert holding Boulder and Berkeley city limit signs, was in keeping with her familiar narrative that Boebert’s opponents are out to get her.

The problem with that argument is that the commission’s nonpartisan staff would be violating the state constitution if that’s what they had done, since 2018’s voter-approved Amendment Y forbids drawing district boundaries to advantage or disadvantage incumbents.

Even if the map were final — and it’s far from it — it’s extremely unlikely Boebert would wind up running against Neguse. Not only do the rules not require it, but she didn’t get to Congress by picking foolish battles, and that’s what the race would be.

According to figures released by the commission, under the latest staff-drawn map, the 2nd CD — represented by Neguse — tilts about 22 points toward Democratic candidates, based on the results in eight recent races ranging from the 2016 presidential vote to the 2018 race for state treasurer and last year’s U.S. Senate contests.

Likewise, the map’s proposed 3rd CD — represented by Boebert — tilts about 5 points toward Republican candidates, similar to how its population has voted in the last couple of elections under current boundaries.

Plenty of people took to social media, too, to point out that congressional candidates only have to live in the state they represent, not inside district boundaries, meaning Boebert or Neguse could run wherever they want in Colorado next year.

That specification isn’t just a theoretical footnote, either.

Since the turn of the century, two members of Colorado’s congressional delegation lived outside the districts they ultimately represented before running — former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, the Republican moved into the newly drawn 7th Congressional District in 2002 before running, and U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, the Democrat who moved a mile or so from northeast Denver into Aurora during his 2018 run in the 6th Congressional District.

What’s more, the Republicans nominated perennial congressional candidate Casper Stockham to run three times in districts that didn’t include his Aurora residence, twice in the 1st Congressional District and once in the 7th CD.

If she wants to live in the proposed 3rd CD, Boebert would only have to move 35 miles west on Interstate 70 from her home in Garfield County across the line into Mesa County.

However she approaches it and whatever boundaries the commission winds up approving, Boebert made clear on Sept. 8 that she’ll be seeking re-election in the 3rd CD.

“I am so proud to represent CO’s 3rd District,” Boebert tweeted. “Regardless of redistricting I will run & win again in the 3rd because rural Colorado wants & needs a strong conservative fighter. Thank you for trusting me to be your voice. It’s a wonderful honor to serve you.”

And with that, attentive members of the state's chattering political class abandoned visions of an epic Neguse-Boebert clash and could move on to more pressing questions, like what might happen if Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck gets drawn out of the 4th Congressional District and into the new 8th Congressional District. For that answer, see above.

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