Politics

Lauren Boebert’s upset win sets up unpredictable race in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District

By ousting a five-term Republican congressman in this week’s primary, Lauren Boebert may have handed Democrats their best shot in years at taking back Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.

At least that’s what they hope, judging by a national Democratic committee’s almost gleeful attempt — after her primary victory Tuesday over U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton — to write off the far-right firebrand as a “QAnon conspiracy theorist.”

But in the strange elixir of 2020 politics, political analysts and insiders in the Western Slope district say Boebert, 33, a savvy gun rights activist who disputes Democrats’ characterization, shouldn’t be dismissed.

Even fellow Democrats say their nominee, Diane Mitsch Bush, 70, a former lawmaker and Routt County commissioner, brings her own political liabilities. She lost to Tipton two years ago by 8 percentage points, despite outspending him.

“One thing (Tipton’s primary loss) shows is that in a time when people are really justifiably anxious for lots of reasons, our window of possibilities in politics is perhaps a little broader than sometimes we might give politics credit for,” said Paul DeBell, an assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

There’s one certainty: The 3rd District, in which handicappers had favored Tipton for re-election, just got a whole lot more unpredictable — even as it’s certain to elect a woman to Congress for the first time.

The race already is getting more national attention and may see an infusion of spending on both sides. Democratic and Republican House campaign committees that hadn’t previously anticipated putting any general election ad dollars into the race were out with analyses Wednesday predicting their side would navigate the change in circumstances successfully.

“The Republicans replaced (Tipton) with someone with virtually no name ID outside of the Republican Party,” said Sal Pace, a longtime Democratic fixture in Pueblo who himself lost to Tipton in 2012, predicting an advantage for Mitsch Bush. “Diane does have good name ID, and that’s why the last two election cycles she won primaries against tough candidates.”

But in Mesa County, where Boebert won 64% of the primary vote, county GOP Chair Kevin McCarney theorized that Mitsch Bush’s experience in local and state office might not provide the same boost it normally does.

“This year that’s also a disadvantage,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a tough race, but I think Lauren can win.”

Boebert tied herself strongly to President Donald Trump despite his endorsement of Tipton, and that could play well among his many fans across the mostly rural 3rd District. But his standing has been falling in recent months, posing a risk.

“Unaffiliated voters are a really important piece of the puzzle here in Colorado,” DeBell said. “How will they break? They’ll break differently for Boebert than they would for Tipton,” he added, and her fortunes could depend in large part on Trump’s in November.

Large, varied rural district

The 3rd District is nearly as large in land area as New York state and swoops from northwest Colorado to the southeast plains, taking in Grand Junction, Durango, most of the San Luis Valley and Pueblo. It includes both conservative and liberal strongholds, but some of the latter — especially Pueblo — have trended more conservative in recent years.

Running again to represent that varied terrain is Mitsch Bush, who defeated Ridgway business owner James Iacino in the Democratic primary with 61% of the vote. Mitsch Bush’s campaign focuses heavily on economic and environmental issues, and Republicans suggest she’s too liberal to win in a red-leaning district.

Boebert, who won nearly 55% of the primary vote against Tipton, is a mother of four boys in Rifle who first drew attention in recent years for her ownership of a restaurant, Shooters Grill, whose waitresses open-carry guns. In the spring, she ran afoul of Garfield County authorities when she reopened Shooters in violation of public health orders related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Boebert calls herself pro-freedom and rails against socialism, saying she’d fight liberals to defend American values. During the primary she built support in part by appearing on conservative radio shows across the state.

Some of her remarks during the primary already are coming under scrutiny — including comments in May that appeared supportive of the debunked “QAnon” conspiracy. That theory, which took root originally on internet message boards, alleges, among other things, that government officials are working secretly to undermine Trump and that officials and celebrities are members of a child sex trafficking ring.

Asked about it on an online show, Boebert first said she was familiar with QAnon but added, “that’s more my mom’s thing — she’s a little fringe.”

But when asked if she thought “Q is a bad thing” by the interviewer, Boebert replied: “No, honestly, everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real — because it only means America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values. … If this is real, then it could be really great for our country.”

Asked to clarify her remarks Wednesday, her campaign provided a statement from Boebert that affirmed her support of Trump’s idea of a “deep state” but added, “I don’t follow QAnon.”

Which candidate fits the district?

The general election, so far, is shaping up to be a race between a conservative who delights in a focus on red-meat issues for the base and a Democrat seen by some in her own party as a strong fundraiser but weak campaigner. Last year, national and local Democrats, eyeing a more competitive dynamic against Tipton, tried unsuccessfully to recruit several Democratic state lawmakers into the race.

Pace said building support in strongholds such as Pueblo may hold the key for Mitsch Bush.

“I do think the Republicans nominated the right person for a Democrat to run up the numbers in Pueblo,” he said. “The Republican nominee is not talking about bread-and-butter issues.”

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat who’d faced appeals to run, said her sense is that the district’s November voters will want a moderate candidate.

“So will the Democrat be able to fill that desire?” she said. “Is the Republican candidate too far right to also fill that desire?”

But Republicans point to Boebert’s ability to connect with voters and her outsider status as assets. Montrose County Republican chairman Ray Langston said he sees two challenges for her: raising money and winning over Tipton’s supporters.

“She’s a little firecracker. I think she’s going to do well, and I believe the Republican Party will get behind her,” said Langston, who supported Tipton but is happy to pivot.

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