co03

Tipton Defeat Moves CO-03 From Solid to Likely Republican

On Tuesday, 33-year-old restaurateur Lauren Boebert shocked five-term Rep. Scott Tipton (CO-03) in the GOP primary, 55 percent to 45 percent. Even though Tipton, 63, had President Trump's endorsement, the low-key pottery company owner never ran a pre-primary TV ad and was in DC the night of the primary. Boebert will face Democratic former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush in November.

Boebert owns Shooters Grill, a barbecue joint in the conservative town of Rifle that's something of a brick-and-mortar middle finger to the left. Restaurant staff openly carry firearms and last month, the Garfield County health department suspended its food service license after Boebert reopened it early in defiance of statewide COVID-19 restrictions, making state and a few national headlines.

The 3rd CD takes in all of Colorado's rural Western Slope, including Grand Junction, and voted for Trump 52 percent to 40 percent in 2016. Its voting patterns are deeply polarized between conservative ranch towns and wealthy, liberal ski towns like Aspen and Steamboat Springs. It also includes Pueblo, a considerably Hispanic and traditionally Democratic steel county that flipped to Trump in 2016.

Boebert's entire margin of victory came from the tiny Grand Junction media market, where she ran an unanswered ad attacking Tipton for "teaming up with AOC and her squad to give Boulder a bailout." In reality, Tipton voted for a bill to allow all cities and counties with fewer than 500,000 residents to apply more easily for COVID-19 relief funds. Boulder County, a liberal hotbed, has an estimated 324,000 residents.

Boebert's ad also attacked Tipton for "joining Nancy Pelosi to give amnesty to illegal immigrants and force taxpayers to pay a billion dollars for their housing." The hit referred to Tipton's votes to streamline the H-2A program for farmworkers in the country illegally to apply for legal guest worker status. But Tipton never drove home the counter-argument he was sticking up for farmers and ranchers.

Democrats have quickly labeled Boebert a "QAnon candidate" for her May comments on a live stream show hosted by fringe personality Ann Vandersteel that "if [QAnon] is real, then it could be really great for our country," referring to a conspiracy theory about a deep state out to get Trump. This will no doubt be a fundraising windfall for Mitsch Bush, who had raised $979,000 by early June.

However, it's unclear from Boebert's comments that she truly understood what QAnon is or whether she believes the far-flung conspiracies its adherents espouse. It's also unclear that many 3rd CD voters understand what QAnon is or hold it against her. In fact, the more Democrats and voices in Denver or Boulder mock Boebert, the faster she'll be able to consolidate GOP support in the district. 

The bigger obstacle for Democrats may be Mitsch Bush herself. Mitsch Bush, 70, is a retired Colorado Mountain College sociology professor who grew up in Minnesota and lives in the wealthy resort area of Steamboat Springs. With a five-year voting record in the statehouse, she's easy to caricature as a liberal academic. In 2018, she outspent Tipton $1.8 million to $1.6 million and lost by eight points.

There is a precedent for Democrats winning here: in 2004, John Salazar (former Sen. Ken Salazar's brother) captured this seat and held it for three terms before losing to Tipton in the 2010 GOP wave. But Salazar was a Hispanic rancher who ran as a conservative Democrat. Mitsch Bush will emphasize her ranch conservation efforts, but she likely sports the wrong profile to win new converts.

It's possible that as Boebert gets a more thorough media vetting in the months to come, more will emerge that damages her. But as a pro-gun, anti-lockdown provocateur in a blue state, she also has the potential to become a new national GOP star and raise plenty of money herself. This is still a reach for Democrats but moves from Solid Republican to the Likely Republican column.