Strategists and politicians on the left and right agree: The race to represent Colorado’s Republican-leaning 3rd Congressional District got a lot more interesting at the end of June, when gun-rights activist and first-time candidate Lauren Boebert toppled five-term incumbent Scott Tipton in the GOP primary.
Boebert, owner of the attention-grabbing Shooters Grill in Rifle — where the waitresses are armed — will face former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, the Steamboat Democrat who also served on the Routt County Commission and was seeking a rematch with the more traditionally conservative Tipton, who beat her by 8 percentage points in the last election.
In an observation echoing national election forecasters, a number of seasoned politicos with roots in the sprawling district told Colorado Politics that Mitsch Bush’s chances of moving the seat into the Democratic column are better than they would have been had the less flamboyant Tipton had won the nomination, but it’ll still be a tough lift among the 3rd CD’s largely rural and smaller-town voters.
“The rest of the state might be trending blue, but the Eastern Plains and Western Slope aren’t as likely to follow the Front Range and more liberal mountain towns, former state GOP chairman and statewide campaign veteran Dick Wadhams said.
Political consultant Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator from Wray, the other side of the state, echoed Wadhams, saying that no matter how blue the state trends overall, the Western Slope is still a broad swath of red.
But Alan Salazar, who hails from Grand Junction and is chief of staff to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, said it would be a mistake to count electoral chickens in 2020.
“It’s a right-of-center district but not a crazy ideological one,” he said. “I feel like this is the year where Trump is so unpopular in Colorado, it’s a very good year to be a Democrat in the state, no matter where.”
A note of optimism
State Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, who occupies the House District 26 seat Mitsch Bush held before she resigned to run against Tipton last time, sounded a note of optimism for his fellow Democrat.
“Absolutely it’s a district a Democrat can win. A lot of things need to come together for that to happen, and we might be seeing those things happening this year. You’ve got an open seat with no incumbent, a national trend going against the Republican Party, and a pretty inexperienced candidate running on the Republican side,” he said.
Roberts, who organized most of the Western Slope for the President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, acknowledged it’s a hurdle.
“The reality of the district is, it’s such a gigantic and diverse district, where the numbers have been trending more conservative — going against the statewide move toward the Democrats. It’s still hard for a Democrat but it’s possible.”
It will be difficult for both candidates to put themselves in front of voters, particularly with the pandemic restricting the kind of face-to-face campaigning that works in a district with so many distinct communities, the experts said.
Both nominees run the risk of allowing their opponent to paint them as too extreme to represent a seat that has a habit of sending more middle-of-the-road politicians to Congress, including Tipton and John Salazar, the Democrat he unseated, rancher and former state lawmaker, and Republican Scott McInnis and then-Democrat Ben Campbell before him.
Tyler Sandberg, an executive at the education-reform group Ready Colorado and the campaign manager for former U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who lost his suburban 6th Congressional District seat in an anti-Trump wave in the last election, said polling he’s seen suggests Republicans could be in more peril than they’re acknowledging.
The Trump factor
The president’s support among his party, Sandberg said, has been dropping from the rock-solid 95% level Trump enjoyed until recently into the low 80s. “Trump is bleeding out in swing-state polls around the country,” he said, adding that if similarly largely rural states like Missouri are in play, “he must be bleeding out pretty badly.”
Wadhams said if the bottom drops out, Republicans from U.S. Sen Cory Gardner on down will face a blowout in November.
“Colorado voters have been notorious about ticket splitting, but I don’t think that’s a dynamic that’s going to be much in play in 2020,” said Alan Salazar. “Trump is such a polarizing figure. My gut sense is people are looking for a return to calm, order, a process we can trust to get away from some of this craziness.”
Boebert’s flirtations with the right-wing conspiracy movement QAnon could pose a risk for her, if dissatisfaction with Trump and the GOP brand runs as deep as some Republicans fear, Wadhams said.
Former state Sen. Josh Penry, a native son and a state political strategist, said the “pox on both your houses” frustration among voters could play both ways, though, noting that Mitsch Bush might be from the Western Slope but lives in a resort community.
“If John Salazar is the nominee? This is an absolute dogfight,” Penry said. “But a liberal politician from a resort town talking about turning the district blue, I think they’ve got an imperfect messenger for this district.”
The pent-up frustration in rural America, which helped lift Trump to a 12-peercentage point win in the district four years ago, he added, hasn’t gone away.
Alan Salazar said it’ll come down to which candidate voters believe represents Western Slope values and interests and which provides a level of comfort.
“Scott Tipton would’ve been somebody a lot of people could have voted for, but I’m not sure about Ms. Boebert,” he said.
“This district is very diverse,” Roberts said. “There are communities in the mountains where tourism and the environment and conservation are the top issues, then you head into Grand Junction, the San Luis Valley, where agriculture and energy are the biggest topics. You need somebody who can speak to all those different issues and have their finger on a variety of pulses.”
Mitsch Bush, he said, has deep experience on all those issues and laid down a record as a county commissioner and in the legislature.
“I have confidence that Diane, when she goes to different communities, can speak well and is very informed on the particular issues that matter to those communities,” he said, adding, “I haven’t seen Lauren Boebert speak about any issue but the Second Amendment and freedom, quote unquote.”
However the race shapes up, Sandberg said, the Democrats get a win. TV time in the district — which covers all four of Colorado’s markets, including the expensive Denver market — will be pricey.
Republicans will have to spend a million or two to defend the seat that they wouldn’t have spent if the nominee had been Tipton, Sandberg speculated.
“If you wanted to have a knock-down-drag-out in CD3, it could get pretty expensive, pretty quick,” he said. “Will the Democrats spend money to put that one seat into play? Will the Republican super PACs spend money to keep it?”