Colorado’s largely rural 3rd Congressional District — home to the hottest congressional race in the state this year, between Republican Lauren Boebert and Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush — leans Republican in the last decade but has also sent Democrats to Washington over the years.
Covering most of the Western Slope, Pueblo County and the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, it’s the epicenter of the state’s ongoing tension between competing approaches to its abundant public lands — extraction and exploitation or preservation and recreation.
Represented in Congress since 2011 by Republican Scott Tipton, the district landed among the Democrats’ top targets on June 30 when Boebert, a restaurant owner and first-time candidate, denied Tipton a chance at a sixth term with a 9-percentage point win in the GOP primary. Mitsch Bush, who lost to Tipton in the last election by about 8 percentage points, won the Democratic primary the same night.
The district has a Partisan Voting Index of R+6, according to The Cook Political Report, which compiles PVIs for every congressional district in the country. Basically, the number means Republicans have a built-in advantage of 6 percentage points in the district. That compares to the Democrats’ D+21 edge in the Denver-based 1st Congressional District — whose voters haven’t sent a Republican to Congress since 1970 — and the GOP’s favorable R+14 position in the 5th Congressional District, which has never elected a Democrat to Congress.
When Tipton unseated three-term Democratic U.S. Rep. John Salazar in the Republican wave year of 2010, district voters were repeating a pattern established decades earlier of trading one party for another.
Democrat Frank Evans represented the district from the early 1960s until 1978, when he retired and Democrat Ray Kogovsek took over. Republican Mike Strang held the seat for a single term after the 1988 election but was defeated by Democrat Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the first Native American member of Congress, who would later switch his registration to Republican two years after being elected to the U.S. Senate.
Republican Scott McInnis, who waged an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010 and is currently a Mesa County commissioner, won the seat in 1992 after Campbell vacated it, holding it for six terms before retiring. He was followed by Salazar, who won election in 2004, the same year his brother, Ken Salazar, won the Senate seat that Campbell decided to relinquish.
President Donald Trump won the 3rd CD in 2016 by an even 12 percentage points — the same year Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the state by 4.9 percentage points — and Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the district in 2012 by half that margin, exactly 6 percentage points, while losing Colorado by 5.4 percentage points. In 2008, when he won Colorado’s nine electoral votes by just under 9 percentage points, Obama lost the 3rd district by a hair, just 1.5 percentage points, to Republican John McCain.
While the 3rd CD hasn’t always attracted much national attention, it’s been home to some of the state’s marquee congressional races numerous times in recent elections.
Independent groups spent big in the district in the 2016 cycle, with the Democrats and their allies spending about $2.5 million to oppose Tipton and support his challenger, Gail Schwartz, with Republican-aligned groups spending about $1.7 million the other direction.
In 2004, the last time it was an open seat — after McInnis declined to seek a seventh term — national Republicans spent $3.7 million to try to keep the seat, and national Democrats spent just under $2 million to help Salazar take it away, by 4 percentage points.
Although the district’s boundaries have shifted slightly every decade after reapportionment, the 3rd CD has been anchored by the Western Slope and Pueblo County since 1982 — prior to that, it covered roughly the southern half of the state — and in its current configuration includes 28 counties in their entirety and the western half of a 29th, Eagle County. (Summit County and the eastern half of Eagle County are the only portions of the Western Slope not included in the district.)
The district is dominated by Pueblo County, once one of the state’s largest reservoirs of Democratic votes but a county Trump narrowly won in 2016, and solidly Republican Mesa County, with around 100,000 registered voters residing in each — each at just over 20% of the district’s 475,000 active, registered voters — followed by La Plata, Garfield, Montrose, Eagle, Delta, Routt and Montezuma counties, ranked by the number of registered voters.
From Pueblo and Walsenburg in its southeast corner to Steamboat Springs and Craig in the north, to Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs along the I-70 corridor through the mountains, the district encompasses Pueblo County, the San Luis Valley and all but a small portion of the Western Slope. Other cities and towns within its boundaries are Aspen, Crested Bute, Gunnison, Montrose, Telluride, Cortez, Durango, Pagosa Springs, Alamosa and Antonito.
The 3rd CD could be characterized as Colorado’s playground, with by far the most federal parks, monuments and recreation areas in the state. Only two congressional districts boast more national parks — Alaska’s at-large district, with seven, and Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, with four. The 3rd CD is home to three national parks: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde, as well as the Colorado, Dinosaur, Hovenweep and Yucca House national monuments and the Curecanti National Recreation Area.
The vast district borders four states — Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, just touching Arizona at Four Corners — and can lay claim to as much natural beauty as any congressional district in the country, with the Sangre de Christo, San Juan and Elk mountains, the Sawatch and Park ranges, the Flat Tops, the Roan and Uncompahgre plateaus and the Grand Mesa.
At 49,880 square miles, the 3rd CD is the 15th-largest congressional district in the country by area. Not counting at-large districts that cover entire states — Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota — it’s the 10th-largest district, behind Nevada’s 4th Congressional District and ahead of New Mexico’s 4th Congressional District. It’s six spots ahead of Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, which covers the Eastern Plains at 38,271 square miles. (Colorado’ five other districts are quite a bit smaller.)
The 3rd is Colorado’s least densely populated congressional district, with just 15.2 people per square mile — compared to 4,433 occupying each of the Denver-based 1st Congressional District’s square miles, in the state’s densest district — and only nine congressional districts nationwide cover more land, not counting the five at-large seats that encompass entire states.
According to Census Reporter, residents of the 3rd CD are slightly older than Coloradans, on average, have a lower annual income, and it’s more affordable to own a home in the district than it is in the rest of the state. Its population is evenly divided between men and women, and exactly half its residents are married. Its share of high school graduates is the same as the rest of the state, but more 3rd CD residents live below the poverty line. Compared to the state as a whole, fewer district residents are foreign-born, and fewer speak a language other than English at home. Hispanics make up 25% of the population, and 71% are non-Hispanic whites.