As Boebert proudly touts her insurgent primary win at campaign events, her Democratic opponent, Diane Mitsch Bush, a former county commissioner and state legislator from Steamboat Springs, has begun to seize on Boebert’s less-than-polished past — including multiple arrests and a history of financial and other issues at her restaurant. Boebert also faced criticism in May when she appeared to embrace the QAnon conspiracy theory, saying she hoped it was real “because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values.” Her campaign has since said repeatedly that Boebert does not support the QAnon theory, which the FBI has warned could pose a domestic terrorist threat. “She is on the record that she is not a follower of conspiracy theories,” Laura Carno, a campaign spokesperson, told POLITICO Magazine.
Mitsch Bush, who lost a challenge to Tipton in 2018 by 8 points, in many ways is Boebert’s polar opposite: She is more than twice Boebert’s age and is known for her pragmatic approach to legislating. She also is doing little in-person campaigning due to pandemic restrictions — making the race a test, at least in part, of the candidates’ competing attitudes toward the pandemic and voters’ view of liberty, control and the role of government.
Despite her pistol-packing rural Western persona, Boebert grew up in a working-class suburb of Denver, and she talks on the trail and on social media about how her upbringing shaped her conservative politics — mainly as a form of rebellion.
“I was brought up in a Democrat household. My mom believed the lies she was told, that she needed government to raise her five children,” she said at a recent rally in Silverton. “I know what it’s like to be dependent on the government for food and housing, and what doctor you are going to see, and I know how limiting it can be.”
After her family moved to the Western Slope, the sparse, wide-open part of the state west of the Continental Divide, Boebert took a job at the McDonald’s in Rifle, a town of fewer than 10,000 people, bringing home her first paycheck as a teenager. She dropped out of high school (she later got her GED), married her husband, Jayson, who has worked in the region’s oil and gas fields, and started a family; the couple has four boys. In 2013, they opened Shooters Grill, which bills itself as a “gun-themed and old-timey American restaurant” and specializes in such items as the “Bump Stock Corned Beef Hash,” the “M16 Burrito” and the “Swiss & Wesson” burger.
Boebert’s challenge to Polis’ pandemic restrictions wasn’t the first time her restaurant brought her attention. Shortly after the grill opened, a man was murdered nearby, and she and her wait staff started to open-carry firearms. National television networks sent camera crews to capture the waitresses with holsters, and the charismatic owner who made it a selling point. Boebert frequently recounts the narrative on the trail, saying she chose to pack heat to “defend my people.”
While she talks about her business background as an asset, the Denver Post has reported that eight tax liens have been filed against her restaurant in the past four years. And in 2017, the Garfield County Public Health Department found that a second cafe she operated had served tainted pork sliders without a license to dozens of rodeo participants, sickening them. The Denver Post also reported in August that Boebert had been arrested and summonsed at least four times in the past 10 years; the court summons was for allegedly harassing her neighbors (Boebert was never charged), and the arrests were for alleged disorderly conduct at a music festival and failure to appear in court multiple times. (While she was being handcuffed at the festival, in 2015, she allegedly shouted that the arrest was illegal and that “she had friends at Fox News and that the arrest would be national news,” according to an officer’s statement.) The Boebert campaign told the Post that her business has no outstanding tax issues. Asked about the food poisoning incident, her campaign told me Boebert was “never charged with anything.” In response to questions about the arrests and summons, Carno, the campaign spokesperson, said, “The bottom line is there was a $ 100 fine, never charged, charge dismissed, and charge dropped.”
Boebert got her first real taste of politics last year. After the Colorado General Assembly enacted a law allowing the state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a plan to supersede the Electoral College, Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese helped to organize a petition to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. Of the 228,832 signatures gathered, Boebert says she collected the second-highest number of them, in the hopes of preventing “California from stealing our votes for presidency,” as she puts it. (Coloradans will decide whether to repeal the law on Election Day.)
“She really engaged and connected with people during that campaign,” Pugliese, a fellow Republican, says. “She is incredibly articulate about her humble beginnings and how she started her restaurant, and that really resonates with people throughout this district who struggle economically.”
Boebert decided to run for Congress in part after growing frustrated with gun control measures advocated by Democratic presidential candidates during the primary. Last September, when presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke made a swing through the state, Boebert confronted him at a campaign event saying, “hell no” to a mandatory buyback O’Rourke had proposed for AR-15 and AK-47 semi-automatic weapons. Boebert also has spoken out against gun control measures passed in Colorado after the killing of 12 people at an Aurora movie theater in 2012.
In December, she declared her candidacy, portraying herself as more closely aligned with Trump than the more low-key Tipton. Throughout the primary campaign, Boebert ran to Tipton’s right, calling him out for not doing enough to promote the Western Slope’s coal industry, and for joining Democrats in voting for a coronavirus relief bill and a measure to streamline visas for farmworkers. Tipton, who sent a mailer to constituents calling his opponent “Lying Lauren” and defending his own record, did little on-the-ground campaigning or advertising in the race.
At her campaign event in Cortez — Tipton’s hometown — Boebert claimed her victory was the subject of an investigation by the Republican National Committee, which discovered, she said, that her platform to protect Second Amendment rights, limit regulation and expand drilling and mining on public lands had energized Coloradans who don’t usually vote. (Asked about this, the RNC referred me to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which said, via a spokesperson: “The only thing we investigated was Lauren Boebert’s upcoming blowout win over socialist Diane Mitsch Bush.”) Nonetheless, turnout in the Republican primary — one of eight contests nationwide in which incumbents lost their seats — was almost double that in 2016, the last time the race was competitive.
Reaching voters is never easy in what is arguably among the country’s toughest House districts to campaign in, even without a global pandemic. The district is the 15th-largest in the nation, roughly the size of Mississippi. It sprawls across 47 percent of the state, from Craig’s dying coal mine to Aspen’s ski-chalet wealth; from Palisade’s peach orchards to Pueblo’s steel industry. The high peaks of the Continental Divide zigzag from north to south, making cell service spotty at best. The district’s 29 counties are home to the country’s most expensive estates, as well as areas monitored by federal agencies for persistent poverty.