PUEBLO WEST, Colo. | It was a Donald Trump rally, in miniature.
About 200 people, many waving flags and some with open-carry sidearms tucked into holsters or the back of their jeans, joined a “Freedom Cruise” caravan earlier this month that wound through the streets of Pueblo West — a suburb of Pueblo, which many in Colorado have called a Democratic stronghold in southern Colorado — to cheer on GOP House candidate Lauren Boebert, the favorite to win the race to represent nearly half of Colorado’s landmass in Congress.
Sporting a Glock strapped to her hip, the unabashed, social media-savvy and all-in-for-Donald-Trump businesswoman has electrified the race since pulling off the upset of the summer by soundly defeating five-term GOP Rep. Scott Tipton, who on primary day had President Trump’s endorsement in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District and was an honorary co-chair of Trump’s reelection campaign in the state.
In her first run for public office, Boebert’s frequent demonization of Democrats as gun snatchers and job killers who are using the coronavirus pandemic to expand government at the expense of individual liberties resonates widely in a district that is the size of Pennsylvania and, in many ways, reflects the nation’s political divides.
“Scott Tipton was a good guy, but he just wasn’t out there in people’s faces. She was out there,” said Tom Ready, 76, a retired dentist who sits on the Pueblo County GOP executive committee. “She’s challenged the gun grabbers of the Democratic Party.”
And her lack of political experience?
“She’ll learn fast. Big deal. I’m tired of career politicians telling us how to live,” Ready said.
Two of the district’s largest cities, Grand Junction and Pueblo, are traditional Republican and Democratic strongholds, respectively. Most of its 29 counties depend heavily on agriculture. Billions are spent on tourism in glitzy Aspen, Steamboat Springs and other resort towns. Public lands advocates clash with an oil, gas and coal industry that employs thousands.
The evening in a Pueblo West park was key to Boebert’s two-pronged strategy to win the mostly rural district: She is traveling thousands of miles to put herself before groups of voters and also is mounting an aggressive social media campaign that has won over national Republicans, including the president, by echoing Trump’s own tweets on socialism, unrest in Democrat-led cities and reopening under the pandemic.
“Look at me. I am the American dream,” the 33-year-old Boebert told the crowd. She says her family grew up in poverty, dependent on government welfare, until a fire was lit with her first paycheck from a western Colorado McDonald’s that led to her owning the Shooters Grill restaurant in Rifle.
“I went from a girl standing in line for government cheese to receiving an invitation to see the president of the United States,” Boebert said to cheers, having attended Trump’s White House acceptance of his renomination.
Boebert’s Democratic opponent is Diane Mitsch Bush, a retired sociology professor, former state lawmaker and county commissioner from the trendy ski town of Steamboat Springs who is making her second run for the seat.
Mitsch Bush wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act for a district with one of the highest insurance rates — and fewest insurance options — in the nation. She wants to end surprise out-of-network medical billing, reduce prescription drug costs and increase federal support of rural health clinics and hospitals. She has endorsed weaning the country off fossil fuels.
It’s an uphill battle for Mitsch Bush. The district overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016 and Republicans outnumber Democrats among registered voters.
Mitsch Bush has her own story, raised by a single mother in Minnesota who struggled with bills and payday loans before her mother found work as an assessor’s clerk and joined a public sector union. “I learned the importance of Social Security and Medicare — the social contracts with the working families who pay into them,” she said in an interview.
Because of the pandemic, the 70-year-old Mitsch Bush is mounting a Zoom campaign featuring discussions with ranchers, educators and other constituents. She displays a ready knowledge of the intricacies of public lands, water policy, agriculture, drought, broadband and energy.
Mitsch Bush has attacked Boebert as a QAnon-supporting political newcomer who will add to Washington gridlock. QAnon, in part, centers on a baseless belief that Trump is waging a campaign against enemies in a “deep state.”
Boebert briefly commented on QAnon during a May interview with internet journalist Ann Vandersteel, whose site highlights conspiracy theories. Pressed by Vandersteel, she said, “If this is real, it could be really great for our country.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Boebert decried the efforts to tie her to QAnon. She said that criticism comes from a playbook in which Democrats campaigning remotely because of the coronavirus are waiting for candidates like herself to slip up.
“I made one comment: A polite ‘yes’ on a podcast,” she said. “That one comment has been stretched and exaggerated. They can’t win on policy. It’s part of their frustration, and it will backfire.”
Boebert does argue that a “deep state” of bureaucrats is frustrating Trump’s agenda. She has criticized those, such as Mitsch Bush, who campaign remotely.
“That’s a ploy being used by Republicans across the country,” Mitsch Bush said. “I don’t have a basement. I’m trained as a scientist. I take the pandemic and virus spread very seriously.”
Boebert gained publicity when she briefly defied coronavirus-related public health orders by opening her Shooters Grill earlier this year. That defiance “made her a folk hero for small business across the district,” said Dick Wadhams, former chair of the state GOP.
Wadhams said Mitsch Bush must battle a perception that she’s not a moderate Democrat. In the statehouse, Mitsch Bush worked often with rural GOP lawmakers on broadband and other infrastructure key to the rural economy.
Yet Boebert has described Mitsch Bush as a “far left socialist” who has backtracked on past statements that she supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Boebert herself insists she will never vote to end coverage for pre-existing health conditions — something guaranteed by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — but she supports the act’s repeal and has yet to reconcile those views.
Jason Bane, a Democratic consultant, said revelations about minor arrests involving Boebert could hurt her chances as a law-and-order candidate — as well as a decision by the Trump campaign not to invest heavily in Colorado.
“If you’re honest about the race, it’s probably because she’s a loud new face who carries a gun around,” Bane said.
Boebert presses on, anxious to lead an “anti-Squad” in Congress to take on left-wing representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats.
“Pueblo, this could be the last, most important election that we ever have. Freedom is on the ballot. America is on the ballot,” she told the Pueblo West crowd.