Boebert, Mitsch Bush dueling to wrest the reins of CD3 race amid COVID-19

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M. John Fayhee/Aspen Journalism

Lauren Boebert, Colorado’s Republican candidate for Congress, addresses a crowd of about 50 people in Steamboat Springs in late September. Numerous attendees, including Boebert, were openly carrying weapons. No one was socially distancing or wearing a mask.

John Krousouloudis heard about Lauren Boebert several years before he took up full-time residence in Garfield County. He was living and working in Amsterdam when people he knew started seeking insider information about a restaurant Boebert had recently opened named Shooters Grill in the faraway Colorado town of Rifle, where the waitresses openly carry sidearms.

“It had made the international news,” Krousouloudis recalled. “I had all these Dutch and Brits coming up and asking about Shooters, because they knew I owned land in Colorado and planned to move there when I retired. They all wanted to know about the restaurant where the waitresses carried weapons. I told them, ‘Yeah, it’s right down the street.’”

It was, according to Krousouloudis, one of those “Ha-ha, only in America” interactions that leave Europeans both amused and aghast.

Little could Krousouloudis have known then that Boebert, a few years later, would be the Republican candidate for Congress in Colorado’s massive 3rd Congressional District. And that he, in his capacity as chairperson of the Garfield County Democrats, would be fighting to help her opponent, Diane Mitsch Bush, win that political shootout.

The battle between Mitsch Bush and Boebert is, by anyone’s measure, weird. Maybe one of the weirdest in state history. On numerous levels.

On one hand, you have Mitsch Bush, a 70-year-old retired professor who holds a doctorate in sociology and social policy from the University of Minnesota and who boasts a long, varied public-service résumé that includes stints as a Routt County commissioner and a two-term Colorado state representative with a reputation for reaching across the aisle. Also, she has served on countless boards and committees that deal with things such as state water policy and public health initiatives.

On the other hand, you have Boebert, a gun-toting high school dropout with a police record and a history of tax liens who, according to various media sources, earned her GED only last May. A woman whose most obvious policy stance seems to be using the words “freedom” and “guns” as often as possible and as loudly as possible in every campaign speech. A woman who brags that she will not compromise her values in the name of legislative headway. A woman whose backstory is thick with homey references to waiting in line as a child for free government cheese and how psychologically transformative it was getting her first paycheck from the Rifle McDonald’s, where she worked when she was 15.

Yet, she’s also a woman who, by dint of sheer energy and will, managed to unseat five-term incumbent Scott Tipton by 10 percentage points in the district’s Republican primary last June, even though she was outraised, in terms of campaign donations, nearly 10-1.

The race has attracted significant media attention. Business Insider, National Public Radio, The New York Times, MSNBC and Forbes, as well as a full slate of statewide print, broadcast and online outlets, have dedicated significant verbiage to the CD3 race, a disproportionate percentage of which is centered on the upstart Boebert. Some of that coverage has not been favorable to Boebert, focusing on her undeniable lack of political experience, her seeming obsession with the Second Amendment and her history of run-ins with the law, all of which were fairly minor but, in the minds of many opponents, telling nonetheless. Still, that’s a lot of media play focused on a congressional district defined to a large extent by snow-covered mountains, red-rock canyons, oil-and-gas wells and cattle — probably more media play than would have been generated had the battle been between Tipton and Mitsch Bush, who went head to head in 2018. Tipton prevailed by 8 percentage points.

Adding an additional veneer of weird to the race is the COVID-19 situation.

Mitsch Bush has opted to adhere to the strictest of quarantine protocols, running a virtual campaign that Boebert mocks at every opportunity, asking, for instance, at a recent stop in Steamboat Springs (where Mitsch Bush has lived since 1976) whether anyone has ever actually seen her opponent, whether her opponent “is real” or “is hiding in her basement, like Biden.”

Meanwhile, Boebert has unabashedly thumbed her nose at those pandemic protocols, preferring to hold rallies in person, with a low percentage of masks and almost no social distancing. At her campaign gatherings, she says it’s the government’s job to warn citizens about the risks associated with COVID-19, then allow them to choose whether to don masks and practice social distancing and whether businesses should open or close.

“I know darn well the risk of eating raw cookie dough,” Boebert said, somewhat incongruously, at the campaign stop in Steamboat Springs. “And I don’t need Gov. Jared Polis coming into my house telling me I’m not allowed to eat raw cookie dough.”

On top of all that, there’s much acrimony bubbling between the two candidates. Each calls the other a liar about every five seconds. Boebert even has a link on her campaign Facebook page titled “Click the pic for all of Diane Mitsch Bush’s lies.” Boebert accuses Mitsch Bush of being an antifa-sympathizing socialist in the mold of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Mitsch Bush considers Boebert a right-wing gun nut and an overly eager acolyte of President Donald Trump. These candidates — who have never met face to face — not only have significant political differences, they clearly do not like each other. Consequently, the CD3 race has devolved into a seriously vitriolic electoral tête-à-tête.

Every poll indicates that the race is neck and neck. Too close to call. With projections well within margins for error.

Given how easily Tipton retained the seat in 2018, those polling numbers are actually good for state-level Democrats.

According to David Pourshoushtari, communications director for the Colorado Democratic Party, the CD3 race presents its best hope for an in-state seat-flip.

“Congressional District 3 is definitely our top priority as far as flipping goes,” Pourshoushtari said. “In 2018, we successfully flipped District 6, with Jason Crow taking the seat. That was a big flip. We now see CD3 as the next potential flip.”

Numerous attempts to get comment regarding the CD3 race from the Colorado Republican Party were not successful.

M. John Fayhee / Aspen Journalism

Supporters of Republican candidate Lauren Boebert attend a recent campaign rally in Steamboat Springs.

A surprise winner

Most observers thought the CD3 race would be between Tipton, who hails from Cortez, and Mitsch Bush — a redux of the 2018 race that Tipton won convincingly.

But then, out of the clear-blue sky fell a diminutive Rifle restaurateur carrying a Glock and espousing a pro-Trump, save-America, no-compromise, screw-the-liberals message. This unexpected turn of events caused some tilting of the strategy axis for both Mitsch Bush and the Colorado Democratic Party. All involved had to learn whom they were dealing with and how to combat Boebert’s unapologetic, in-your-face campaign persona.

Mitsch Bush could have easily looked at the results from her run against Tipton in 2018 and decided that residing in Steamboat Springs as a retiree was not all that bad. Instead, she opted to throw her hat back in the electoral ring.

“I decided to run again because I want to help the people of CD3,” she wrote in an email. “I got closer to defeating [Tipton] than anyone else had since Scott unseated Congressman [John] Salazar in 2010, and I got to know the district even better in my 2018 run. I knew that I could improve on my performance in 2018 and win.”

Then: Boebert.

According to various media reports, Boebert opted to take Tipton on at least partially because he was not hard-core conservative enough; he did not toe the Trumpian line with enough enthusiasm; and he did not oppose the Affordable Care Act with enough tenacity. As she states in every one of her campaign speeches, she believes that the freedom of every God-fearing, gun-loving American is under dire threat from what she has called on her campaign’s Facebook page “the lunatic left” — the “people who want to take away your guns.”

At her rallies, Boebert gloats about the time she drove three hours to Aurora and confronted Democrat Beto O’Rourke after he had earlier stated his intention to confiscate assault weapons. Specifically, during a September 2019 presidential primary debate, O’Rourke said, in response to the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, his hometown, “Hell, yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

In a faceoff that garnered significant news coverage — especially in conservative media — and launched Boebert into the national spotlight, she told O’Rourke, “Hell, no, you’re not.” (Nowadays, people attending her rallies clap and cheer.)

“This became a totally different race after the primary,” Mitsch Bush said. “I’m not running against a five-term incumbent anymore. Instead, I’m running against a first-time candidate that’s more interested in picking partisan fights than she is in actually helping this district. If you look at her Twitter feed and what she says at her rallies, she’s focused on national political fights. Throughout this race, I’ve stayed laser focused on the specific issues that constituents care about: lowering the cost of health care, creating good-paying jobs and protecting public lands. I’ve got plans to tackle those issues. I’m a workhorse, not a showhorse. Boebert is only interested in going to Congress to contribute to the partisan gridlock and to be a celebrity. I’m running for Congress to get the job done.”

At least one prominent local Republican was surprised that Boebert beat Tipton.

“I know Scott Tipton. I consider him a friend,” said Tom Baker, chair of the Pitkin County Republicans. “I voted for him in the primary, and I thought he was going to win for sure. I saw or heard Lauren only once or twice during the primary before voting, and I expressed to her my view that we have an incumbent congressman, so let’s support him and why take a chance. The reality is, she won the primary fair and square. I’m backing her 100% and the Pitkin County Republicans are backing her 100%.

“We had a breakfast meeting [Tuesday] with Lauren in Aspen with about 50 people, and I have been at other events with her,” Baker said. “I understand more and more why she won the primary. It’s nothing negative about Scott Tipton. Lauren is extremely dynamic. She’s an attractive candidate who is very, very good on her feet. She doesn’t hesitate, she knows where she stands, she has her belief system, and I think she got out and really worked hard. She’s young, has a lot of energy and she got out there and really worked during the primary, and that’s what she’s doing during the election.”

But Boebert’s victory over Tipton wasn’t a jaw-dropping shocker to everyone.

“I guess I was a little bit surprised,” said Alden Savoca, second vice chair of the Mesa County Republicans. “But the consensus general attitude of people toward career politicians, who have been in Washington, D.C., and who haven’t done a whole lot for their constituencies back home, has changed. If you’ve got someone new who comes along who is genuinely interested in what happens in their district, like Lauren, and they’re able to articulate that interest in an impassioned way, then it makes a lot of difference in a reelection situation.”

“It’s impossible to know what Tipton was thinking during the Republican primary,” said Howard Wallach, chair of the Pitkin County Democrats. “He appeared to take the race for granted. He spent very little money and had money left in the bank after the primary. The League of Women Voters did a forum in Durango. They invited Diane, James Iacino, who was going against Diane for the Democratic nomination, Tipton and Boebert. Tipton didn’t show. Boebert did show, and she got a lot of air time. At that point, she was sort of unopposed driving down the right lane. She was being perceived as caring more. That was part of a perceived pattern with Tipton as our congressperson, where he was very limited on interactions with the public. He would come (to Aspen) and go to the Hickory House and meet with a group of Republicans and talk Republican trash. There were no public events.”

Added Krousouloudis: “To be frank, I don’t worry too much about GOP inner workings. We’re busy with our own stuff, like getting out material and working very closely with all the campaigns — [John] Hickenlooper, [Joe] Biden and Diane. I really didn’t spend a lot of time following the GOP inner workings, but, to a certain extent, it was a surprise [Boebert] was chosen. But not really. Tipton was a bit low profile, which she is not. She’s the total opposite. She’s very good at creating buzz.”

Such buzz, in some people’s opinion, created something of a challenge for Mitsch Bush, given her ironclad decision to run a virtual campaign.

“This certainly has been a different election cycle,” said Pourshoushtari. “We have to keep in mind that we are in the middle of a pandemic. Certainly, there will be some Monday-morning quarterbacking after Election Day. We’ll have to see how our tactics worked out. From a campaign standpoint, we have seen a greater amount of engagement than years past, when it comes to phone banking and text messaging, which is definite evidence to suggest virtual campaigning has proved to be very effective in the era of COVID.

“People would rather not have somebody knocking on their door, not have events like Boebert has had. She’ll put on social-media photos of her with a decently sized group of people with hardly anyone wearing masks or social distancing. We have one candidate respecting the science and respecting the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic trying to keep people safe and Boebert kind of flaunting the science. Which is concerning, considering the fact that the president was ­diagnosed, which puts an exclamation on the point. For us, going the virtual route is about keeping people safe.”

Boebert did three events in one day in late September — one in the Meeker City Park, which had about 30 attendees; one at a Mexican restaurant in Craig, which drew about 25 people; and a third at the site of a closed restaurant in Steamboat Springs, which attracted a crowd of about 60, which was large enough to spill out onto the sidewalk adjoining Lincoln Avenue, the city’s main drag. At all three events, the wearing of masks was almost nonexistent and whatever social distancing may have occurred appeared to be purely accidental.

Pourshoushtari said that not all of the state’s Democratic candidates have gone fully virtual.

“It’s a mix,” he said. “For instance, you are seeing [Democratic U.S. Senate candidate] Hickenlooper holding live, in-person events, where everybody is wearing masks and social distancing. In Pueblo, you saw photos with masks, social distancing, outside. This shows that Democrats are adapting.”

“Look, I love campaign events,” Mitsch Bush said in an email. “I love shaking hands, looking people in the eye and talking with them face-to-face about the issues that keep them up at night. But we’re in the middle of a global pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 people in this country alone, and it’s just not safe to hold in-person events. I want to keep our communities safe so that we can beat this virus, and that means holding only virtual events.”

Wallach is a bit worried about that strategy.

“It’s hard to test these things,” he said. “One has the feeling that people are Zoomed out, that they have had one too many Zooms. It’s hard to generate buzz. It makes it hard to proceed. A perfect example: When [U.S. Sen. Michael] Bennet and Hickenlooper each came to town, we had fundraising events at Paepcke Park. And we had to fill out all this paperwork with the county government with the names of all those who would attend — we were limited to 20 people — so, if there were any issues, there could be contact tracing. Last time Bennet was in town (before the pandemic), we filled the conference room at the library. The crowd was out the door. Pushing 200 people. Hick was in town last year, in the police-station community room, and there was an overflow crowd.

“Boebert had a fundraising event in Aspen, and her people had to fill out all the same paperwork, yet they exceeded the 20-person limit and held the event indoors. There were no masks and no distancing. And the town didn’t do anything about it.”

Krousouloudis takes a slightly different view.

“I think it helps a little bit for counties like ours, which are very spread out,” he said. “It is easier to get people together on Zoom, which is tough to do if we had meetings in person. On the other hand, it’s not the same as face-to-face with voters and all that. It’s a different animal, but it is what it is.”

Though seemingly counterintuitive, “What it is” might very well eventually work in favor of Mitsch Bush.

Krousouloudis believes that familiarity — at least in Garfield County, where Boebert bested Tipton by only about 100 votes — might breed a certain degree of contempt.

“In Garfield, everyone knows [Boebert],” he said. “They know she made a big scene about opening her restaurant before it was legal to do so. She thought opening her restaurant was the most important thing around. They know about her legal issues and her tax issues.”

Repeated attempts to get comment from the Garfield County Republicans were unsuccessful.

Photos and collage by Gay Gangel-Fayhee

3rd Congressional District Democratic candidate Diane Mitsch Bush takes part in a virtual campaign rally last week. The event, aimed at residents of Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, drew 75 participants. Mitsch Bush has been following strict pandemic protocols by running a campaign that is totally virtual.

Different messaging

Given how differently each candidate is handling pandemic protocols, it’s difficult to gauge how well their messages are getting out.

On Oct. 11, Mitsch Bush hosted a virtual town hall that included Mesa, Montrose, Delta and Rio Blanco counties. According to Mitsch Bush campaign communications director Caleb Cade, 75 people signed up for the event. The same number signed up for a Pitkin County virtual town hall held Oct. 8.

On Oct. 8, Boebert held a rally in Grand Junction. John Pence, nephew of Vice President Mike Pence, introduced Boebert to a crowd that numbered between 50 and 100, depending on the source. (Video evidence sides with the lower number.) In early September, she held a rally in Grand Junction that attracted several hundred people.

There could be many reasons for that drop in attendance — time of day, day of the week and/or the fact that many had already heard Boebert’s message in September.

At least one longtime Democratic activist in Grand Junction thinks there might be other issues at play.

“People are starting to suffer from Boebert fatigue,” said Scott Bielfuss, who is running for the Colorado Senate in District 55. “She’s saying pretty much the same thing at every stop, even places where she has spoken before. She doesn’t take questions after she speaks. Her message is getting stale. I think the shine is starting to wear off and people are seeing her for what she is — someone with no experience and no desire to get anything done.”

(For the record, Mitsch Bush takes questions during her virtual campaign stops.)

“[Boebert] opened her restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, flipping the proverbial bird to Gov. Polis just because he’s a Democrat,” Wallach said. “In addition to her arrest record, she has refused to show up in court twice.”

Much has been made of Boebert’s legal issues. Here’s the basic skinny: According to an Aug. 27 Denver Post story written by Justin Wingerter, Boebert “has been arrested and summoned at least four times over the last decade.”

According to Wingerter, Boebert was detained in Mesa County for disorderly conduct in 2015 (that charge was eventually dropped); arrested in 2015 for failure to appear; charged in 2016 with careless driving and operating an unsafe vehicle (those charges were reduced); and arrested (and jailed for a short period of time) in 2017 for failure to appear.

“All this speaks to a person who thinks the rules don’t apply to her,” Wallach said. “If she’s going to act like this as a private citizen, how can they expect her to serve with honor and integrity as a member of Congress.”

Savoca looks at Boebert’s brushes with the law very differently.

“I am not all concerned about Lauren’s criminal record,” he said. “Everything was incredibly minor. Those are issues that most people have encountered in their lives. Some of those issues have been embellished or are inaccurate. More than that, though, I find it amusing that her opponent and Democrats in general are quite vocal about how they consider the prosecution of low-level crimes to be something of an injustice, that we should forgive low-level offenses. I am not concerned whatsoever by Lauren’s past issues.”

nationalatlas.gov

Colorado’s vast 3rd Congressional District is shaded in green.

Is Mesa County changing?

Bielfuss says Mesa County — whose population of 154,210 is second highest in the CD3 — is Boebert’s to lose, given its recent electoral history. But he has reason for optimism, even though Tipton topped Mitsch Bush 42,343 to 21,381 in 2018 and Boebert beat Tipton 19,063 to 10,577 in the June Republican primary.

“The demographics of Mesa County are morphing,” Bielfuss said. “Seventeen percent of the registered voters in Mesa County are Democrat. Of the remaining 83%, half are Republicans and half are independent. We’ve got a lot of young people and recent transplants who are listening to our message. When I started volunteering, 26% of the people in Mesa County had no health insurance. When the Affordable Care Act, which Boebert opposes, kicked in, that number dropped to 10%.

“We have a growing number of seniors in Mesa County who are concerned about protecting Medicare and Social Security. These are people who are less interested in hearing about the Second Amendment than they are about their health and financial security.”

Bielfuss also looks askance at Boebert’s message regarding jobs.

“She says, ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ while disparaging places like Denver and Boulder for their liberal economic policies,” he said. “People in Boulder and Denver are educated, have a high quality of life and an average income substantially higher than the average income in Mesa County. People here want better jobs. They are getting tired of the fluctuating oil-and-gas boom and bust. There is a service economy here, but those are not high-paying jobs. The average family income in Mesa County is about $48,000. That’s half of the average income in Denver and Boulder. I think we have a few things to learn from them when it comes to job creation.”

“People have always been afraid to say they are a Democrat in Mesa County,” said Maria Kennan, chair of the Mesa County Democrats. “Democrats are now coming out of the closet in Mesa County. We are having record numbers of people coming by our office asking for signs and information.”

Savoca agrees that enthusiasm for the upcoming election in Mesa County is off the charts. But he views that enthusiasm through a different political prism.

“Mesa County is solidly red,” he said. “There’s no question of Republicans carrying Masa County. It’s just a question of by how much. Usually, Mesa County goes about 65% Republican. We’re hoping to get closer to 70% this time. We have never seen this level of enthusiasm for an election. We’ve had record turnouts at our events and people volunteering and signing up for emails. It has always been like pulling teeth to get volunteers. It’s going to be an election like we’ve never seen.”

The power of experience

Both Krousouloudis and Pourshoushtari are somewhat concerned that the CD3 dialogue is focused, for better or worse, primarily on Boebert. They want to make sure that Mitsch Bush does not get lost in the race to either denigrate or venerate Boebert.

“I am not even thinking about going against Boebert,” Krousouloudis said. “Diane is a very strong candidate who has so much to offer. She has the ability to get things done across the aisle. She’s got a track ­record that speaks for itself. We’re not out making statements against our opponents because we don’t need to.”

“When you compare the résumés of Boebert and Diane, there is no comparison,” Pourshoushtari said. “Diane is almost tailor-made for this district when it comes to her policy experience. She has the ability to reach across the aisle and get things done. When you look at Boebert, she has no policy plans, unless you count repealing the ACA, which she is now backpedaling away from. She speaks in long platitudes and generalities.

“I think the people of CD3 are starting to take notice. Sure, Boebert is the new name on the block. But the more people learn, the more they realize she is not the person they want to represent their district.”

Baker, the Pitkin County Republican chair, looks at the experience issue from a different angle.

“Lauren’s never held public office before, but, in some people’s minds, that’s actually refreshing,” he said. “She does have experience in business and has some experience in politics. She got very involved in getting the veto referendum of the national popular vote compact on the ballot Nov. 3. That got her out and about. She collected the second-largest number of signatures of anyone to get that on the ballot. That experience exposed her to a lot of people. She doesn’t have a record of specific issues. This is what Democrats and a lot of letters to the editor focus on. They say she doesn’t have positions, she doesn’t have any accomplishments. But she has strong points of view. That’s part of the contrast — the fresh face.

“Her opponent is literally more than double her age and has been in elected office before. Lauren is coming in with a fresh view, and her detractors turn that around. She has no experience, but everyone has to start at some point.”

Savoca echoes that last point.

“I am very enthused about Lauren,” he said. “I think she’s an excellent candidate for a lot of reasons. I don’t subscribe to the thinking that candidates have to have government experience to be elected. I support those who have lived a real life, who have some real-life experience, are far more qualified than people who have zero experience with real life, people who go straight out of college to a government job.

“Lauren has an incredible story as a woman with a family who owns a business and has faced struggles. She is well positioned to understand the impact serving as a congresswoman will have on her district.”

Despite her lack of political experience, despite her much-ballyhooed brushes with the law and despite (or maybe partially because of) her pistol-packing ways, Boebert might very well win this race. Again, the polls — for what they are worth — show a virtual deadlock.

Boebert is clearly winning the social-media wars, at least when it comes to sheer numbers. She has almost 30,000 followers on her campaign Facebook page, 13,000 followers on Instagram and an astounding 214,000 followers on Twitter.

By comparison, Mitsch Bush has 5,257 followers of Facebook, 1,046 followers on Instagram and 1,046 on Twitter.

“She is savvy with her Twitter account,” Pourshoushtari said. “She has managed to build up quite a following with right-wing media. But the reality is the average voter in CD3 does not live off Twitter. The difference is that Diane is talking about issues people in CD3 are concerned about. And we’re seeing that her message is breaking through. People are seeing someone who is going to work to actually get things done for her constituents. People are thinking that Boebert is a breath of fresh air, that she will go to Washington to fight AOC. Well, that will not lower health care costs or create jobs in CD3.”

“Look, I don’t see those brushes with the law as that big a detriment,” Baker said. “She gives rather good explanations about those incidents. The most significant thing is that her own sheriff in Garfield County, Lou Vallario, has come out in support of her — and he is a real law-and-order type.

“Lauren has positions on every issue. She is strong on gun rights, strong on right-to-life, strong on continuing to develop fossil fuels, which are important economically in western Colorado. People try to accuse her of being a one-trick pony. Listen to her for 15 minutes and you will see she’s thought other things through. I am a retired FBI agent. I would not be supporting anyone who was a law-breaker. It’s important for the Republican Party to get young women in Congress.”

Editor’s note: After more than a month of trying to get a response from Lauren Boebert and her campaign to a list of specific questions, answers finally arrived, but they came too close to deadline to integrate into this story. So we are running those questions and answers, along with a Q&A from Diane Mitsch Bush, on the Aspen Journalism website.

 This story ran in the Oct. 18 edition of the Aspen Daily News.

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