Lauren Boebert beat a Colorado congressman. Is she the next GOP star?
Ever since the Democratic wave of 2018, Travis Oliger, chair of the La Plata County Republican Party, has come to expect low turnout at the candidate meet-and-greets he arranges.
But earlier this year, when he looked out at a meet-and-greet crowd in his Democratic-leaning southwest Colorado county, there were a lot of young, unfamiliar faces and they were there to see a little-known candidate for Congress named Lauren Boebert.
“It was kind of like with Trump,” Oliger recalls of that unusually large gathering. “People showed up and came out to support Trump and they would tell me, ‘I’m not here to support the party, I really don’t like the Republicans, but I’m for Trump’ and it was like, ‘Wow, really?’ This is very similar.”
Boebert, a 33-year-old restaurant owner, pulled off the summer’s biggest political upset on June 30, toppling incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, a massive area that spans the western half of the state, along with southern Colorado. The political novice is now the front-runner to win Nov. 3 over Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush in this Republican-leaning district.
“She brings a certain amount of excitement to the Republican Party on the Western Slope that I don’t know we’ve had for a while,” said Kevin McCarney, chair of the Republican Party in Mesa County, where Boebert dominated Tipton.
Boebert has made it this far, in defiance of history and conventional wisdom, with a potent political strategy that weaves social media savviness and profuse praise for President Donald Trump with more traditional tactics, such as a strong volunteer base and improving oratory skill. The result is a Republican candidate uniquely suited for this political environment and the partisan warfare that defines it.
“The Democrats are not afraid to come out and be very vocal and very stern and very demanding of what their beliefs are,” said Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, a supporter. “I think the Republican Party kind of lacks that in Congress. We need to find some people willing to step up and counter. That’s what this is all about.”
Boebert’s campaign declined an interview request for this article. A spokesperson said she is instead focusing her time on building a policy team and raising money.
Poverty and business
Boebert was born in Florida and raised in what she calls “a rough part of Denver” — the Montbello neighborhood — and Aurora with little money and stark recollections of walking to grocery stores with an EBT card. She harbors animosity towards Democrats for, as she sees is, misleading her mother and convincing her that she could not support a family without government assistance.
“My mom was a true blue Democrat and she believed all of the lies that she was told — that she could not support me and my brothers on her own,” Boebert said in a Facebook video. “She was told that if she went out to try to support us without the help of Democrat politicians, she would fail. Because of that, we grew up poor.”
Life improved after the family moved to the Western Slope when Boebert was 12 years old — “hope is born here,” the candidate once said — and she began working at a fast food restaurant when she was 15. She felt empowered by receiving a paycheck but quickly learned to hate paying taxes. She later fell in love, got married, gave birth to four boys and started a restaurant in Rifle.
“Her story is the great American success story,” McCarney said of Boebert. “If you learn about her background, she really came from nowhere. Her family was on welfare, she goes to work at McDonald’s at an early age, doesn’t finish high school. She could have been the other side of the story, on welfare and government assistance her whole life, but she worked her way out of that and into what she is now, which is a small business owner.”
Shooters Grill, Boebert’s gun-themed restaurant in Rifle, is central to her political celebrity. It’s where she earned her first news headlines, where she came to be known for her gun rights advocacy, and where she won conservative accolades for defying public health orders by reopening the restaurant earlier this year.
It was also, according to public records, sometimes in dire financial straits, even before the pandemic and recession crippled restaurants across the country.
On a financial disclosure form in January, Boebert wrote that the grill lost $242,347 in 2018 and Garfield County records suggest Boebert repeatedly struggled to pay property taxes on Shooters between 2016 and February of this year. Eight tax liens totaling nearly $20,000 have been filed against Shooters in the past four years.
Boebert was released from several liens in February of this year, according to public documents, and the Boebert campaign said it is unaware of any past due taxes or outstanding liens against Shooters Grill. The campaign said a previous tax dispute was settled by Boebert and no outstanding tax issues remain.
Since her June 30 win, Boebert has also faced resurfacing questions about a food poisoning incident in 2017. According to an investigation by the Garfield County Public Health Department, Boebert’s restaurant was the sole caterer for a rodeo at which 80 people became sick after eating Shooters pork sliders. Stool samples from the sick tested positive for a bacteria that causes food poisoning.
The health department’s investigative team determined Shooters Grill, which was not licensed to serve food at the Rifle Rodeo, was responsible for the illnesses. In its report, the investigative team wrote that “bacterial contamination was due to improper food safety practices” on the part of Shooters.
Boebert fired back soon after, alleging in a Glenwood Springs Post Independent op-ed that the stool samples were “very improperly handled.” She also suggested dirty grandstands might be to blame, claimed some of the ill customers did not eat her pork sliders — contradicting the health department’s investigation — and blamed the press for trying “to create some sort of ‘news’ in our uneventful area.”
Tipton, of Cortez, has spent five terms in Congress doing all the things congressmen are expected to do — vote for bills that are popular in the district, advocate for federal money to be sent to the district — while avoiding scandal and controversy. And that, along with a lackluster campaign, cost him his seat.
In the 116th Congress, it is no longer enough to vote as most of your constituents wish. You’re sometimes expected, in the minutes after voting, to tweet or make a beeline for the mass of cameras in Statuary Hall or the Cannon Rotunda and loudly explain not only your vote but also why your opponents are dead wrong. Tipton, quiet and unassuming, is ill-suited for that current political atmosphere, which can value bluster over bashfulness and hyperbole over high-mindedness.
“When you get into your fourth or fifth term, even though you’re doing a great job…people kind of say, ‘Maybe it’s time for a change,’” said Scott McInnis, a Republican who represented the 3rd District for six terms from 1993 to 2005. “And you’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, look at my record!’ But they’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, but maybe we need a fresh face.’ I think Scott may have run into that too.”
Many of Boebert’s top supporters are fascinated and grudgingly impressed by the media savviness of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and other members of the so-called Squad, a small group of hard-line progressives in the U.S. House. Voters, volunteers and endorsers of Boebert want her to create the conservative equivalent, what Vallario half-jokingly calls “the anti-Squad.”
That will require an exhausting schedule of media appearances, which Boebert seems to yearn for. Several talk radio hosts say she has a habit of reaching out to them and asking to be on their show. Ross Kaminsky, a libertarian KHOW host who has invited Boebert on air several times, believes it helped her win June 30.
“She gives answers to questions and opinions on issues in a way that seems refreshingly unconcerned with what a pollster or focus group organizer would tell her that she should say. I think people really appreciate that,” Kaminsky said in an interview. “I think people appreciated that about Trump in 2016 as well. Whether you liked him or not, you felt like he was, for better or worse, unfiltered. With Boebert it’s the same way. For better or worse, she’s unfiltered.”
She’s also terrific at generating her own news headlines. Earlier this year, as she tried to keep her restaurant open during the pandemic and battled the Garfield County Public Health Department, the same entity that found she sickened rodeo attendees in 2017, talk radio hosts gave her time and an outlet to sound off.
“When I met her and spent some time with her, I saw that she was a rock solid patriot with guts and grit and charisma,” KNUS host Randy Corporon said. “She’s unique in her ability to articulate, she’s attractive and she wears that gun on her hip, which sends a message.”
Boebert’s willingness to appear on nearly any media outlet, including obscure online shows, has led to a few awkward moments. In January, she appeared on a controversial podcast called “In Hot Water” and the hosts suggested she “wrestle AOC in Jell-O or pudding,” which Boebert jokingly said she would do. In May, she found herself on a show that promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory, which Boebert did not dismiss. (She has since said she does not believe in QAnon).
Because of moments like those, Democrats see Boebert as an amateur and wild-eyed extremist, and plan to tell voters that this fall. One Democratic operative has taken to calling her Yosemite Samantha and a parody Twitter account accompanying the nickname has cropped up. Election forecasters say the seat leans Republican, but not by the comfortable cushion it did just a few months ago.
“In the middle of a global pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of Coloradans still out of work, voters are looking for a leader who can address real challenges like the rising cost of a health care and getting our economy back on track,” said Brooke Goren, a press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Lauren Boebert, however, is more focused on continuing to traffic in conspiracy theories than proposing solutions to the challenges keeping hardworking families up at night.”
In the 100 remaining days before the Nov. 3 election between Boebert and Mitsch Bush, the five-foot-tall Republican mother of four will try to convince the 3rd District that she should be their congresswoman. And Oliger, the La Plata County Republican Party chair, can safely expect some bigger crowds at his meetings.
“They want a voice,” he said of Republicans on the Western Slope. “They want a voice that they can hear and they think Lauren’s got that. I do too.”