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Lauren Boebert ran against AOC and the ‘squad,’ and beat Rep. Scott Tipton in the process

Gun rights activist pulled off an upset in Colorado’s 3rd District

Lauren Boebert, the owner of a restaurant where the staff wear firearms, defeated Rep. Scott Tipton in Tuesday's Republican primary in Colorado's 3rd District. Here she poses in 2018 with Edward Wilks, owner of Tradesmen Gun Store and Pawnshop.
Lauren Boebert, the owner of a restaurant where the staff wear firearms, defeated Rep. Scott Tipton in Tuesday's Republican primary in Colorado's 3rd District. Here she poses in 2018 with Edward Wilks, owner of Tradesmen Gun Store and Pawnshop. (Emily Kask/AFP via Getty Images file photo)

When Lauren Boebert launched her Republican primary campaign against Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton back in December, she was asked who she considered her actual opponent: Tipton or New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I’m absolutely running against her,” Boebert said, according to a clip of the interview with 9News. She later added, “I am ready to be the one that steps up for conservative values and takes on AOC.”

The gun rights activist didn’t mention the liberal congresswoman by name in her statement after she defeated Tipton in an upset primary victory Tuesday. She did, however, reference taking on “left-wing lunatics” in Congress.

“There weren’t that many Republicans in her district who were really angry at Tipton,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “She was trying to stir up their anger by directing it at Ocasio-Cortez and other liberal leaders on the Democratic side and [saying], ‘If you want to go after these boogeymen, I’m the best person to do it.’” 

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Some Colorado Republican strategists said Boebert’s decision to highlight Ocasio-Cortez and other liberal freshmen who are part of the so-called squad helped her defeat Tipton handily. But she was also helped by a surge in voter turnout and by an incumbent who didn’t see a competitive race coming.

Some Republicans raised concerns that the political newcomer, who has been associated with an internet conspiracy theory, could put the sprawling 3rd District in western Colorado in play this fall.

“When there’s no longer a 10-year incumbent who has a pretty good cash on hand in the bank, you take that incumbent out of the picture and it totally changes the dynamics of the general election,” former Colorado GOP chairman Dick Wadhams said.

An anti-AOC

David Flaherty, a GOP pollster in Colorado who was not involved in the primary, said Boebert’s victory was “a clear demonstration of what the Republican Party base wants.”

“They want the anti-AOC, as Ms. Boebert campaigned on,” Flaherty said. “They want unfettered, unapologetic allegiance to the president, and she clearly demonstrated that.”

Boebert tied Tipton to the squad in her closing television ad of the race, showing a composed image of Tipton alongside Ocasio-Cortez and Democrats Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts. The ad knocked Tipton for co-sponsoring a coronavirus relief bill that would provide funds for local governments. Tipton is one of three Republicans co-sponsoring the bill, introduced by Colorado Democrat Rep. Joe Neguse.

Some Republicans said the attack was misleading since Tipton, while understated, is a conservative who has supported President Donald Trump. The president endorsed him back in December and again a day before the primary. Tipton has supported Trump’s priorities 95 percent of the time, according to a CQ Vote Watch analysis. That’s slightly above the average Republican’s presidential support score of 94 percent.

But, as one Republican put it, Tipton “never punched back.”

He countered with mailers but never aired television ads during the primary. Although Boebert wasn’t exactly blanketing the airwaves, she spent more than $30,000 on TV ads, according to two Republicans familiar with the race. Her campaign focused on the Grand Junction media market, which is cheaper than the Denver market and covers more than a quarter of the district, according to Daily Kos Elections.

Despite a relatively small amount spent contacting voters, the 3rd District saw a surge in turnout compared to past primaries. When Tipton last faced a primary challenge in 2016, nearly 56,000 voters cast ballots. On Tuesday, nearly 105,000 votes were cast in the 3rd District GOP primary.

It’s easy to vote in Colorado, since voters receive ballots in the mail. And some strategists said voters stuck at home during the pandemic were motivated to return their ballots.

“People were sitting at home, watching the news, getting pissed off,” said one Republican familiar with the primary, who added that frustration about the pandemic fueled “a massive anti-incumbent sentiment.”

Flaherty, the GOP pollster, said the turnout was more about backing Trump than opposing incumbents, attributing higher turnout to “the intensity of the Republican base to support the president and somebody that is unapologetically supporting the president.” 

Another Republican strategist said GOP primary voters were particularly frustrated by the shuttering of the economy to curb the spread of the coronavirus. That frustration may have boosted Boebert, who grabbed local headlines for opening her restaurant “Shooter’s Grill” — where the staff carry firearms — in defiance of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ executive orders.  

“She really was quite media savvy,” Wadhams said. “Meanwhile, I don’t think Congressman Tipton took her seriously.”

A new Democratic opportunity?

While Boebert’s status as a political outsider may have benefitted her in the primary, it could be a liability come November, given her lack of experience fundraising and campaigning.

Darrin Smith, the GOP chairman in Garfield County, which includes the town of Rifle where Boebert owns her restaurant, said he was “absolutely” concerned about Republicans holding on to the 3rd District because Boebert is new to fundraising. She raised $133,000 in the primary.

Some Republicans chalked up her comments about the QAnon conspiracy theory to her inexperience. Asked in a May interview about the theory, which prescribes that Trump is fighting a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state,” Boebert said, “I hope that this is real. It only means America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values and that’s what I am for.”

Boebert, who was not available for an interview, said in a statement shared with CQ Roll Call, “I’m glad the [inspector general] and the [attorney general] are investigating deep state activities that undermine the President. I don’t follow QAnon.”

Democrats seized on her past QAnon comments Tuesday night. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos called on Washington Republicans to “immediately disavow Lauren Boebert and her extremist, dangerous conspiracy theories.”

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer said in a statement Wednesday that Boebert “has our support.”

“This is a Republican seat and will remain a Republican seat,” Emmer said. 

But Bustos said Democrats are “well positioned to compete and win this seat.” Former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush won the Democratic primary Tuesday, making a second run for Congress after losing to Tipton by 8 points in 2018. Democrats could have a better shot against a lesser-known Republican with a much smaller campaign war chest.

The race could also pull GOP resources from other competitive races, particularly because Mitsch Bush appears to start the race with a financial advantage. As of June 10, her campaign had $351,000 on hand to just $13,000 for Boebert.

“The 3rd is definitely going to need some help from the NRCC and other independent expenditure groups to hold that seat, without question,” Flaherty said. 

The district has been known to support Democrats for Congress. Tipton unseated three-term Democrat John Salazar in the tea party wave of 2010.

But Trump carried the rural district by 12 points in 2016, doubling Mitt Romney’s 2012 margin. So some Republicans said Boebert should still be favored to win in November.

“Democrats would be wise not to underestimate her,” Wadhams said.

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