News organizations across the country took note of Lauren Boebert’s gun strapped to her thigh, and sent reporters to Colorado’s Western Slope to delve into how a 33-year-old restaurant owner beat a fire-term congressman in the Republican primary.
Leading up to the general election in November, Boebert is taking her hard-right, uncompromising messages about gun rights, financial self-sufficiency and reopening the economy to rallies across the expansive 3rd Congressional District.
“This race is about people – you need to connect with people,” Boebert said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald.
Her rallies have drawn criticism because participants don’t wear masks, but Boebert said they aren’t required outside.
“You can’t feel people’s pain through a computer screen,” she said, referring to opponent Diane Mitsch Bush’s online forums.
Her campaign website does not outline specific policy plans for her potential term in the U.S. House, and she touts her lack of political experience as a positive.
However, her messages of reducing the government’s role in public systems like health care, education and land use resonate with rural voters who believe the government has failed or ignored them.
Mitsch Bush, a Democrat, has run a campaign that lacks the flashy visuals and sound bites that propelled Boebert past Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez and into the general election.
Mitsch Bush has held her events online in an effort, she says, to keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a former state legislator and Routt County commissioner, Mitsch Bush pitches herself as a pragmatist who would stand up to her own party to represent her district’s interests in Washington, D.C. Her website outlines her plan to press issues under the COVID-19 pandemic, including health care, jobs and fair elections.
“She is not flashy, but she is a hard worker,” Nancy Spillane of Steamboat Springs said in a phone interview. Mitsch Bush helped Routt County through the Great Recession and has worked with ranchers, miners and school districts, Spillane said.
How their pasts shape their politicsBoth campaigns have centered on highlighting their differences. When asked whether she and Mitsch Bush had anything in common, Boebert replied bluntly: “We’re both women.”
But Mitsch Bush and Boebert both tell stories of their financial insecurity and hardship as children.
Mitsch Bush says on her website she “experienced firsthand how a stable, good paying job with benefits can provide dignity, security and stability for working families” when her single mother joined a public employees union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Boebert has said her experience on a food stamp program was “humiliating” and a “cycle of poverty” that held her family back from becoming successful.
In online ads and rally speeches, Boebert shares how her first job at a McDonald’s at age 15 taught her the power that comes with financial self-sufficiency instead of relying on the government for help.
“I learned conservative values – I take care of myself, not you,” she said.
The public lands predicament Farms and ranches in Southwest Colorado provide beef, hay and pinto beans for other parts of the nation. But some voters feel leaders from left-leaning places like Denver belittle them and their beliefs.
“Federal policies affect the 3rd Congressional District differently,” Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant from Colorado, said in a phone interview. “The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) owns a large part of it.”
When BLM land is protected for conservation purposes, voters in the 3rd Congressional District think “people want to take away their livelihood, that they don’t count,” Wadhams said.
For Boebert, protecting public land from oil and gas extraction means fewer jobs.
“We need to keep and protect lands for multiuse,” Boebert said. The over-regulation in place is “driving away companies that are unable to comply,” she said.
The BLM is already tasked with sustaining multiple uses on public lands. And the regulations implemented “come from the companies themselves,” said Cody Perry, a conservation consultant and co-founder of Rig To Flip, an environmental film company based in Steamboat Springs.
He documents water in the West and shares stories of how recreation boosts local economies and helps preserve Colorado’s water sources and natural beauty.
Oil and gas companies leave for market or business reasons, not regulations, Perry said.
“I want someone to look at public lands and ask how they’re going to be part of our economy for the long term,” Perry said.
Mitsch Bush proposes training coal, gas and oil workers for new manufacturing, renewable energy and broadband infrastructure jobs that also improve their communities.
“During the pandemic, we saw our supply chain wasn’t working,” Mitsch Bush said in a phone interview with the Herald. “We rely too much on foreign suppliers for medical supplies.”
She wants to bring those manufacturing jobs to places like Colorado’s Western Slope.
Rebuilding the economy also means protecting public lands for recreational use, Mitsch Bush said.
During the COVID-19 shutdown of indoor spaces, where the virus is more likely to spread, Colorado has seen “much more use of our public lands,” Mitsch Bush said.
The outdoor recreation economy is vital to Southwest Colorado, and if public lands are lost to oil and gas leases or other destructive uses, those recreation jobs are lost as well, she said.
Beyond their policy stances, Mitsch Bush said the biggest difference between her and Boebert is her ability to listen to constituents.
“The job is to listen to constituents, not party leaders,” Mitsch Bush said. “I’ve listened to them, and let them know what I’m thinking, but it’s not a rigid ideology.”
Without experience or a set of policy plans informed by feedback from constituents, Boebert is more likely to back policies from party leaders on a national level instead of what would be beneficial for the 3rd Congressional District, Mitsch Bush said.
“There is no doubt she is inspired by President Donald Trump and associates with him on every issue,” Wadhams said.
Boebert’s campaign pushed messaging on the need to ensure health care for those with preexisting conditions, or people who had health conditions such as asthma before the start of their new coverage, about the same time Trump signed an executive order that purports to lock in coverage regardless of anyone’s health history.
And she has echoed Trump’s misleading statements about mail-in voting on her Twitter account.
But her reflection of Trump is an “asset in the 3rd Congressional District,” Wadhams said. “And most voters there have more in common with a restaurant owner in Rifle than a sociologist in Steamboat Springs.”