“The tip of the spear”, that’s how Lauren Boebert described herself, on a bluebird Saturday in June, to a group of her supporters at a small town Republican party barbecue. Other members of the GOP shy away from the most inflammatory issues and controversial fights, she said – but not her.
Boebert’s extreme rightwing stances range from absolute opposition to gun control to questioning the effectiveness of vaccines and the outcome of the 2020 presidential elections. All are conveyed by a social media persona fine-tuned to inflame the culture wars.
It was sweltering inside the gazebo, even with the windows and doors thrown open, but the first-term congresswoman seemed unfazed. Dressed in jeans, a black ballcap and several-inch high heels, she guided her supporters through a litany of inflammatory talking points including immigration, critical race theory, gender transitions and Joe Biden’s mental capacity. The crowd was captivated, with regular shouts of approval and cheering when Boebert paused her careering delivery for effect.
“I’m proud to have brought home 100% conservative voting records to each and every one of you,” she told the crowd at the June barbecue. “From gun rights, to immigration, to border security, to life.”
In just two years in Congress, Boebert has become one of America’s most famous political figures. Along with Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley, JD Vance and others, she is among a vanguard of younger, stridently conservative politicians following former president Donald Trump’s path to prominence.
Boebert’s public battles against Colorado’s Covid-19 business shutdowns at her restaurant, Shooter’s Grill, in the small town of Rifle (the servers carry sidearms), catapulted her to local fame, helping her unseat several-term incumbent Scott Tipton in the 2020 Republican primary. She won the general election for Colorado’s third congressional district that fall.
Upon arriving in Washington DC she pledged to carry her handgun on to the floor of Congress, heckled President Biden during his first State of the Union, and was censured by the House for racist remarks made about the Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar. In a May debate, Boebert said she was proud of her attempt to block the certification of President Biden’s election.
At the June rally, Boebert spoke to an adoring crowd of core GOP primary voters. If this group and their peers across western Colorado were the sole voters Boebert needed to capture Tuesday’s 2022 Republican primary, she would be a lock. But they are not.
Colorado holds what are known as open primaries. This means independent voters automatically receive election ballots for both Republican and Democratic party elections. These unaffiliated voters outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in Colorado’s third district, making up about 44% of active voters. With the Democratic party’s failure to come up with a high-profile candidate, there has been a concerted anti-Boebert push among quietly dissenting Republicans, angry unaffiliated voters and even Democrats who renounce their party registration to vote in the GOP primary against Boebert.
“Boebert is an embarrassment to our district,” said Susan Reed, a retired cultural archeologist, who decided to change her registration from Democrat to unaffiliated. This was a first for Reed, but Boebert offends her. “We need a legislator and not a Fox News personality,” she said.
Reed is not alone. Across the district, Democrats are de-registering in some numbers. According to an analysis by Colorado Public Radio, the Democratic party lost about 3,700 registered voters between February and May in Boebert’s congressional district (Boebert won the primary two years ago by fewer than 10,000 votes). None of Colorado’s other House districts saw a comparable shift.
Tomorrow, these voters will cast their votes for Don Coram, a 74-year-old state senator from the small, conservative town of Montrose. Coram’s family has ranched in the arid Uncompahgre valley for generations, where, today, he grows hemp, in addition to running cattle. He is well-known in this deeply red part of the state, an important source of votes for Boebert’s dark horse primary win two years ago. He has a reputation for expertise in water and mineral policy, as well as for moderation and frequent deal-making with Democrats.
“My politics are very similar to my driving,” Coram said at a recent campaign event. “To the chagrin of both my wife and my Republican colleagues, I tend to crowd the center line and sometimes I veer over a bit.”
Colorado’s third congressional district is enormous, blanketing the state’s entire western half. High in the Rockies near the Continental Divide, there are posh, well-educated ski towns that attract the wealthiest people in America and vote blue. Several thousand feet of elevation down and to the west are some of Colorado’s most impoverished and least populated areas. The district includes some of Colorado’s most intensely conservative counties. There are two sovereign tribal nations, the Ute Mountain Indian and Southern Ute Indian tribes. The seat is also nearly a quarter Hispanic.
Western Colorado includes the state’s last active coalmines, many oil and gas wells, and millions of acres of federal public land. Outdoor recreation and tourism on these public lands have become enormously important revenue sources. The Colorado River’s headwaters emerge here, on the western slope of the Rockies, making water policy existentially important, not only locally, but for the entire south-western US.
Truly representing the interests of such a complex assortment of people and communities would be hard for any politician. But Boebert’s critics argue that she does an especially poor job. Voting analyses consistently rank her as one of the most conservative and least bipartisan members of Congress.
Coram’s primary challenge rests on the idea that western Colorado voters feel inadequately represented by this hard-right stance. His campaign touts his centrist reputation developed during his 11 years as a state politician. Coram has been an important Republican backer of bipartisan bills on rural hospitals, broadband and water conservation. “The ‘R’ next to my name stands for rural,” he said during a phone interview.
At times, Coram’s politics veer beyond the normal GOP boundaries. In 2015, he helped write a bill to provide millions in state funding to provide free contraceptives to teenagers. Coram opposes abortions. Preventing them, in his view, requires easily available contraception. While promoting his bill in the state capitol, Coram wore an IUD pinned to his lapel. “It was rather funny,” he said in a phone interview, “because a lot of my redneck Republican friends looked at me and said, ‘is that some kind of a fishing lure?’”
Boebert has seized on these and other votes as evidence that her opponent is a liberal in disguise, an accusation that Coram brushes off – to an extent.
“We’re concentrating on what we refer to as kitchen table Republicans, the more moderate Republicans that aren’t all driven by theories and agendas,” he said. “We’re concentrated on them and the unaffiliated vote.”
In 2020, Boebert won the general election with 51.4% of the vote, suggesting a competitive seat. After the district’s boundaries shifted last year, Republicans now hold a 9% advantage. J Miles Coleman, an election analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that between this redistricting and a tough national atmosphere for Democrats, Boebert is likely to be re-elected – if she wins tomorrow’s primary, as Coleman thinks she will.
Three candidates are competing in the Democratic primary: Sol Sandoval, Adam Frisch and Alex Walker. All are seen as long shots against Boebert.
“It’s a conservative seat with a libertarian streak, especially on guns, taxes and government regulation,” he said. “Boebert checks a lot of those boxes.”
Not so long ago, though, Democrats were competitive, even successful. The third district was represented for years by Democrat John Salazar, who lost in 2010. His brother, Ken, did well in the area during his successful 2004 Senate campaign. Another Democrat, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, held the seat for several terms in the late 1980s and early 90s. Part of the issue, as Coleman noted, is that the Hispanic vote is no longer staunchly blue. Pueblo county, which is 43% Hispanic or Latino, voted for Trump in 2016 after going for Obama in both elections. Biden barely clawed the county back in 2020.
Based on numerous interviews with western Colorado Democrats, there’s a clear sense of frustration with the state party leadership, overwhelmingly concentrated in the Denver area, hundreds of miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide.
“National and state Democrats have lost virtually every line of communication with working-class voters in places like the western slope,” said Joel Dyar a longtime community organizer in Grand Junction (Dyar co-founded a Super Pac that opposes Boebert). “They’ve had three decades to work on strategies and they still have no real strategies. There’s no storytelling, no cultural competence, no ladders for new rural talent. They’ve got to make big, brave, generational investments in rural organizing.”
Kathleen Sullivan Kelley encountered this obstacle in the 1980s, when, as a young, single woman in her 20s, she unseated an incumbent Republican state senator in one of the most deeply conservative parts of western Colorado.
“It was a problem back when I ran for the legislature,” she said in a phone interview. “The Democratic party didn’t want to spend money on this area.”
Kelley would eventually lose her seat and return home to Rio Blanco county, where she bought some of her family’s ranch and went into regenerative agriculture. In 2020, the county voted 82% for Donald Trump. Even so, she sees opportunity for Democrats, if only someone would seize it, especially in fighting consolidation and monopoly power in agricultural markets.
For the upcoming primary, she dropped her party registration, in part so she could vote for Coram, but also out of frustration with the Democratic party.
“I think any Democrat who would get in their pickup truck and get out there and knock on doors and show the heck up would have a shot,” she said. “There are so many people in this district who are embarrassed by what is going on.”
Boebert remains the strong favorite against Coram. She has a more than $4m fundraising advantage, on top of a bedrock of support, even beyond registered Republicans. An analysis of the 2020 election by the Colorado Sun found that western Colorado unaffiliated voters have a noticeably conservative bent.
Coram’s uphill battle was evident in early June, at a campaign event he held at a coffee shop he co-owns with his son. Dressed in cowboy boots and a pink shirt with his name and state senate seat stitched on the front, Coram chatted casually with a number of supporters, framing himself as a pragmatic deal-maker.
But one young woman seemed skeptical. She pressed him repeatedly on core GOP issues like abortion and gun control. A student at Colorado Christian University who wants to enter the air force, Marissa Archuletta said later that she wanted a more partisan Republican stance from Coram. On abortion, she said, he promised to work with both sides, “but he never really said that he would work with Republicans”. Archuletta would not reveal which candidate she planned to vote for, but said of Boebert, “I like what she’s doing.”
Among liberal Democrats, there’s an impulse to doubt that public support for candidates like Boebert is sincere and deeply held. But Coleman, the election analyst, explained that the median Republican primary voter today is much more aligned with Boebert than Coram. Her success is not an illusion. She wins because she’s doing what voters want her to do.
Some Republicans are privately frustrated. One state-level elected official praised Boebert’s energy, but wishes it would be directed toward useful things. “I can’t put my finger on anything she’s done to help,” the official said. “She’s hard to take very seriously.” I asked if they have any hope that she might improve with more time in office. “Well, no,” the official said with a laugh. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, because of Boebert’s popularity among the GOP base.
This was evident at the small town Republican event that Boebert headlined. That she angers and offends Democrats is intrinsic to her appeal. During her speech, Boebert recounted several instances of fighting Democratic legislation in Congress – at one point, she took some credit for killing a bill that in fact passed the House and stalled in the Senate. (The campaign did not respond to a list of questions sent by the Guardian).
“I led the tweets,” Boebert said more than once. “I got loud,” she said repeatedly.
At the end of the speech, a woman took the microphone and stood to praise her congresswoman’s work in office. “I don’t have time to waste my vote on a centrist,” the woman told Boebert. “I want a fighter.”