Shortly before her interview with Westword is scheduled to begin, Lauren Boebert, the Republican nominee for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, sends a text revealing that she’ll be a few minutes late in calling. “On the phone with Ted Nugent,” she notes.
It’s no surprise that the Nuge, a boisterous Second Amendment diehard once known as the "Motor City Madman" for the guitar pyrotechnics at the heart of 1970s-vintage hard-rock scorchers such as “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang,” is intrigued by Boebert. After all, she’s become one of the most talked-about 2020 candidates in the country — the subject of a recent feature-length Politico profile, among other examples of national press coverage — only partly because of her primary win over veteran Republican congressman Scott Tipton, whom she toppled by way of an attack from the right.
Boebert is also the co-owner of Shooters Grill, a Rifle eatery that made global headlines back in 2014 because its waitstaff packs heat, open-carrying sidearms while serving up so called “Chambered Scrambles & Skillets” and menu items with names such as “Smoking Gun” and “Bump Stock.” And video of Boebert confronting former Democratic presidential hopeful and gun-law reform advocate Beto O’Rourke during a September 2019 appearance in Aurora put her on the radar of Fox News, conservative commentator Glenn Beck and pretty much everyone determined to hang on to their favorite gat even when their fingers are cold and dead.
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Of course, Nugent has never been accused of being politically correct. When Media Matters put together a 2014 list of his most offensive statements, the top remark was one he made during a 1994 interview with Westword about the woman who was then America’s First Lady, Hillary Clinton: “You probably can’t use the term ‘toxic cunt’ in your magazine, but that’s what she is.”
After she bids Nugent farewell and gives Westword a shout, Boebert is asked her thoughts about this particular turn of phrase. “I don’t use that kind of colorful language," she responds. "I’m certainly a mouthy person, but I don’t need foul language to get my point across — although I never really thought it was my place to criticize those who do.”
Then, after a pause, she adds, “Now that I’ve started to step up and try to make my country a better place, I’m called the C-word on a daily basis. Sticks and stones, right?”
Diane Mitsch Bush, the former state representative and ex-Routt County commissioner who’s again representing the Democrats in the CD-3 race, doesn't just avoid deploying profanities when discussing Boebert; she prefers not to use her name at all, referring to her mainly as “my opponent.” But Mitsch Bush’s campaign gleefully circulated a July Daily Beast article headlined “QAnon-Curious House Candidate Gave Her Customers Diarrhea,” which focused on 2017 accusations of food poisoning at the Rifle Rodeo involving Smokehouse 1776, a restaurant Boebert once owned, under the subject line “Avoid the Pork Sliders.”
As for that rodeo, Boebert had earlier told Westword that “a lot of people who got sick didn’t eat our food, and there were never any fines and no punishment toward me for that. I'm the one who called the health department to see what was going on, and my food was never tested, and there was no testing of the fairgrounds where it happened, even though this kind of thing happens all the time where animals are present."
Not that Mitsch Bush is hoping for the race to be decided on the question of tainted meat. Instead, she wants the focus to be on issues, and Boebert says the same thing. Yet no debates between the pair are on the books yet, with both campaigns blaming the other for this scenario — and for pretty much everything else.
Such disagreements are part and parcel of a dream political match-up pitting a politician with a lengthy track record in public service against an electoral novice as colorful as she is controversial.
As Boebert told it in a previous Westword interview, her ideological origin story began “in a rough part of Denver. We were on welfare, and my mom thought you needed the government to survive. 'Don't try to make it on your own, because it won't be enough. The kids won't be fed': My mom believed that lie. So I've lived with a poverty mentality. But after I got my first job, at a local McDonald's, and I got my first check, I felt such a sense of pride. I remember thinking I could do a much better job of taking care of myself than the government ever could. From that point on, I rejected the policy I was raised to believe in."
When she met husband and future Shooters Grill co-owner Jayson Boebert, a former oil and gas industry roughneck who continues to work in the Western Slope energy field, "we made a decision to pursue conservative values," she noted. "We knew there was something better and right and worth fighting for. It's been hard. It hasn't been easy, and we've made mistakes. But America is about redemption and opportunity. We've had the opportunity to make mistakes and better ourselves afterwards. Opening a restaurant was a risk; city officials said, 'Don't do it. It's going to cost too much money.' But we did it anyway, and now it's been open for six years. When times get tough, we get tougher. Failure and government assistance are not an option for us."
She went her own way again following the rise of COVID-19. Like other restaurants across the state, Shooters Grill was closed to in-person service during the first part of the pandemic. But in early May, after more than a month of curbside pick-up and delivery plus merchandise sales, Boebert decided she could no longer continue paying her employees unless she reopened the dining room — and when local health authorities wouldn’t give her permission to do so, she defiantly unlocked the doors after instituting assorted safety measures, such as limiting capacity to 30 percent. The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office responded by delivering a cease-and-desist order, and when she kept operating anyhow, authorities forcibly closed the eatery until permission was granted for restaurants across Colorado to again welcome patrons under a new protocol.
Such actions endeared Boebert to those decrying alleged impositions on their freedom by Governor Jared Polis and other Denver-based officials in their response to the novel coronavirus, and so did her consistently conservative positions on other matters. Although she says she’s in favor of developing a wide range of energy sources, including renewables, she is a vocal proponent for expanding fossil fuel production. “Through government overreach and overregulation, our industry is dying and almost nonexistent," she says. "We have the world’s cleanest coal, the largest natural gas reserves; we have the Jordan Cove pipeline, which the Trump administration has helped push forward tremendously.” Likewise, she feels that extraction of rare earth minerals helps create American jobs that would otherwise “go to China and Africa, where we know child and slave labor is used.”
On a related subject, she blasts rules making large swaths of federal land off limits, blaming them for creating tinderbox conditions ripe for wildfires, among other things, and calls for dumping the Affordable Care Act, which she sees as having a devastating impact on rural hospitals. While she doesn’t have a specific plan in mind as an alternative, she thinks a package being assembled by Texas Representative Chip Roy shows promise, as long as protections for people with pre-existing conditions remain.
Mitsch Bush accuses Boebert of only throwing in this last proviso after she pushed her on dumping the ACA without a replacement. For her part, Mitsch Bush wants to supplement the act with provisions to lower prescription drug costs and end surprise billing for hidden out-of-network services. She’s also behind an infrastructure banking program to invest in broadband, transportation, water projects and more in her district, as well as programs to create what she calls “living-wage jobs.” And she emphasizes the protection of public lands, which she sees as being at risk from Boebert’s drill-baby-drill mentality and basic dismissal of problems related to climate change.
“We’ve seen at the national level and in this race what happens when you have candidates who don’t respect science — who think everything is a conspiracy and a hoax,” Mitsch Bush says. “She denies science as if it’s some kind of miscellaneous belief system and comes up with statements not based in fact. She doesn’t seem to distinguish fact from fiction. And we need someone who not only understands our district, but someone who has experience using evidence and listening to constituents.”
More immediately, Mitsch Bush must convince donors and voters that she has a realistic prospect of victory despite the perception that the 3rd Congressional District, which stretches across much of the state's southern half, incorporating both Grand Junction on the Western Slope and Pueblo to the east, is a safe Republican enclave. Prior to 2010, when Tipton was first elected, “it swung back and forth,” she points out. “[Democrat] John Salazar was our congressperson, and before him, it went Democrat, Republican, etc. So whether it’s safe isn’t clear.”
Republicans have “a five-point advantage in terms of registration,” she concedes, “but the largest single group of voters is the unaffiliated population. It’s very much a swing district.” To support this contention, she cites polls such as one from September by the House Majority PAC that showed her with a 2 percent lead.
Such reports don’t trouble Boebert. “If the polls were right, Hillary Clinton would be president — and my poll is the people," she says. "I’m out with the people every single day, and they’re excited for their voice to be heard, and excited to be a part of securing the greatest nation this world has ever known.”
The primary “was very interesting when we went back and looked at the people who voted for me,” she continues. “When a political party targets voters with messaging, they give voters a number rating from zero to four — and the threes and fours are the people who usually show up to vote, so they usually target them. If they have enough resources and time and it will make a big enough difference, they might try getting those number-two voters, but usually not the zeroes and ones. But in my primary, the top voters were the zeroes and the ones — the people political parties never reach out to. I think that speaks volumes about what’s going to happen in November. People who haven’t shown up before are showing up because they understand if we remain silent, we lose by default.”
Political consultant and columnist Eric Sondermann doesn’t dismiss this logic. “There’s no doubt that Boebert wins the intensity vote,” he says. “There wasn’t a slight preference for her voters in the primary. It was a strong preference. It’s the Trump phenomenon: His voters tend to be all in, and Boebert’s voters tend to be all in.”
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As for why the race appears to be so close, “I don’t know if it’s Diane Mitsch Bush putting up a decent fight or if Boebert is just one of those candidates I analogize to a magnet, where one end attracts but there’s another end that’s equally strong and repellent. But the 3rd District went to Trump by twelve points in 2016. Even Pueblo, which a generation ago was a Democratic hotbed, voted for Trump. And you can’t find a lot of candidates that are more Trumpian than Lauren Boebert.”
True enough. Even though Trump initially supported Tipton during the primary, he quickly flipped to Boebert when she emerged triumphant, showering her with praise during a brief meeting at Mount Rushmore for a Fourth of July celebration largely lacking in mask use and social distancing. She’s happy to return the favor, arguing, “He’s put his life on the line to serve the American people, to put the American people and their country first, and that’s the same message I’m getting to voters.”
The spotlight on her is so bright, Boebert suggests, “because Americans across the country are fed up with the socialist agenda that people like AOC [New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] are pushing onto the younger generation. They want someone who’s not afraid to put it all on the line and take a stand for American values, the Constitution and righteousness. And I’m that person.”
Somewhere, Ted Nugent is smiling.