After representing Colorado for a decade in Congress, Republican Rep. Scott Tipton was widely expected to win his primary race against 33-year-old political novice Lauren Boebert.
Instead, the mother of four who owns a restaurant known for its pistol-packing servers, was voters’ choice by a 9-point margin.
“I didn't think he was going to lose this race,” said former Colorado Congressman Republican Scott McInnis, now the chair of the Mesa County Board of County Commissioners. “I also learned a long time ago, spunk is a pretty deadly weapon. And if you have an opponent that’s got a lot of spunk, you better make sure you've got your radar on, 24 hours.”
Tipton’s loss adds even more unpredictability for both parties as they compete for the vast and mostly rural district that covers a large swath of the Western Slope and part of southern Colorado. Boebert will face off against Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs, a former state lawmaker who ran two years ago and lost to Tipton.
Reflecting on Tuesday’s outcome, some Republicans said because no-one thought Tipton had anything to worry about in the primary, he was more focused on the general election and didn’t campaign as much as he should have. In June, Tipton was a no-show for an online forum hosted by the La Plata League of Women Voters, leaving the virtual stage to Boebert, Mitsch Busch, and James Iacino, another Democratic candidate.
Tipton’s campaign would not comment for this story. On Tuesday night, he released a statement, congratulating Boebert and saying the voters have decided.
“I was shocked. I mean, the President had supported Tipton. There just really wasn't anything there that I thought was a red flag for Tipton to lose that kind of primary support,” said Republican state Rep. Colin Larson, who won his own competitive primary race in Jefferson County. “I don't understand why the voters of Pueblo and Durango and Grand Junction decided the person that has represented them for a decade, why they just decided that they didn't like him anymore.”
Boebert gained statewide attention this spring not for anything directly connected to her campaign, but for squaring off against public health officials over coronavirus prevention measures. She opened her restaurant, Shooter’s Grill, to in-person dining in defiance of the Garfield County health department’s “safer at home” order. Boebert said the danger from the coronavirus “does not justify the economic suicide that is taking place.”
Tyler Sandberg, a GOP political consultant, said for someone who is new to politics, Boebert managed to hit some really important topics for Republican primary voters, and her actions resonated. “You constantly heard stories about small business owners, worried about running out of their life savings. Businesses they had put decades into building were crumbling.”
Sandberg said he also thinks the district’s voters wanted something different. “To me, I see that correlation of voters really being willing to invest in new voices and new leadership.”
McInnis believes some of the factors that lead to Tipton’s defeat were also outside of his control: the country’s increasing partisanship, bitterness and upheaval. “You can be doing a great job and have people just kind of [think], ‘it is time for a change.’”
As she moves into the general election, Boebert may have to reckon with some of her past comments. In May she told the host of a YouTube show that she hopes QAnon is true. The conspiracy theory posits, among many other things, that president Trump is trying to break up an international ring of child sex traffickers run by leading Democrats.
While Boebert stopped short of saying she believes in QAnon, she told the host, “everything that I have heard of this movement is only motivating and encouraging and bringing people together stronger, and if this is real, then it could be really great for our country."
Comments like that, and the fact that she’s untested in electoral politics, has some Republicans worried the seat is in jeopardy.
“You have to be able to attract unaffiliated and more moderate voters to win the district,” said one Republican consultant who is concerned that her actions in the race could negatively impact voters’ perceptions and hurt GOP chances in other competitive seats such as the U.S Senate.
However, President Trump has been quick to embrace Boebert, tweeting out his congratulations shortly after her win.
Democratic state senator Kerry Donovan represents part of the third Congressional District at the state capitol, and she’s been mentioned as someone who might run for the seat someday. While Donovan said she didn’t see Tuesday’s upset coming, she doesn’t consider it outrageous either, because she thinks Tipton was somewhat inactive in the district.
“Perhaps the electorate, after 10 years finally sent a message that they wanted someone with a little bit more willingness to go fight for their issues in D.C. instead of just coasting by.”
Donovan said a representative who wants to be successful in CD 3 has to put in a lot of work. Colorado’s largest district covers multiple media markets and diverse communities, from liberal strongholds like Aspen and Telluride to conservative population centers such as Grand Junction. Then there’s Pueblo, a traditionally Democratic area that narrowly went for Tipton in the last election.
“People expect you to show up. They expect you to listen and learn, and they expect you to show up again,” Donovan said. “Both candidates will have to be really savvy and strategic.”
But whoever voters pick in November, Donovan notes the winner will make history: the district has never been represented by a woman before. “That's an exciting aspect of it.”
CPR’s Stina Sieg contributed to this report.