The race to represent Colorado's sprawling 3rd Congressional District has really stretched the old axiom of "all politics are local." To date, the campaigns have walked in the footsteps of very familiar national beats: A Democratic candidate running on past legislative experience, policy chops and a touted ability to reach across the aisle against a political outsider that has attacked the system, bolstering her message though the loudspeaker of social media.
Between Diane Mitsch Bush and Lauren Boebert, Jonathan Bland, a Pentecostal minister in Cortez, likes what he hears from Boebert.
“People here like their freedom. People here like less government involvement. We like lower taxes and we hate abortion. We like gun rights. Those are all things that she stands for,” he said.
Campaigning with a pistol strapped to her leg, Boebert has cast herself as a no-compromise conservative and a true acolyte of President Donald Trump.
That’s exactly what Bland likes about her, and more importantly, wants from her. “I don’t want her to moderate. I want somebody who is going to be strong in the directions that I believe,” he explained.
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Not everyone agrees, and this is one reason the race is so close in a district where the GOP outnumbers Democrats.
Judi Lichliter said she’s a reluctant vote for Boebert.
“Because she is a Republican on the Republican ticket, that’s what I’ll do,” said the Cortez Republican who supported Rep. Scott Tipton, who was defeated in the primary. “But I am not supportive of her as an individual. I think it’s very sad that we would be sending her to Washington.”
In Boebert’s hometown of Rifle, unaffiliated voter Frank Coberly is focused more on policy positions. Instead of a page that speaks directly to issues, Boebert's campaign website has a Contract with Colorado — broad themes that aren't very Colorado specific.
“She really hasn’t said much about the issues. There’s a lot more than just the Second Amendment and freedom. There’s a thousand things that are out there, and I just don’t think she has the qualifications,” Coberly said.
Rather than specifics around health care, jobs and the coronavirus pandemic, the contract leans into America First, free markets and liberty. Coberly cited this as to why he'll vote for Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush, a former state lawmaker and professor of sociology from the ski town of Steamboat Springs.
The fact that policy isn’t center stage doesn’t surprise Dr. Paul DeBell, an assistant professor of Political Science at Fort Lewis College. “Issues haven't mattered as much as sort of general tone” this election season he explained.
“Both candidates are working to make a general tone argument in terms of what the country needs right now,” DeBell said. “More general, more nationalized, 30,000-foot view, rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of issues affecting voters.”
Boebert campaign spokeswoman Laura Carno said they aren’t getting demands for detailed policy positions. Instead, her supporters “are interested that she is taking a different approach to this, as a citizen representative, as opposed to a career politician.”
Still, the outcome of this race could depend on unaffiliated voters like Coberly. They make up the biggest block of voters in this district. Richard Madrid of Durango, another unaffiliated voter, admits he had a hard time choosing between Boebert and Mitsch Bush.
“Lauren is a little bit radical and I struggled with that quite a bit,” he said. In the end, Madrid, who typically leans Republican, cast his vote for her.
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Boebert, a political newcomer, has had to address past brushes with the law, comments seen as friendly to the internet conspiracy theory known as QAnon, and questions about unpaid taxes on her business. She's also been criticized because far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and the Three percenters support her. Some members have shown up in photos with the candidate or at her events. Anne Zane, the vice-chair of the GOP in Pitkin County, home of Aspen, said no candidate can control who decides to support them.
“You can’t really do anything about your supporters and who shows up at your rallies. I think that you can do the same thing for Diane Mitsch Bush supporters,” she said.
For many district Democratic voters, this swirl of controversy reminds them of the last four years under Trump. Tim Miller, a Democrat from Durango, wants someone with legislative experience who will represent local interests, especially in a district as large and diverse as the 3rd.
“I worry about [Boebert’s] lack of policy chops,” Miller said. “It’s nice to have disruptors, but I think we learned in the last four years the limitation of disrupters.”
Mitsch Bush has outraised and outspent Boebert. She's gotten financial help from the national House Democratic campaign arm. The 2020 contest is the closest they've come to flipping the seat in a decade. Mitsch Bush also ran in the last election and lost by 8 percent to Rep. Tipton.
The district’s area is truly titanic, from Mitsch Bush’s home in Steamboat to the north to Durango by the southern corner of the state and stretching to the city of Pueblo toward the eastern plains. Maria Sanchez-Maes from Pueblo voted for Mitsch Bush back in the 2018 midterms and now.
“I think Diane is for the people and she’s willing to work across and actually be bipartisan and work with the other party to get things done,” Sanchez-Maes said. “That’s the only way it’s going to work.”
Pueblo may be the other big factor in the race. Mitsch Bush would need to win big here to offset some of the redder parts of the district. Although, in 2016, Pueblo flipped and went for Trump.
The close race has unnerved some Republicans and excited some Democrats, as they all look to see if a potential blue wave stops short of or washes over southern Colorado and the Western Slope.