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The Gun-Toting, Millennial Restaurant Owner Trying to Ride the Covid Backlash to Congress

The Gun-Toting, Millennial Restaurant Owner Trying to Ride the Covid Backlash to Congress

by JENNIFER OLDHAM | Politico  |  Published on September 14, 2020

CORTEZ, Colo. — A Glock on her hip and stilettos on her feet, Lauren Boebert stood behind a grocery store and waved as pickups, Harleys and Subarus flying “Trump 2020” banners and “thin blue line” American flags drove by. The procession calls itself the Montezuma County Patriots, a group of locals — fence menders, firefighters, retirees, unemployed dispatchers and others — that parades through town every weekend. This week, they steered their vehicles into a cracked asphalt parking lot and climbed out. They were here to see Boebert, a 33-year-old first-time candidate for Congress.

In June, Boebert pulled off a stunning upset of a five-term incumbent in the Republican primary — the first time an incumbent member of Congress had lost a primary in Colorado in almost a half-century. The owner of a gun-themed restaurant called Shooters Grill in the town of Rifle, Boebert went into the race with scant experience, money and national support. The Republican incumbent, Scott Tipton, was endorsed by President Donald Trump and had been embraced by constituents as a down-the-line conservative.

But that was before the coronavirus lockdown. In early May, with Colorado under stay-at-home orders from Democratic Governor Jared Polis, Boebert defied state policy and reopened her cafe. After Garfield County obtained a temporary restraining order to stop her from serving dine-in customers, she moved tables outside, leading officials to suspend her restaurant license. The dispute generated headlines — and free publicity for Boebert’s campaign — during the crucial final weeks leading into the primary, as the candidate denounced “the heavy hand of government to make us do whatever they want.” She slammed Tipton as a creature of the Washington establishment, and ended up beating him by 9 points in the primary.

Now, as she tries to ride her message about pandemic overreach to a win in the general election this fall, Boebert might just represent a new, very 2020 kind of politician: the Covid backlash candidate.

With some 150 people gathered in Cortez, attendees jostled to reach Boebert, who doled out autographs, hugs and handshakes. Elbow to elbow, the crowd and the candidate sang along with Madison Rising’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” There was nary a face mask in sight and little physical distancing. Covid case counts are low in this part of the state, and the outdoor event itself didn’t violate state rules. But following a spike in cases in July, pandemic restrictions remain in place statewide, including an order to wear a mask while indoors in public, limits on gatherings and bar closures.

In her stump speech, Boebert exhorted attendees to protest these measures by voting her into Congress. “They want to take away our freedoms, our rights, our liberties,” she told the crowd. “They want to tell you where you can shop, when you can shop, what time of day and what you have to wear.”

“This isn’t the proper role of government,” she continued, as attendees shouted, “No way!” “It’s government’s role to inform us of risks and let us use personal responsibility to evaluate that risk ourselves.”

Boebert is one of a growing number of renegade Republicans nationwide who have seized on Trump’s outsider status and rhetorical style to take over their own party’s primaries — which energizes supporters, but also can create a problem for the GOP. Here, as elsewhere, the question is whether the district as a whole is ready to embrace a candidate like Boebert. Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District is immense, covering nearly the entire western half of the state and parts of the south-central region, from upscale mountain ski towns to rangeland and farms. The district is purple; among the 480,000 or so voters registered here as of Sept. 1, 32 percent are Republican, 27 percent are Democrats and 38 percent are unaffiliated. Although Tipton held the seat for years and Trump won the region by 12 points in 2016, it’s now considered possible that Boebert could lose what had become a secure GOP seat. Her primary victory led University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” tracker to change the district from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.” And a recent Democratic poll found that the race is tied.

As Boebert proudly touts her insurgent primary win at campaign events, her Democratic opponent, Diane Mitsch Bush, a former county commissioner and state legislator from Steamboat Springs, has begun to seize on Boebert’s less-than-polished past — including multiple arrests and a history of financial and other issues at her restaurant. Boebert also faced criticism in May when she appeared to embrace the QAnon conspiracy theory, saying she hoped it was real “because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values.” Her campaign has since said repeatedly that Boebert does not support the QAnon theory, which the FBI has warned could pose a domestic terrorist threat. “She is on the record that she is not a follower of conspiracy theories,” Laura Carno, a campaign spokesperson, told POLITICO Magazine.

Mitsch Bush, who lost a challenge to Tipton in 2018 by 8 points, in many ways is Boebert’s polar opposite: She is more than twice Boebert’s age and is known for her pragmatic approach to legislating. She also is doing little in-person campaigning due to pandemic restrictions — making the race a test, at least in part, of the candidates’ competing attitudes toward the pandemic and voters’ view of liberty, control and the role of government.

Despite her pistol-packing rural Western persona, Boebert grew up in a working-class suburb of Denver, and she talks on the trail and on social media about how her upbringing shaped her conservative politics — mainly as a form of rebellion.

“I was brought up in a Democrat household. My mom believed the lies she was told, that she needed government to raise her five children,” she said at a recent rally in Silverton. “I know what it’s like to be dependent on the government for food and housing, and what doctor you are going to see, and I know how limiting it can be.”

After her family moved to the Western Slope, the sparse, wide-open part of the state west of the Continental Divide, Boebert took a job at the McDonald’s in Rifle, a town of fewer than 10,000 people, bringing home her first paycheck as a teenager. She dropped out of high school (she later got her GED), married her husband, Jayson, who has worked in the region’s oil and gas fields, and started a family; the couple has four boys. In 2013, they opened Shooters Grill, which bills itself as a “gun-themed and old-timey American restaurant” and specializes in such items as the “Bump Stock Corned Beef Hash,” the “M16 Burrito” and the “Swiss & Wesson” burger.

Boebert’s challenge to Polis’ pandemic restrictions wasn’t the first time her restaurant brought her attention. Shortly after the grill opened, a man was murdered nearby, and she and her wait staff started to open-carry firearms. National television networks sent camera crews to capture the waitresses with holsters, and the charismatic owner who made it a selling point. Boebert frequently recounts the narrative on the trail, saying she chose to pack heat to “defend my people.”

While she talks about her business background as an asset, the Denver Post has reported that eight tax liens have been filed against her restaurant in the past four years. And in 2017, the Garfield County Public Health Department found that a second cafe she operated had served tainted pork sliders without a license to dozens of rodeo participants, sickening them. The Denver Post also reported in August that Boebert had been arrested and summonsed at least four times in the past 10 years; the court summons was for allegedly harassing her neighbors (Boebert was never charged), and the arrests were for alleged disorderly conduct at a music festival and failure to appear in court multiple times. (While she was being handcuffed at the festival, in 2015, she allegedly shouted that the arrest was illegal and that “she had friends at Fox News and that the arrest would be national news,” according to an officer’s statement.) The Boebert campaign told the Post that her business has no outstanding tax issues. Asked about the food poisoning incident, her campaign told me Boebert was “never charged with anything.” In response to questions about the arrests and summons, Carno, the campaign spokesperson, said, “The bottom line is there was a $100 fine, never charged, charge dismissed, and charge dropped.”

Boebert got her first real taste of politics last year. After the Colorado General Assembly enacted a law allowing the state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a plan to supersede the Electoral College, Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese helped to organize a petition to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. Of the 228,832 signatures gathered, Boebert says she collected the second-highest number of them, in the hopes of preventing “California from stealing our votes for presidency,” as she puts it. (Coloradans will decide whether to repeal the law on Election Day.)

“She really engaged and connected with people during that campaign,” Pugliese, a fellow Republican, says. “She is incredibly articulate about her humble beginnings and how she started her restaurant, and that really resonates with people throughout this district who struggle economically.”

Boebert decided to run for Congress in part after growing frustrated with gun control measures advocated by Democratic presidential candidates during the primary. Last September, when presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke made a swing through the state, Boebert confronted him at a campaign event saying, “hell no” to a mandatory buyback O’Rourke had proposed for AR-15 and AK-47 semi-automatic weapons. Boebert also has spoken out against gun control measures passed in Colorado after the killing of 12 people at an Aurora movie theater in 2012.

In December, she declared her candidacy, portraying herself as more closely aligned with Trump than the more low-key Tipton. Throughout the primary campaign, Boebert ran to Tipton’s right, calling him out for not doing enough to promote the Western Slope’s coal industry, and for joining Democrats in voting for a coronavirus relief bill and a measure to streamline visas for farmworkers. Tipton, who sent a mailer to constituents calling his opponent “Lying Lauren” and defending his own record, did little on-the-ground campaigning or advertising in the race.

At her campaign event in Cortez — Tipton’s hometown — Boebert claimed her victory was the subject of an investigation by the Republican National Committee, which discovered, she said, that her platform to protect Second Amendment rights, limit regulation and expand drilling and mining on public lands had energized Coloradans who don’t usually vote. (Asked about this, the RNC referred me to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which said, via a spokesperson: “The only thing we investigated was Lauren Boebert’s upcoming blowout win over socialist Diane Mitsch Bush.”) Nonetheless, turnout in the Republican primary — one of eight contests nationwide in which incumbents lost their seats — was almost double that in 2016, the last time the race was competitive.

Reaching voters is never easy in what is arguably among the country’s toughest House districts to campaign in, even without a global pandemic. The district is the 15th-largest in the nation, roughly the size of Mississippi. It sprawls across 47 percent of the state, from Craig’s dying coal mine to Aspen’s ski-chalet wealth; from Palisade’s peach orchards to Pueblo’s steel industry. The high peaks of the Continental Divide zigzag from north to south, making cell service spotty at best. The district’s 29 counties are home to the country’s most expensive estates, as well as areas monitored by federal agencies for persistent poverty.

The deep economic downturn that followed the pandemic shutdown has hit hard in this part of the state. The Western Slope’s economy, centered around outdoor recreation, mining, agriculture and energy, has lost tens of thousands of jobs since March, and unemployment in some counties approached 10 percent in July, after nonessential businesses, including ski areas, spent most of the spring closed and oil and natural gas prices plunged. Counties and cities that hadn’t recovered jobs lost in the Great Recession put millions of dollars in capital investment and infrastructure projects on hold. The virus disrupted potato markets in the San Luis Valley, among the nation’s largest spud producers. A lack of labor, caused by border shutdowns and visa restrictions for foreign workers, forced some restaurants out of business. The region is also experiencing its driest year on record and cleaning up after historic wildfires that deterred tourists during the summer season.

“We’ve seen discretionary spending slow dramatically,” says Christian Reece, executive director of Club 20, an organization representing municipalities, businesses and associations in the district. “It’s definitely hurting our small-business community.”

Anger over the ongoing economic pain wrought by the virus appears to be working in Boebert’s favor. In interviews in mid-August, several voters told me they support the candidate at least in part because she took a stand against Polis’ statewide coronavirus rules. Mesa County commissioners in Grand Junction, about four hours west of Denver, say they’ve received more complaints about Polis’ mask mandate than any other issue in the past eight years; Boebert carried the county 64.3 percent to Tipton’s 35.7 percent in the primary.

At a Boebert rally held in August at a Harley Davidson dealership in Durango, Amber Morris, who supports Boebert, told me she is struggling to pay her bills at the bar she owns, the Wild Horse Saloon. Durango residents raised $25,000 in June to keep her business afloat, she told me, but state rules still limit her to 150 patrons and require her to close at 10 p.m.

“For someone who lives eight hours north of me [in Denver] to tell me what to do is irritating,” she told me, referring to Polis’ mandated pandemic measures. “For them to decide who is essential and who is not is reprehensible. People are frustrated with the devastation of our town.”

In an interview, Boebert said she would champion a policy allowing business owners to implement measures to curb the virus as they see fit. She cited South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s Covid-19 strategy as a model. Noem didn’t shut down her state or require masks, and she encouraged large events such as a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore, where Boebert met Trump at his invitation. (The president, who endorsed her this past week, also invited her to attend his acceptance speech at the White House during the Republican National Convention.)

Boebert reopened her own restaurant, legally, in late May after county health officials reinstated her license with the understanding that she would follow certain requirements set by the state. The candidate didn’t don a face covering at three campaign events I attended in mid-August, nor at meet-and-greets in the central part of the district, including Mesa County, the weekend of August 29. She did wear a mask at a get-together in Alamosa in the San Luis Valley on August 23, when a POLITICO photographer was present. When talking with constituents who are wearing masks, Boebert asks whether they would be more comfortable if she wore one too, and if they agree, she will oblige, says Carno.

Outside the topic of Covid regulations, Boebert shies away from policy discussions, preferring to focus on national politics in her social media posts — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a favorite target. She tends toward blanket policy statements, supporting an “all of the above energy” strategy, “free markets without subsidies” and “multiple use on public lands.” When asked in an interview about the top issues in her district she said, “Water is huge.” In taped comments at a virtual water conference in August, Boebert agreed with Mitsch Bush that the state should focus on increasing the storage capacity of existing reservoirs.

Despite her surprise primary win, establishment Republicans now back her candidacy. Boebert is among more than three dozen candidates running in competitive races this cycle chosen for the NRCC’s “Young Guns” recruitment program, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Her inclusion in the program is an acknowledgment, says David Wasserman, U.S. House editor for The Cook Political Report, that she needs training and fundraising help.

Boebert’s barnstorming of her district during a public health crisis stands in stark contrast to her opponent’s plan to eschew most in-person events and instead meet virtually with would-be constituents. Mitsch Bush — who, at 70, would be the oldest person in Colorado history elected to a first congressional term — is also relying on some 600 volunteers to make daily calls to voters.

“We want to make sure we are prioritizing the health and safety of our communities,” says Ashley Quenneville, Mitsch Bush’s campaign manager. “We will continue to see in-person events from our opponent. It falls into a larger pattern of her not thinking that the rules apply to her — she reopened her restaurant and put public safety at risk.”

Boebert calls her opponent a “far left socialist” who supports the “Green New Deal“ and “Medicare for All,“ and recounts in her stump speech a Mitsch Bush ad that touts an endorsement from Planned Parenthood. Quenneville told me her candidate does not support the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, but that Mitsch Bush wants to protect the Affordable Care Act’s coverage for pre-existing conditions. (Boebert criticized Tipton during the primary for not following through on a promise to repeal the ACA. During the general election campaign, she has pledged she won’t take health care away from constituents, Carno says.)

Boebert’s picture of Mitsch Bush as a “socialist” notwithstanding, the former social scientist and county commissioner was known in the state Legislature, where she served from 2013-17, for her detailed, bipartisan approach. Sixty-eight percent of her bills were co-sponsored by Republicans, and three out of four passed, according to a review of Mitsch Bush’s legislative record provided by Quenneville. Former colleagues say Mitsch Bush often convened bipartisan meetings on issues including agriculture, water infrastructure and transportation.

“I don’t always vote a blue ticket, but I think the ballot on the blue side is more centrist than the red side,” Kevin Wilkins, executive director of the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group, which promotes job creation in the south-central part of the district, told me. “It represents a sense of pragmatism I haven’t heard from — I can’t even tell you her name. If she is more than just rabid gun rights, I’m anxious to hear — that’s all you hear about.”

Polling is hard to come by in the race, the winner of which will be the first woman to represent the district. But a recent poll by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that the race is virtually tied, with Mitsch Bush at 43 percent to Boebert’s 42 percent. When it comes to fundraising, Mitsch Bush’s campaign is well ahead: She had $201,568 cash on hand as of June 30 — 20 times the $10,162 raised by Boebert’s campaign, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Among the toughest battlegrounds in the race is Pueblo County, home to the state’s greatest concentration of Latino voters. Here, Democratic activists are registering eligible voters and encouraging them to return their ballots, hoping to give Mitsch Bush the edge she needs to counter the vote in conservative Mesa County. “Diane’s very much known to grassroots folks in this community. She’s done some of that in-person work in former campaigns,” says Theresa Trujillo, an organizer with El Movimiento Sigue, a group of nonprofits.

But at her event in Cortez, 40 miles northeast of the Four Corners Monument, Boebert appealed to rallygoers to donate money to her campaign, plant signs in their yards and make phone calls. And several business owners in the district, even some who worked with Tipton to boost tourism and lobby for resources to patrol the region’s vast public lands, told me they’re energized by Boebert’s boldness and unapologetic embrace of “rugged individualism,” even or perhaps especially during a pandemic and an economic downturn.

“You hear these extremely loud, forceful voices on the left, and you really don’t have many of those on the right,” says James Harper, whose family owns the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, where he’s working 80-hour weeks as its president because he can’t find employees. “Lauren has that ability to cut through the bullshit to tell you what is on her mind, which is what most of rural Colorado is feeling. It’s refreshing.”

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