While the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate dominated our recent primary, a thunderstorm was roiling in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District and, indeed, lightning struck on election night.
Congressman Scott Tipton, a respected-conservative-10-year-incumbent Republican who was endorsed by President Donald Trump, was defeated by a young businesswoman and gun rights activist from Rifle, Lauren Boebert, in one of the biggest political upsets in decades.
The last time an incumbent member of Congress from Colorado was unseated in a primary election was in 1972. Legendary Democratic Congressman Wayne Aspinall of Palisade, who was first elected in 1948 and known for funding western water projects as the powerful chairman of the House Interior Committee, was defeated by a college professor and environmental activist, Alan Merson, who went on to lose in November.
That election came on the heels of an earlier primary upset in 1970 when the 20-year Democratic incumbent, Congressman Byron Rogers of Denver, was defeated by anti-Vietnam war activist Craig Barnes who went on to lose to District Attorney Mike McKevitt, the last Republican to represent the 1st Congressional District.
Those two primary upsets reflected the political turmoil of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the Vietnam War and later the Watergate scandal turned American politics upside down, including here in Colorado.
Fifty years later, both parties are again seeing ideologically driven primary challenges to long term incumbents and Colorado has now joined the trend.
Boebert vaulted into the public arena by driving 250 miles to Denver with a gun strapped on her hip to publicly confront Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke who had proclaimed “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” in a desperate last-ditch move to revive his failing candidacy. Boebert declared “Hell no, you’re not.”
Shortly thereafter Boebert declared her Republican candidacy for Congress at her restaurant and bar in Rifle, Shooters Grill, where she and her servers wear guns on their hips. She aggressively sought out interviews on conservative radio shows while traveling the district talking to local media. Seldom has a first-time candidate become as media savvy in such a short period of time as Boebert did.
The coronavirus pandemic forced small businesses like Shooters Grill to shut down. Citing her employees’ livelihoods, she defiantly reopened resulting in a showdown with the Garfield County Health Department where she was again forced to close. Suddenly, she was the voice of frustrated small business owners and their loyal employees who watched the heavy hand of government cripple or even destroy their life endeavors.
The statewide primary for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate became so heated after former Gov. John Hickenlooper was found by the Colorado Ethics Commission in late May to have violated state ethics laws that the 3rd District Republican primary was under the radar just when Boebert’s campaign was picking up steam.
Tipton had several hundred thousand dollars in the bank but his campaign chose to air very little media and to send very little mail. Nor did they aggressively use social media to promote his candidacy in the primary. The campaign essentially ceded the field to Boebert who clearly inspired a much higher Republican turnout than in 2018 that benefited her. In fact, it was the only district in the state where the Republican primary turnout exceeded the Democrats.
The 3rd Congressional District is a sprawling stretch of land from Walden to Craig to Cortez to Pueblo encompassing 29 counties. Since congressional redistricting in 1981, the 3rd District has largely had the same geographical configuration consisting of most of the Western Slope, the San Luis Valley, and Pueblo County.
Tipton unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Congressman John Salazar in 2006 but he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Colorado House of Representatives in 2007 setting the stage for a rematch in 2010. Bolstered by the Tea Party wave, Tipton aggressively attacked Salazar’s votes for the Obama economic stimulus bill and Obamacare and he unseated Salazar.
That same year, state Rep. Cory Gardner unseated Democratic incumbent Congresswoman Betsy Markey in the Fourth Congressional District which was the first time since 1964 two incumbent members of Congress were defeated for re-election in the same year.
Boebert will now face former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a sociologist from Steamboat Springs, who lost to Tipton two years ago. Mitsch Bush will attempt to campaign as a moderate even though her legislative record is on the left. She not only supports gun control; she supports the main tenets of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All promoted by Democratic Socialists such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Only two Democrats have won the seat over the past 35 years. State Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Ignacio unseated Republican Congressman Mike Strang of Carbondale in 1986. Congressman Campbell was elected to the Senate in 1992 as a Democrat but switched parties to Republican in 1995.
After Republican Congressman Scott McInnis did not seek reelection, Democratic state Rep. John Salazar, a farmer from Conejos County, won the open seat in 2004 while his brother, Attorney General Ken Salazar, was being elected to the U.S. Senate that same year.
Mitsch Bush is certainly not in the same tradition of the two Democrats who have held the seat, Campbell and Salazar, who by any measure were not from the party’s left wing. Donald Trump carried the 3rd District in 2016 by a 52-40 margin over Hillary Clinton, and he specifically carried heavily Democratic Pueblo as well.
Boebert has two challenges going into the general election:
First, while she quite skillfully campaigned on broad national themes for change as the candidate truly in the mold of President Trump despite his endorsement of Tipton, Boebert must now diligently address issues specific to the rural, natural-resource-dominated district such as public lands, mining, oil and gas production, water rights, agriculture, rural economic development and others.
Scott Tipton and his congressional predecessors were dogged advocates for the district and Boebert will have to go beyond the Trump themes and address these issues which will put her in stark contrast to Mitsch Bush.
Second, Washington, D.C. leftist groups are already unfairly and inaccurately painting her as a right-wing extremist; she must not be pulled into discussions of conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
Finally, a note about Congressman Scott Tipton as he exits the political stage in 2020.
Tipton was one of the youngest delegates to the 1976 Republican National Convention, the last time a national convention’s outcome was in doubt. He voted for former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California over President Gerald Ford who had ascended to the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned.
By doing so, the young Tipton put himself in the forefront of a major shake-up and revival of the Republican Party in the aftermath of Watergate. Ford narrowly won the nomination but it set the stage for Reagan’s run in 1980, his overwhelming defeat of President Jimmy Carter, and his very successful and consequential presidency.
Forty-four years later, Tipton would be defeated by another young conservative leader. Politics is nothing if not dynamic, ever-changing, and, yes, ironic.
Dick Wadhams is a GOP political consultant and former Colorado Republican Party state chair.