A Colorado race offers lessons for national political reporters

July 21, 2020

If an artist were to draw a caricature of the average Republican congressman, Colorado’s Scott Tipton would fill the canvas. He’s a genial politician, sixty-three years old, who built a career on such standard GOP issues as opposing Obamacare, climate change science, and Trump’s impeachment. He has benefited from huge ad buys by tax-cutter Grover Norquist. He kept a low profile in his five terms in Congress. The Onion satirized his obscurity in a 2019 piece, “Poll Finds 100% of Americans Blame Shutdown Entirely on Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton.”

So why would Tipton’s primary opponent run an ad grouping him with The Squad’s Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Because that candidate is Lauren Boebert, a telegenic, gun-toting restaurateur and political newcomer from Rifle, Colorado, who stunned the state when she shellacked Tipton in the GOP primary in late June.

Boebert’s style of politics is well suited to this media moment, even if it seems at odds with Colorado’s Third District, which takes in the western half of the state and the southern city of Pueblo. It’s a moderately conservative district that has elected Republican and Democratic congressmen over the years, the best known being Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American who was a member of both parties and later served as a US senator.

Boebert’s growing fame presents problems for the state’s press corps, hobbled by covid-19 restrictions and staff cuts—particularly given her reliance on talk radio, social media, and conservative national outlets like Breitbart. She “is running on a Trump playbook,” says Charles Ashby, a reporter at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel who has been covering Colorado politics for twenty-five years. “She’s calling out rinos and AOC and the Democratic agenda.”

Her candidacy raises many of the same issues that dog journalists covering national politics. “What’s going to get you more circulation is covering the cult of personality,” says Mario Nicolais, a Denver lawyer who has worked on state and national GOP campaigns and writes a column for the Colorado Sun. “If you’re doing truly responsible journalism, I’d push the issues. But you’re not going to get a lot out of her.”

The candidate’s website makes Nicolais’s point. On her homepage, she promises, in boldface capital letters, that she is “PRO-FREEDOM, PRO-GUNS, PRO-CONSTITUTION, PRO-ENERGY, PRO-LIFE, PRO-AMERICA” and that she will “TELL ALL THE LEFT-WING LUNATICS WE DON’T WANT MORE GOVERNMENT CONTROL, WE WANT OUR FREEDOM!” There’s also a single-page “contract with Colorado” that features short, boilerplate bromides on guns, abortion, and school choice. Her Democratic opponent, Diane Mitsch Bush, is a former sociology professor and legislator whose site features an “On the Issues” page with more detailed plans on such issues as “public lands and climate” and “racial and social justice.”

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Boebert got her first shot at national prominence in 2014, when ABC’s Nightline ran a seven-minute segment on her restaurant, Shooters Grill, where the waitresses carry guns. (Boebert has since claimed that Nightline called her place “the safest restaurant in America,” though those words don’t appear in the video or accompanying story.)

But she didn’t start rising on the political scene until last September, when she drove about two hundred miles to the Denver suburb of Aurora on a Thursday to confront then–presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke over his plans for mandatory buybacks of automatic weapons. As O’Rourke was holding forth, Boebert walked to the front of the crowd, a Glock on her belt, and declared: “I have four children. I’m five-foot-zero, one hundred pounds, I can’t really defend myself with a fist.… All you’re going to do is restrict law-abiding citizens.” And then she took one more swipe: “We all know you have a criminal history,” apparently referring to O’Rourke’s 1988 DUI arrest

The video was electric. Gun-rights activist Colion Noir featured it on his Facebook page, with 1.4 million followers. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck played it too, gushing: “Did you see the woman who approached Beto and said ‘Hell, no, you’re not taking my gun’?” Pat Gray, Beck’s cohost, praised Boebert for how she walked “right into a hostile crowd of Beto supporters and took the microphone and stood her ground. Pretty impressive.” 

Boebert announced her campaign three months later and didn’t even mention Tipton in her initial press release. She had another opponent in mind: “Every time AOC and the rest of the Squad pipes up with another crazy idea I will remind them that our belief in God, Country and Family are what built the United States of America into the greatest nation the world has ever known.” Local media took the bait, with one newspaper headlining her candidacy: “Boebert Aims to Be the Conservative AOC.” A few days later, Steve Doocy was featuring her on Fox and Friends.

As the campaign geared up in early 2020, reporters faced problems. covid-19 restrictions kept them glued to their computers and spurred additional newsroom cutbacks. So while Boebert could command attention with her growing national prominence, the state’s press corps was less equipped than usual to scrutinize the candidate.

The Third Congressional District “is far away from Denver,” said Ernest Luning, a reporter for Colorado Politics who has been covering the state for a dozen years. “Since March we haven’t been out traveling at all. It’s all done remotely.”

Through the campaign, Boebert took shots at Tipton, particularly over legislation that many Colorado farmers wanted, to provide a steadier flow of immigrant labor. But she was also spending a lot of time on talk radio, being interviewed by friendly hosts.

Part of Boebert’s political skill is figuring out how to personalize big issues—not just guns, as she did with O’Rourke, but even the coronavirus. Among the hardest-hit areas in the beginning of the pandemic were ski resorts in western Colorado, leading the governor to impose a statewide shutdown. But infection rates were lower in the county where Boebert operates her restaurant. In early May, she defied health orders and reopened her Shooters Grill to in-person dining, telling Luning that “our livelihoods are on the line and we need to take action.” The county quickly closed her down, and Boebert was on air within days.

“Did you ever think that in your lifetime you would be labeled defiant simply because you want to run your business in a responsible manner?” asked Gail Fallen, a host for KFKA, an AM station in northern Colorado. “No,” replied Boebert. “ ‘Flattening the curve’ turned into communism very quickly.”

The issue “turned out to be a great PR opportunity,” wrote Jason Salzman, a progressive journalist and commentator who has covered politics and media in Colorado for fifteen years. “She was the star of her own populist story, thrilling far-right Republicans who listen to talk radio shows and populate her sprawling district.”

Boebert also took the fight more directly to Tipton, particularly on Twitter, where by Election Day she had about four times as many followers as he did. Like Trump’s, her tweets were sometimes more strident than accurate. “Scott Tipton votes with the Democrats every chance he gets,” tweeted Boebert, even though the incumbent lines up with Trump for about 95 percent of his votes. “rino Scott Tipton” became a standard catchphrase. (Boebert’s spokesperson declined to comment.)

And Tipton barely responded to Boebert’s taunts, despite sitting on a “Complete and Total Endorsement” from Trump and a cash hoard of more than $725,000. “Through all of this, Scott Tipton was doing nothing,” said Luning. “His campaign didn’t do any pushback. Their approach was to ignore her, which turned out not to be very smart.” 

That caused another problem for reporters, given how much the press depends on candidates’ push and pull to animate political coverage. When one candidate is punching and the other is trying to hover above the fray, stories are deprived of the oxygen of conflict.

There’s one area where Boebert has been scrutinized—her flirtation with the fringe QAnon conspiracy group. A QAnon supporter asked her in May if she knew about the movement. “I’m very familiar with it,” Boebert responded. “Everything I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real, because it only means America is getting stronger and better.” (Her campaign later told Denver Post reporter Jon Murray that while Boebert thinks there’s a deep-state conspiracy against Trump, “I don’t follow QAnon.”)

On election night, June 30, Boebert won by more than nine percentage points, and “the local press corps was as fooled as the national,” recalls Salzman. The press was aware of Boebert “because of her PR skills,” but “there was no indication she would win.”

And even though she has, in Mitsch Bush, a Democratic opponent who’s her opposite in almost every way, Boebert continues to make her campaign national. Mitsch Bush’s name doesn’t appear in her published statements or on Boebert’s Facebook or Twitter feeds. Ten days after the election, she is still portraying Ocasio-Cortez as her opponent.

Now that Boebert is facing the general election with a more engaged opponent, reporters see an opening—but also a challenge—not to let Boebert become, in Luning’s words, “the shiny object.” As he noted, “It’s going to be a lot easier to cover Lauren. She’ll be making a lot of news. What’s news is what’s new.”

Ashby, known as the dean of the state capitol’s press corps, is hard on himself—offering the kind of candor and self-reflection we rarely see in political journalism. Speaking of Boebert, he says, “I didn’t do enough in the primary to vet her. That’s partly because of covid. And I had the legislative session going on. We’re short-staffed. I just don’t have the wherewithal to do everything I’d like to do.” Still, he adds, “I should have done more to know more about her. What I did was poor, given hindsight.”

Ashby said that won’t affect how he’ll cover the race between now and November. “My intent is to cover it straight,” he says. Boebert’s national stature “doesn’t have any impact on me. You’re a candidate, and now I get to do my job.”

Editor’s Note: The author’s brother, Mark Grueskin, is a Denver attorney who often represents clients affiliated with the Democratic Party. He is not involved in the District 3 race.

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an imprecise quote. Boebert’s campaign told the Denver Post she did not follow QAnon, not that she did not believe in it. 

Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).