DENVER – Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, a stretch of ski resorts, national forest, ranches, coal towns and desert mesas the size of Pennsylvania, has long bred low-key politicians.
Its voters have skewed slightly to the right, prized practicality and for years rewarded representatives for accomplishments that fall below the national radar, such as the Hermosa Creek Watershed Act, a crowning achievement of former Republican Rep. Scott Tipton.
The district's newest representative, Republican Lauren Boebert, is an unabashed, social media-savvy loyalist of former President Donald Trump who, like her fellow first-term colleague GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, is stoking controversy with her far-right views and defiant actions. But unlike Greene, Boebert doesn't hail from an overwhelmingly GOP, safe district.
That makes Boebert a test case for whether even a slight partisan advantage will inevitably empower the most extreme elements of a party. The question strategists in Colorado and elsewhere in this divided country are asking is whether Boebert is a fluke — or the future.
“Are we so locked in, so partisan, that it overshadows everything, even in these close districts?” asked Floyd Ciruli, a veteran Colorado pollster. “Bringing out such controversial forces and taking out an incumbent were not dangerous, even in a district like that.”
Boebert, 34, who owns a gun-themed restaurant in the town of Rifle, began making waves immediately. In her first month in office, she filmed a video in which she purported to carry a pistol in defiance of the District of Columbia's anti-gun laws, argued for the right to bring firearms onto the House floor, voted to overturn President Joe Biden's election and tweeted about the whereabouts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 6, leading to allegations — that she vehemently denies — that she was helping Trump loyalists who attacked the U.S. Capitol.
Her first taste of politics came as a response to polarization on the other side of the aisle. In 2019, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, vowed to ban assault weapons. He held an event in the Denver suburb of Aurora, near the site of the 2012 Aurora theater massacre.
Boebert made a four-hour drive from her home in Rifle to confront O’Rourke over his statement that “hell, yes” he was taking AR-15s. “Hell, no, you’re not,” she said.
Cristy Fidura, 43, who with her husband, a former oil fields worker, owns a trucking company in the former steel city of Pueblo, never engaged in politics — until she saw that confrontation. She immediately became one of Boebert's first supporters.
“I could relate to her, just like President Trump. He's not a politician and she's not a politician, and running this country is a business,” Fidura said. “I feel so many people are convinced that government has to make decisions for them and I think that's sad, that's scary.”
Marla Reichert, the outgoing chair of the Pueblo County GOP, said voters in the district have long wanted someone who would vote for them in Washington and tell the Democrats “hell, no” to overreach.
Tipton, a five-term incumbent whom Boebert upset in last year's GOP primary, “voted the right way. People just felt he wasn't in there fighting the Democrats. He wasn't on Fox News, pushing back,” Reichert said.
In an interview, Boebert said the district's voters are eager for disruption. “My constituents are tired of the old go along to get along we often see in politicians," she said.
Boebert insists she and the rest of the first-term class of lawmakers are the future, even in districts like hers.
“It is the America First movement that you're seeing nationally and definitely in my district,” she said.
Josh Penry, a veteran Republican strategist who represented the area in the Colorado statehouse, is skeptical that Boebert’s style will stick.
“There are very real limits to that shtick in rural Colorado, which is why she only won with 51%,” Penry said. “When the sizzle wears off, there are big blocs of voters who will be totally up for grabs and will want to know that their congresswoman is trying to be part of the solution in between cable news show hits.”
Boebert defeated her Democratic opponent 51% to 45% in November. More Republicans than Democrats are registered voters, though the largest bloc is unaffiliated and the district is gaining retirees and refugees from urban areas who lean to the left.
Democrats are lining up potential challengers for 2022. Although the state Republican Party has embraced Boebert, some in the GOP whisper about a possible primary challenge.
The biggest threat may be redistricting. By 2022, a nonpartisan commission will have redrawn the boundaries of Boebert’s district, which could become more Democratic or more Republican with the inclusion of a few neighboring communities.
Boebert's first bills as a congresswoman — opposing Biden’s mask-wearing mandate on federal property and withholding funds for rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization — will go nowhere. But her decrying of Biden's pause on oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which comprise 55% of the district, has been embraced by voters who depend on the industry.
Republicans here have both praise and warnings for the congresswoman.
Scott McInnis, a former six-term Republican congressman from the district, said that high-voltage partisan warfare doesn’t get results for the region’s voters. “You have to have good communication with local communities so you can quickly facilitate what they need from the federal government, whether it be a cattle grazing permit or a ski permit,” he said.
Janet Rowland, a Mesa County commissioner who advised Boebert on her campaign, said Boebert must keep fighting the Biden administration’s efforts to suspend drilling on federal lands. She praised Boebert but said the new congresswoman needs to work with the Biden administration when she can — and oppose it when she must.
“Our residents are sick of the continued attacks on both sides,” Rowland said. “Biden won. He’s our president. Let’s move on.”