On June 30th, five-term Representative Scott Tipton lost the Republican primary in CO-03 to Lauren Boebert. Boebert is the proud owner of Shooter’s Grill, an open carry restaurant in the aptly-named Rifle, Colorado. The new Republican nominee gained fame for refusing to follow COVID-19 restaurant restrictions and for confronting Beto O’Rourke in Aurora over gun rights. Boebert also stated that she hoped QAnon was real, although she has since distanced herself from the conspiracy theory. While some might view these as controversies, she through to an easy nine-point victory, despite Trump’s endorsement of Scott Tipton. So what is this district she’s running to represent?
A sprawling district
CO-03 is one of the largest non at-large congressional districts in America. It covers over a third of the state, from the outskirts of Vail to the deserts of the Utah border and from the frigid north along the Wyoming border to the equally cold south next to New Mexico.
Arable land is sparse here, with mountains, forests, and high mountain desert covering most of the district. Three of Colorado’s four National Parks lie within its borders. There’s only one major interstate through the region in I-70, and residents are used to be it being closed or dealing with snowstorms from November to June. No city in the entire region eclipses 150,000 people. As such, the district has a character of libertarian self reliance. Folks don’t need and don’t want government help. Your average Democrat is about as likely to own a gun as a Republican out here. The refrain of “stay out of our way” is given to both Denver and Washington, D.C. with zeal.
A historically competitive seat
So is CO-03 now competitive? While Trump won the district by 12% in 2016, the district has Democratic heritage and has historically alternated between parties. Legendary Senator and party-switcher Ben Nighthorse Campbell represented the 3rd from 1987 to 1993 as a Democrat. One decade later, John Salazar (the brother of Ken Salazar, former Colorado Senator and Secretary of the Interior) held the district from 2005 to 2011.
While Trump’s 12% margin was a high-water mark for Republicans, Democrat Jared Polis only lost the district by 3.7% in 2018, on route to his 10.6% statewide victory in the 2018 gubernatorial race. Indeed, a mid to low single-digits victory for Republicans has often been the norm in recent history. Obama lost the district by a mere 3% in 2008 and by 6% in 2012. The soon-to-be former Congressman Tipton faced an election far closer to those margins in 2018. He won by roughly 8% against the current Democratic nominee, former state representative Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs.
So while this district may have a history of Blue Dog Democrats and only a light red hue; how can a Democrat make the jump to a winning margin? Something that hasn’t happened in a decade at the federal level? Perhaps we can analyze this scenario by looking at the specific regions that make up this vast district.
The Political Geography of CO-03
CO-03 can be neatly divided into three distinct socio-political regions: ski county, the San Luis Valley, and the border, each of which houses a substantial portion of the district’s overall population.
Let’s begin with some of the most famous and picturesque locations in America.
Think of Colorado and this is likely what comes to mind. Aspen, Telluride, Steamboat Springs, and the highest peak in the state at Mt. Elberts – 14,439 feet. It’s vast, stretching from Routt county on the Wyoming border, down to the isolated San Juan Mountains. Here, the southwest corner of the state receives vast tracts of snow that block access in or out for months. If your car doesn’t have four wheel drive, then you won’t be driving at all. The largest city is Durango, with less than 17,000 residents to its name.
This is the rare American region where the least populated counties are more liberal than the urban centers. While the area has a long mining and prospecting history, it was the growth of the ski industry in the 1970s onward that transformed it into its modern form. Every winter, hundreds of thousands of people flock here to enjoy the best skiing in America. Many have made it their second home as well, making it the wealthiest, whitest, and most liberal region in CO-03.
This region used to lean more toward the Republicans. George Bush won counties here that would be impossible for a modern Republican to win. Ouray, Gunnison, La Plata, & San Juan used to pad Republican margins in a red-leaning state. While many blame the movement of the Denver suburbs for the state’s transformation into the likely blue column, the transition of wealthy, tourist-dominated areas is another big reason for the change. Despite the shift, the lack of population in ski country prevents it from dominating the districts electorate. They’re just aren’t enough people there, despite the vast tracts of land. For a Democratic nominee like Diane Mitsch Bush however, running up the score here is vitally important to offset the larger, conservative urban centers.
The Utah-Colorado border counties rival the Kansas border for the most conservative part of the state. Made up of eight counties along the Utah and Wyoming borders, nearly all routinely give Republicans upwards of 60 or 70 percent of the vote. This is Lauren Boebert country, and it powered her to a win despite losing the majority of counties in the primary. This region is largely white (though with a growing Hispanic population), religious, and working class. Lauren Boebert herself hails from the conservative west half of swingy Garfield County.
This geographic region is the most densely populated part of CO-03, which is really saying something. Mesa County and its 150,000 people dwarf all but Pueblo County in population size. Grand Junction (65,000), Montrose (20,000) & Rifle (10,000) form a population core of conservative votes that have made the district fool’s gold for Democrats in recent years. Mesa, Moffatt, Rio Blanco, and Montezuma all have Mormon pluralities, and the area was once a hotspot for KKK activities in the mid 20th century. It’s likely one of the most heavily armed places in America, with “Don’t Tread on Me” flags on every corner.
While no Democrat will flip any of these counties anytime in the near future, the margin is the key to victory. Governor Polis held Republican gubernatorial nominee Walker Stapleton to 61% in Mesa County and 59% in Scott Tipton’s home of Montezuma. That was considered quite an achievement in this conservative heartland, but Diane Mitsch Bush will need to do better to win. Holding Boebert to the 50s in Mesa must be the benchmark for her to succeed. Additionally, Colorado Mesa University, the fastest-growing college in Colorado, lies in the area. Its 11,000 students (including yours truly) will likely play into the Bush strategy of forcing Boebert into the 50s. Breaking the GOP stranglehold on the district starts right here, and Boebert will need banana republic margins to prevent a flip. Luckily for her, that’s usually the case.
San Luis Valley
Similar to much of Northern New Mexico, the San Luis Valley is dominated by age-old Hispano communities that originated from 16th century Spanish settlers. The city of San Luis itself lies in Costilla County along the New Mexico border. It is the oldest continuously inhabited town in Colorado, having been founded in 1851. The area is heavily working class and is dominated by Pueblo (112,000). For most of the 20th century, this was the beating heart of the Colorado Democratic Party. Clinton, Dukakis, Carter, and even Mondale cleaned up here. Prominent Hispanos like the Salazars have centered much of the Democratic state establishment in this region.
Donald Trump, however, did quite well in the area, accounting for his larger 12% win. He flipped Conejos, Huerfano, and most importantly Pueblo on his way to victory in the district. The working-class appeal of Trump certainly created a sharp change in the electorate from the former Obama stronghold. Trump’s success here hasn’t so far translated to down-ballot Republicans. Senator Michael Bennett held four Trump counties in southern Colorado in the same election year, while Jared Polis clawed back to a respectable margin in 2018. Even Cory Gardner struggled here in his 2014 victory. Republican Scott Tipton was an exception, consistently winning Hispanic-heavy counties in southern Colorado. It was an area he also carried in his primary against Boebert… and a Democrat will need these Tipton voters who are skeptical of Boebert to win.
For a Democrat to win in CO-03, they must think of Pueblo as the counterweight to Mesa County. Pueblo County’s 170,000 people comprise the largest population in the district. Polis carried Pueblo by 5%, so a margin in the high single digits will be a Diane Mitsch Bush benchmark. A return to traditional 20th-century form for the Democrats is absolutely necessary. The San Luis Valley residents aren’t ancestral Democrats who have abandoned the party, as most voted for Obama and other Democrats. But they are Trump curious, just in the same vein as western Wisconsin or northeast Iowa. Trump’s appeal extended to the Hispanic working class as well as the White working class.
Will CO-03 flip?
Boebert starts with an edge, as would any Republican. President Trump is likely to carry the district once again, even as he probably loses Colorado for a second time. But Boebert’s support of QAnon will prove a strain on the NRCC and Senator Gardner in his uphill race for reelection. QAnon beliefs such as that the Satan worshiping Illuminati/Democrats run the world via the CIA, the Clintons run a child sex ring based out of a DC pizza restaurant, and George Soros is trying implement world domination via Islam and vaccines… that might be too much for a light red district. And the NRCC has far too many districts already where they are playing defense rather than offense. Will Senator Gardner even want to answer questions about Pizzagate every time he visits the west?
While Republicans have the advantage for now, this is just another headache for the Republican Party who seem to be trailing just about everywhere. CO-03 has never elected back-to-back Republicans in its 100 years of existence. This district might be conservative, but it’s not rock-ribbed Republican. Can Boebert break that streak? She starts off with a Lean Republican rating, but be prepared for a move into tossup range as millions are spent in the heart of the Rockies.