When gun enthusiast and restaurant owner Lauren Boebert beat incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton (R, CO-03) in the primary, it rocked Colorado and the nation. Boebert, the gun-toting owner of Shooters Grill in the town of Rifle, exemplified the GOP’s rightward shift. Elections Daily‘s own Ryland Mahre wrote an excellent piece covering the 2020 election in the district. Ultimately, Boebert beat Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush in the general election by roughly six points, similar to Trump’s margin.
Upon arriving in Washington, Boebert made headlines in her first days by vocally supporting overturning the 2020 election. On the day of the January 6 insurrection, she tweeted: “Today is 1776,” referring to American revolutionary imagery. She also tweeted information described as containing the locations of several members of congress including Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Her communications director resigned in the wake of the attack.
Undeterred, Boebert doubled down on far-right controversy, setting off a metal detector while carrying a gun in the Capitol. Colorado Democrats, enraged, are looking for ways to unseat the freshman from this traditionally conservative seat. Western Colorado is red, but Biden only lost the third by six, a large improvement over Clinton’s 12-point loss.
The Declared Candidates
So far, only one Democrat has filed for the race. Attorney Colin Wilhelm from Glenwood Springs is a former candidate for a red-leaning State House seat in 2018 and 2020. The other candidate who has just declared is former private security CEO Gregg H. Smith, from Custer County. Both are from traditionally Republican areas of the district, with Glenwood Springs only recently turning leftward. Wilhelm has run twice before and thus people have heard his story. Thus, the light and truth must shine on Smith’s story.
Smith, on his Twitter profile, describes himself as a Blue Dog Democrat. An alumnus of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, he served in the Marine Corps. He later served as a partner at Deloitte, a consulting firm with many clients in government and the military. Having joined Twitter in December of 2020, he has now amassed just south of 200,000 followers, mostly in the past three days since his announcement. Still, prior to late January, Smith had far more followers than a relatively inactive Twitter account would normally have.
Blackwater and Chinese Ties
More interestingly, he served as the CEO of the Frontier Service Group, a private security firm, from 2005 to 2016. Erik Prince, the former head of private military company Blackwater Worldwide, is a co-founder of FSG. The US government has accused Prince and Blackwater of numerous abuses of Iraqi civilians and of military protocol. Prince and Smith were friends for decades and were business associates in a number of ventures.
Frontier Services Group was later bought by CITIC, a Chinese state-owned investment bank. CITIC is the largest shareholder of FSG now, owning roughly 26% of FSG’s outstanding shares. Chun-Shun Ko and Rongsong Teng respectively own 12% of common stock and 7.5% of company stock. Ko has ties to firms such as Cambridge Analytica and Emerdata, which aided Republican disinformation efforts in 2016. Teng was previously CEO and Executive Director at China Development Bank International Investment Ltd, an investment company acquired by the Chinese state-owned China Development Bank.
Frontier Services Group has primarily focused its efforts on protecting Chinese businesses in Africa, but the company has also signed contracts to support China’s One Belt and One Road initiative, including building bases in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in northwest China, where the Beijing government has brought the full weight of the surveillance state to police the Uighur Muslim-majority population, complete with mass internment camps, facial recognition, and hyper-sensitive surveillance cameras. FSG wrote on its website that a local Communist Party boss hoped that FSG would bolster the presence of the “bingtuan”, Han Chinese paramilitaries, in the development and governance of the region in southern Xinjiang.
It is unclear what Smith’s role in these actions and others taken by FSG are – on his Twitter profile, he states that he has opposed recent actions by Prince behaving as a “clear danger to our democracy“. He resigned in 2016 when FSG became a “CCP security company“, though upon resignation he received up to $2 million worth of options from FSG. Smith has repeatedly professed innocence and a lack of complicity in Prince’s actions while at FSG.
Smith’s candidacy is also likely to be dogged by accusations of carpetbagging. Already, former State Rep. Bri Buentello, a Pueblo-area Democrat who is a potential candidate for the nomination, has put out numerous tweets declaring that Smith has no relationship to the third district. Elections Daily can independently confirm that a Gregg H. Smith indeed does possess a parcel of land in Custer County, but this is also owned by a company under the name of “Frowning Cactus LLC”. Frowning Cactus’s other known addresses include one of Smith’s prior locations at a previous residence in Arizona. The most recent transaction at the Custer County address was in mid-2020, which would make for roughly seven months of residence in the third.
Furthermore, this presumed Gregg H. Smith holds a primary residence on a multimillion-dollar ranch in Silverthorne, in Summit County. He is registered to vote there as an unaffiliated voter, according to Buentello, and as Elections Daily has independently confirmed. Colorado is an open-primary state, so this will not disqualify Smith, but Summit County is in Democrat Joe Neguse’s 2nd district rather than Boebert’s Republican-held 3rd. Past Democrats who have held the district, such as John Salazar and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, are all from key Democratic base areas of the southern Hispano-heavy part of the seat. Should Smith win the nomination, it could seriously imperil Democratic efforts to connect with rural Coloradans with a strong sense of parochiality and regional ties.
Smith’s relationship with less-than-savory aspects of national security and defense, as well as his tenuous relationship to the district he intends to run in, mirror another House race in the past: the 2020 election in North Carolina’s 11th congressional district. Democratic candidate Moe Davis served as the chief prosecutor of Guantanamo Bay, where he claimed to oppose the government-sponsored torture methods prevalent there. Davis ran against a similar firebrand to Boebert, the young conservative named Madison Cawthorn. During the campaign, he was accused of sexual misconduct and faced controversy over his ties to the far-right. Cawthorn, like Boebert, sits in a red-leaning district on the edge of competitiveness, and he also voted to overturn the results of the election. Unlike NC-11 though, CO-03 is a district that Democrats have a much stronger electoral operation in. With Boebert’s far-right antics, more Democrats are likely chomping at the bit to join the race.
Other Potential Candidates
The third district of Colorado is huge, stretching from Craig in the northwest to La Veta in the southeast. It takes in a mixture of liberal ski-country, western border libertarians, Hispano farming areas, and right-wing militia areas. Democrats are likely looking for a candidate with more appeal outside of ski-country to defeat Boebert compared to Mitsch Bush.
Given that Democrats need to outperform their 2020 showing in the Pueblo area significantly, it is likely that a candidate from this area would stand the strongest chance of defeating Boebert in a general election. Fortunately for Democrats, Pueblo has a strong role in the party’s coalition. State House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar is from Pueblo, as is Senate President Leroy Garcia. Bri Buentello won a red-leaning Pueblo-area seat in 2018 but narrowly lost in 2020. Nevertheless, she would be an interesting candidate for Democrats to run.
Going away from the Pueblo area, State Rep. Donald Valdez is from the San Luis Valley area, where the largest concentration of swingy socially-conservative Hispanos live. He could potentially bring those voters out in larger numbers than normal. State Sen. Kerry Donovan would be a strong candidate in the ski-country area, being from Vail. Finally, State Rep. Barbara McLachlan is from Durango, an often under-discussed liberal town in Southwest Colorado important to the Democratic coalition.
Western and southern Colorado are shaping up to have a battle royale in 2022. Boebert’s antics will energize the right-wing Republican base. Democrats have their work cut out for them to put together their old coalition. The Democratic field is slowly taking shape, with some very colorful figures. Given the strong state of the Colorado Democratic Party, sleeping on the third district would be unwise. It is a red-leaning seat, but it would be a mistake to say that this race will not gain a lot of attention.