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Want to understand U.S. politics? Look at Colorado’s 3rd Congressional race

Democratic and Republican contests mirror the parties’ national split

Who is more progressive? Who is more supportive of President Donald Trump? Who is more electable? Who can get things done in Washington?

Those are the questions playing out in the Democratic and Republican primaries in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which spans across the Western Slope into Pueblo.

On the Republican side is five-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, of Cortez, who has the backing of the GOP establishment and is fending off a challenge from far-right firebrand Lauren Boebert, a gun-rights activist who owns a restaurant in Rifle where the servers are packing pistols.

On the Democratic side is former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush of Steamboat Springs, who lost her bid for the seat two years ago, supports a single-payer health care system and is a fierce advocate for rural Colorado. She faces James Iacino, a first-time candidate and businessman who is a recent transplant to the district and has won a number of big-name endorsements.

Clockwise from top left: Scott Tipton, Diane Mitsch Bush, James Iacino and Lauren Boebert.

In many ways, the June 30 contests mirror the national struggle in the two major parties. The results are likely to provide a glimpse into the politics of Colorado’s most competitive congressional district heading into November.

“Amazingly the 3rd Congressional District, I think, has become kind of a microcosm of both political parties,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado GOP whose roots are in Pueblo. “You’ve got the establishment versus the insurgents in both cases, in both parties. We’re seeing those types of primaries all over the country.”

The Democrats

Arguable the more competitive of the two primaries in the 3rd Congressional District is the one for the Democratic nomination.

Mitsch Bush was elected, starting in 2012, to three terms in the Colorado House and before that was a Routt County commissioner. Before she was elected to public office, she was a social scientist and activist.

Mitsch Bush believes that experience makes her best suited to beat Tipton in November. Iacino, who up until announcing his bid for Congress was running his family’s Denver-based Seattle Fish Co., thinks it’s time for a new voice from outside of politics-as-usual.

Policy-wise, the rivals actually share many similar views. The key differences come in arenas of health care and gun safety.

Mitsch Bush says after Democrats “triage” the health care system by driving down prices and ensuring coverage for people with pre-existing conditions doesn’t go away “we do need to move towards some form of universal, single-payer” system. Iacino favors a public health insurance option because he believes “people should have the right to choose their insurance.”

On gun control, Iacino – who talks proudly about being a gun owner – would like to see bills ensuring universal background checks and a red flag law similar to Colorado’s passed on the national stage. “There are no new policies that I would add on from what we’ve done in Colorado,” he said.

Mitsch Bush agrees that there’s a need for a national background check bill and legislation encouraging or enacting red flag laws, but is also open to an assault-style weapons ban, though she worries about the policy specifics.

Democratic candidate for U.S. House of Representatives Colorado 3rd Congressional District Diane Mitsch Bush speaks to supporter during a rally Oct. 27, 2018, in Montrose.

“If you look at the federal bills that have been proposed in the past several years, they all have a problem,” she said. “It’s this: It’s very difficult to define, in legal terms, what an assault-style weapon is. I would consider a bill, but I would really want to be sure it did what it purported to do.”

Mitsch Busch calls herself a “pragmatic progressive” but has been dinged by Republicans for being too far left. Iacino actually uses the same phrase to describe himself, but he thinks he’s more moderate, which gives him a better chance at winning areas of the district – like Pueblo – where Mitsch Bush came up short last time.

In terms of fundraising, Mitsch Bush and Iacino are essentially tied. They both have hauled in just short of $1 million this election cycle. One important distinction between the two Democrats, however, is that Iacino has loaned his campaign $50,000 and spent another $290,000 of his own cash.

“They both seem to be running good campaigns and their fundraising numbers are comparable,” said state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat whose own district includes much of the 3rd Congressional District. “So what could be interesting about this primary is (how) a comparison of their values and policies will be an important deciding factor for primary voters.”

There’s also possibly the electability factor playing in voters’ heads, and both candidates have weaknesses in that arena.

Mitsch Bush was the only Democrat on the statewide ballot in 2018 to lose in Pueblo County, falling short of Tipton there by 2 percentage points. The county is seen as crucial to winning the 3rd District since it’s the largest population center in the district.

She says her loss to Tipton two years ago is actually a positive point since it gave her insight into how to beat him this time around. Mitsch Bush points out that Tipton didn’t win the district after he lost a race to former Democratic Rep. John Salazar, who held the seat until 2010 when Tipton defeated him.

“It takes awhile in this district. Name recognition is key and now I have the name recognition,” she said, touting her backing from Planned Parenthood and the AFL-CIO. “I also know Tipton’s playbook. I can beat that playbook.”

Iacino, meanwhile, could face problems among voters for moving into the district, which fiercely values its identity, just before announcing his bid. He earlier lived in Denver with his family and then relocated to Ridgway.

Iacino concedes that it’s likely Tipton will attack him on his move if he’s the nominee but he thinks his family’s 100-plus year history in Colorado, which includes business dealings on the Western Slope, make up for that. Mitsch Bush said voters want someone who has spent decades in the district, not months.

“I’ve got deep Colorado roots,” said Iacino, who has won endorsements from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, who unsuccessfully ran for the seat in 2016. “... It’s something I’m prepared to answer.”

James Iacino as a campaign stop.

Donovan, who has not endorsed in the race, cautioned that Democrats in western Colorado aren’t always easy to pin down, which makes winning an election there so difficult.

“Democrats on the Western Slope are certainly a different breed of Democrats,” she said. “They care a lot about the environment. They care a lot about health care. And they care a lot about the economy. Democrats who get elected on the Western Slope have to fit the district really well.”

Salazar, who in 2018 backed Mitsch Bush but this time around is supporting Iacino, echoed that sentiment.

“There’s pockets of liberals and pockets of super conservatives. You need to have, I think, a moderate outlook on politics in order to represent the district,” he said in an interview with The Colorado Sun.

The Republicans

Tipton is vying for his sixth term in Congress after handily winning reelection in 2018 in a year that was devastating for Colorado Republicans. He fought off Mitsch Bush to win by 8 percentage points, serving as the lone bright spot in what was a tough night for the GOP.

That’s why it was so surprising when Boebert, who has never held public office, launched her bid to unseat him in December, saying that Tipton hasn’t been enough of a fighter – or enough of a conservative – in Congress.

She has vowed to take on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, if elected, saying she is the Republican counterpart to the popular and controversial liberal.

Boebert has also attacked Tipton over congressional Republicans’ failure to repeal President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Finally, she has blasted the congressman for his votes on such bipartisan measures as the coronavirus aid package and on legislation aimed at granting legal status to agricultural workers in the country illegally and improving the farm-worker visa program.

“Our district deserves a fighter,” Boebert said during a recent candidate forum.

An empty table and chairs sit below posters heralding Lauren Boebert’s congressional campaign in a window next to Shooters Grill, the restaurant she owns in Rifle, which had its license suspended for defying Garfield County’s emergency coronavirus closure order.

Her campaign declined an interview request from The Colorado Sun. In the past year, however, Boebert has raised her name recognition by stepping into controversial situations and topics, such as by challenging former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on his gun-control positions and reopening her restaurant in defiance of Colorado’s coronavirus public health orders.

Boebert claims she is the pro-Trump candidate in the race, but Trump has endorsed Tipton and Tipton is the honorary co-chair of the president’s reelection campaign in Colorado.

Tipton, through his campaign manager, also declined an interview request from The Sun.

The congressman has been mostly silent on his far-right challenger. But Tipton has sent mailers out to voters calling Boebert “Lying Lauren” and touting his endorsement from Trump.

In the mailer, Tipton pushes back on her criticism of his votes. While Boebert portrayed the support of the coronavirus aid package as helping Boulder, the CARES Act provides assistance to cities and towns under 500,000, which encompasses all of the municipalities in the 3rd Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton waits to take the stage during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump on Feb. 20 at the World Arena in Colorado Springs.

The mailer also points out that his vote on the farm workers bill was supported by agricultural interests in the district.

Observers see Boebert as a threat, though not enough of one to dislodge Tipton. It’s tough to know for sure because there hasn’t been public polling on the race. Tipton, however, has far outraised his opponent, giving him more firepower to spread his message.

The incumbent has hauled in more than $1 million this election cycle when Boebert has raised just over $130,000.

“I think Scott Tipton has a real primary on his hands,” Wadhams said. “I think he’ll win, but it’s a serious challenge from Boebert.”

Even if Boebert falls short, there’s a chance that she could damage Tipton’s standing with his conservative base. That could affect turnout and enthusiasm come the general election in November.

Nevertheless, Republicans will likely start at a major advantage in the 3rd Congressional District heading into the general election.

The district was handily won by Trump in 2016 and it has more registered Republicans than Democrats, though more unaffiliated voters than either major party.

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a University of Virginia project tracking congressional elections, says the district is likely to remain in Republican hands after November. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s U.S. House reelection arm, has called the district a target but not yet invested much money to back up that declaration.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

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