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Since it opened in 2013, Shooters Grill in Rifle has notoriously gained attention for its armed, all-female waitstaff. “It’s a Smith and Wesson .38 special,” says one waitress when asked about the gun in her side holster. It isn’t just for show, either. “There’s not much point if it isn’t loaded,” she laughs.
These days, the restaurant’s 33-year-old owner, Lauren Boebert, probably attracts more customers than the guns do. That’s because Boebert, an ultra-conservative Republican, is running against former Routt county commissioner and Democratic state legislator Diane Mitsch Bush to represent Colorado’s unusually large, notably diverse 3rd Congressional District. And in the final weeks leading up to the election, it’s difficult to predict how the tight battle will shake out.
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After dining on dishes like the Swiss and Wesson burger or Black Powder burrito, customers don’t have to venture far to learn more about their host. Located next door to the restaurant, Boebert’s campaign headquarters welcomes both avid supporters and the merely curious. Copies of the candidate’s Contract with Colorado—which lists Boebert’s views on topics like “America First,” “Free Markets,” “Strong Borders,” and more—are available for the taking. A wall displays notes, many of them handwritten, from Boebert fans around the country who have seen or heard her on national TV or talk radio. (The campaign did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
During lunch on a recent Friday in October, tables in Shooters’ long, rectangular dining room are widely spaced, and at least one booth is roped off, but there’s not a mask to be seen. (In May, Garfield County’s public health department temporarily suspended Shooters’ license after the restaurant reopened to diners, flouting pandemic restrictions). Signs and placards are grouped along the walls, ranging from gun themes to the Pledge of Allegiance to “Don’t Tread on Me.” A preponderance of the largely male clientele sports flannel shirts and baseball caps. A life-size cardboard cutout of Trump leans on a bench (no, he’s not armed).
Over a grilled-cheese sandwich, Michael Clark of Silt, a former mining exec who now works with a community radio station in nearby Parachute, talks about Boebert’s fast ascent in politics. “She made a big splash when she went to Aurora and confronted Beto,” he says, referring to her public “hell, no” denunciation of Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke’s gun-reform plans last fall. The resulting video clip landed her on Fox News and set the trajectory for her announcement in December to run for Congress.
She went on to beat five-term incumbent Scott Tipton in the Republican primary in June. Despite the congressman’s former stronghold in the district, constituents had become disenchanted. “Lauren is more vocal about the issues she cares about,” says Clark, who counts himself among her supporters. More succinctly, “Tipton ignored us,” says a Rifle shop owner who wished to remain anonymous.
Boebert’s outsider status strongly appeals, too. “Tipton has been the same old, same old,” says Trevor Ellis, an artisan blacksmith and welder from nearby New Castle in a later phone interview. “I wanted change. Career politicians have brought us to this point.”
The candidate’s Trump-aligned platform—pro-gun, pro-life, pro-energy, pro-school choice, anti-big government—resonates deeply in this longtime mining and ranching community on the Western Slope, where extractive industries drive the economy and gun ownership is a revered tradition. In fact, supporters quickly and uniformly mention Second Amendment rights when asked why they back Boebert, whom Trump himself has wholeheartedly embraced.
But it’s not all about guns. These locals also cite fiscal conservatism, “family values,” and health care, among other concerns, for why they support her. “Her stand on water conservancy, keeping water on the Western Slope, is very important to me,” says real estate agent Cheryl Chandler, who has lived in the area since 1981. “After that, gun rights. I carry a gun all the time.”
Despite Boebert’s lack of political experience—she’s never held any kind of public office—and a campaign based more on ideology than specific proposals, her spitfire personality and knack for self-promotion have led to hometown hero status. Backers hail her as “gutsy” and a “great marketer” for first putting her business on the map, and now herself.
When Boebert showed up in Aspen last September to protest a proposed ban on guns and other deadly weapons in local municipal buildings, however, her future as a political upstart was far from obvious. A recorded broadcast of the meeting shows her wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Shooters Grill” and speaking quickly, perhaps even nervously, against what she called a “very, very silly proposal” (it eventually passed).
That presentation has since matured. “Her message has come out much stronger,” Chandler says. “She’s been coached well, and she’s really up to speed.”
The candidate’s supporters tend to brush off the slew of well-publicized bad press (including past arrests, missed court dates, a food poisoning incident at the local rodeo, tax liens against the restaurant, and the candidate’s on-again, off-again relationship with QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that accuses child sex-trafficking pedophiles of plotting against Trump, among other things) as the cost of running for office. The QAnon link—Boebert said she hoped the theory was “real” last May, but has since distanced herself from it—is particularly troubling, as the FBI has termed supporters a potential domestic terrorist threat.
Certainly, not everyone in Rifle is a fan. “I don’t agree with her,” says another young small-business owner, Jasmine Camacho, who notes that her friends won’t be voting for Boebert, either. “I’m all about pro-choice.” She also finds Boebert’s lack of political background troublesome. “You should have experience, not just one day say, ‘I’m going to run for Congress—up and at ’em,’” Camacho adds.
Former Colorado speaker of the house and state government official Russell George, a fourth-generation Rifle resident, recently endorsed Mitsch Bush. When reached at his home for comment, he said he preferred to let his endorsement speak for itself. “Diane has the integrity of a member of Congress and is committed to doing what is right. I know firsthand that she knows what it means to put people above their party because she has done it before,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that praises Mitsch Bush’s bipartisan record in the Colorado House and her work on water and transportation issues.
Even some supporters realize that, if elected, Boebert would face a steep learning curve once in D.C. “I think she might be in for an awakening,” admits Clark, when asked how easily she may be able to get things done in Washington.
Earlier this month, Bob Rankin, the incumbent Republican senator for Colorado District 8, expressed qualified support for Boebert during a candidate forum with Democratic challenger Karl Hanlon. “I hope that Lauren will shift from this totally ideological stance to actually understanding issues and working,” he said in response to an audience question.
Whether or not Lauren Boebert will embrace substantive politics—and whether voters in District 3 will embrace her on Election Day—remains to be seen.
But on this sunny, pleasantly warm October day in downtown Rifle, it seems like business as usual, at least in the COVID-19 era. A handful of visitors and locals trickles in and out of the shops and restaurants along 3rd Street. A banner over Railroad Avenue, the main drag, advertises the 13th annual free community paper-shredding event that weekend. Surprisingly, not many political signs are in evidence proclaiming support for the town’s celebrity du jour, but it’s clear that much of Rifle’s got her back.
“I guess we’re part of that silent majority,” Chandler says. “This is a ranch community. When something tickles our fancy, we’re all in.”
(MORE: Your Guide to the 2020 Election)
Update, 11/4/20: Lauren Boebert defeated Diane Mitsch Busch to become Colorado’s representative for the 3rd Congressional District.