If Tuesday’s midterm is a referendum on President Trump, as The New Yorker and other publications have argued, Colorado Congressman Scott Tipton may have an easy path to victory.
Tipton, seeking his fifth term in the House in the red-leaning, rural 3rd Congressional District, votes in line with Trump 95.6 percent of the time. Trump won here by about 12 points in 2016.
“[Trump’s] agenda is popular,” Laureen Gutierrez, chairwoman of the Mesa County Republican Party.
Republican voters in the sprawling 3rd CD, Gutierrez said, like the president’s efforts to strengthen border security and back his appointment of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. During the primary, she said, the No. 1 thing people wanted to know was which candidates supported the Trump.
Tipton did not respond to an interview request with The Colorado Independent, but told The Cortez Journal he supports Trump’s tax cuts and deregulatory efforts, although he disagrees with some of his policy on tariffs and wishes the president would drop his Twitter account.
Even so, Tipton’s challenger, Diane Mitsch Bush, and her supporters want others in the district to believe that a “vote for Tipton is another vote for Trump.” The former Democratic state representative from Steamboat Springs supports Medicare for all and environmental regulations. She will have to win over independent voters, a group that recently surpassed Republicans here to make up the majority, in order to gain ground on Tipton.
The 3rd CD is an area larger than the state of Mississippi covering the entire Western Slope and stretching through the San Luis Valley east to the city of Pueblo. Historically, the district has alternated between Republican and Democratic control, with a diverse economic base that includes oil and gas drilling, tourism, recreation, farming and ranching. The unemployment rate in Grand Junction and Pueblo, two urban centers in the district, dipped below pre-recession levels in recent years.
Recognizing the politically purple tint of the district, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel editorial board endorsed Tipton over Mitsch Bush, but it made clear the choice was half-hearted.
The newspaper described Tipton as an “underutilized asset” in Washington, D.C., “who has failed to strike the moderate tone we think the district deserves.”
The paper, a staunch supporter of Jordan Cove, a proposed gas delivery project in the region, described its disappointment in Mitsch Bush’s unclear position on the project in stark terms.
“The only thing more unappetizing than the thought of giving Scott Tipton a fifth term in the U.S. House is having a Jordan Cove opponent representing Colorado’s expansive 3rd Congressional District,” the paper’s editorial board stated.
Tipton has defeated all his previous opponents by double-digit margins. Today, Republicans still outnumber Democrats 34 percent to 28 percent. Last month, the popular political website FiveThirtyEight caught many readers off-guard when it called the race a toss-up. But the prediction was short-lived. The site recently characterized the race as likely Republican following a report by the online pollster Change Research concluding Tipton has a 15-point lead among likely voters.
The national Democratic Party has not paid much attention to the district in its campaign to pick up 23 seats in the U.S. House. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn’t donated any money directly to Mitsch Bush’s campaign, according to campaign finance reports.
It will be an uphill battle for Mitsch Bush. But supporters look to the rise of independent voters and demographic changes as a source of hope.
“I think that the kinds of people who are moving here are of a different mindset,” said Paonia retiree Elaine Brett, just minutes before walking to a Mitsch Bush rally. Brett has helped write grants for nonprofits starting businesses in the arts and culinary scene.
She said baby boomers are fleeing the city and young people are moving to the Western Slope to start families, in part due to a recent build-out of high-speed internet and new job opportunities outside the gas patch.
“This county has been so strongly red,” she said. But, she added, “I think we’re seeing a shift.”
Mitsch Bush, a 68-year-old who served in the state House from 2013 to 2017 before stepping down to run for Congress, has unseated an incumbent before.
In 2006, she bested a Republican incumbent by 15 points for a spot as a Routt County commissioner and served for five years.
The former social science professor said she relies on “balance and evidence” when answering questions about her positions. What perhaps best exemplifies her measured approach to policy is her take on oil and gas drilling.
“I have always supported an ‘all-the-above’ strategy,” Mitsch Bush said at a Club 20 debate in Grand Junction in September. But, she added, “I think there are some things that we have to bear in mind.”
She supports the Obama-era energy regulations to curb methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that causes climate change, even as Trump has sought to roll back the rule.
She said there are certain areas of public lands that should not be drilled. She opposes proposed drilling in the North Fork Valley near Paonia, a town that likewise opposes it. She also opposes a now-deferred proposal to lease land for drilling east of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains near Navajo Nation ancestral land.
During the Club 20 debate, Tipton pressed her to state her position on Jordan Cove, a proposed natural gas export terminal and pipeline that supporters say promises a larger market for drilling in the gas-rich Piceance Basin on the northwest side of the state. She said she’s not convinced there’s an international market for the gas, and therefore did not have a position.
When it comes to grazing livestock on public land, her stance is likewise nuanced. She supports grazing, she said. But when asked about grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness, where domestic sheep are infecting wild bighorns with a sometimes-fatal bacteria, she said it should not be permitted.
“Grazing is an allowed use with a permit and with environmental protections,” she said. “I’m not against grazing if it’s done properly.”
She would not say whether she supports the Clean Water Rule, also known as Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS, which expanded protections for streams under the Clean Water Act. The American Farm Bureau, and Tipton, oppose the Obama-era rule.
“I need to look at the data there,” she said. “You cannot take a knee-jerk response. I don’t do that. I look at the data.”
She says she supports universal, single-payer health care, which she described more generally as “Medicare for all,” a policy in which the government offers a health insurance plan to everyone.
“That to me is a goal,” she said. “Adequate, quality healthcare is a human right.”
Knowing that such a policy shift cannot happen overnight, she said she wants to focus on a broader health care agenda. She said she wants to defend protections for people with preexisting conditions seeking health insurance, allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with drug makers, make birth control more accessible and affordable, and protect family planning services funded by Medicaid.
Mitsch Bush has raised $1.6 million, a bit more than Tipton’s $1.5 million, without taking any money from corporate political action committees. Most of her money comes from individuals. But she also has the support of groups like Emily’s List, a women’s rights advocacy group, the International Association of Firefighters union, and Swing Left, a progressive political group.
Tipton’s top donors include the American Investment Council, a private equity advocacy organization; Halliburton, the global energy company; and the Koch PAC, a group backed by the billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch. Other high profile donors include oil and gas companies and the National Rifle Association.
After losing a bid for the U.S. House in 2006, Tipton, in 2008, ran for a spot in the state House and won. The Cortez businessman served a term, and then, during a red wave in 2010, bested the Democratic incumbent John Salazar for a seat in the U.S. House.
The 61-year-old has fended off three Democratic challengers since.
Tipton is a staunch proponent of oil and gas drilling in his district. He supported a bill that would bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions for the purpose of addressing climate change. He believes the Jordan Cove project could boost drilling jobs in the Western Slope and help steel manufacturers in Pueblo that he says may be needed for pipeline construction.
He backs stronger border security, including a wall along most of the southern border, and was supportive of Trump’s travel ban on majority Muslim countries, stating, “a temporary halt on accepting new immigrants and refugees from certain countries that are known hotbeds for terrorism while we strengthen our screening procedures is a reasonable action.”
Following Trump’s announcement to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program that allowed certain young immigrants to work or go to college, Tipton made a statement reiterating his concerns with the program, saying “President Obama circumvented the Constitution when he unilaterally created the DACA program without going through the legislative process.”
He added, “I believe Congress must act to develop a compassionate and common-sense solution for the children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents.”
Congress is yet to replace the program. Roughly a quarter of the population in the 3rd CD is Latino.
Tipton voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Following the vote in 2011, he said in a news release, “We can’t continue passing the buck and expanding government.” He added that legislation is needed to control health care costs through a “market-based solution.”
In the spring of 2017, Tipton voted for the American Health Care Act, a program intended to replace the Affordable Care Act but failed to pass the Senate. The AHCA would have eliminated premium limits for people with pre-existing conditions, a key provision under Obamacare.
Later that year, Tipton voted to repeal the individual mandate under Obamacare, even though experts had warned such a repeal would likely drive up health insurance premiums.
“The IRS will be out of the health insurance business once and for all,” he said in an op-ed in Colorado Politics.
Last week, Trump supporters gathered in downtown Grand Junction to voice their approval of the president’s anti-immigration policy. A group called the Mesa County Deplorables organized the event, dubbed the Stop the Invasion Rally, to call attention to the president’s plan to stop a caravan of immigrants coming up to the United States from Central America.
A small group of counter-protesters were also there, across the street from the sea of red Make America Great Again hats, according to media reports.
In September, the Denver Post interviewed several Trump supporters in Grand Junction, one of whom said Trump had returned confidence to the oil and gas industry. She said her husband had gone back to work after being unemployed for two years.
Gutierrez, a GOP party chairwoman, was a Ted Cruz supporter ahead of the 2016 election. But she told the Post Trump’s populist economic policies have earned him a loyal following in that part of the state.
Said Gutierrez: “As long as he doesn’t stop taking action on the platforms he ran on, as long as he doesn’t give up, he has my support.”