Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert stunned political observers last summer when she beat five-term incumbent Congressman Scott Tipton in the Republican primary.
"She was able to pull off an upset that, by the way, had not been done in Colorado since 1972," said Dick Wadhams, a former chair of the Colorado Republican Party. He points out that Boebert's opponent was endorsed by former President Donald Trump. So how did she pull it off?
"A lot of it was style," Wadhams said.
Tipton, 64, represented an older, moderate iteration of the Republican Party. On the other hand, Wadhams says Boebert, 34, employed combative rhetoric and didn't campaign much on her conservative-leaning district's central issues: "Water, public lands, mining, oil and gas."
Colorado's Third Congressional District stretches across the western part of the state and hooks into the southern parts of the Front Range. It's a diverse place – home to glitzy ski resorts like Aspen and Steamboat, sprawling public and agricultural lands and a historic yet atrophied steel mill. The world's largest wind tower factory sits in the south and coal mines dot the north. Residents face challenges endemic to rural communities, such as economic diversification and prohibitively high healthcare costs.
Boebert, the first woman to represent her district, has largely focused on things like gun rights and deepening division between political parties through Twitter and campaign ads and rallies. Political analysts say this partisan pageantry has helped her carve a steep ascent into politics, emerging as an agent provocateur and drawing the ire of many across the nation along the way.
University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket says she simply took a page from Trump's playbook. "It's using every moment to try and stoke a lot of outrage without necessarily trying to change the country in some way," he said.
Months before she announced her candidacy, Boebert captured national headlines when she confronted presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke at a 2019 campaign rally in Aurora after he vowed to buy back some assault-style rifles.
"I was one of the gun-owning Americans that heard your speech regarding, 'Hell yes we're going to take your AR-15s,'" she said into a microphone amid disapproving shouts from the crowd. "Well, I am here to say, 'Hell no, you're not.'"
Later she defied public health orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reopened her restaurant in Rifle, Colo., where her waitstaff carry sidearms.
Wadhams says that move struck a chord.
"A lot of small business owners in the Third Congressional District said, 'Yes, we feel her pain. We know what she's going through.'"
Boebert escalated her messaging once she took office.
During her first week on the job she released an ad declaring she would carry a firearm in the nation's capital. Days after the insurrection, she clashed with Capitol Police when she set off newly installed metal detectors and refused to let cops check her bag.
Some watching this play out are already considering a bid to unseat her, including Colorado Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan of Eagle County.
"This district deserves someone who will fight for them, who will not create every issue to be between the liberal left and the radical right," Donovan said.
She says Boebert's district comprises some of the most iconic places in Colorado and the nation, which Boebert degrades through her divisive rhetoric and Twitter fixation.
Boebert's incendiary tweets leading up to and during the Capitol insurrection have fueled calls for her resignation. Among them, critics point to her tweet disclosing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's location during the riot.
Boebert's office did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Wadhams, for one, says people ought to give her time to navigate the post-election chaos. He hopes she'll pivot to issues affecting her district. The freshman lawmaker just introduced three bills in Congress. They take aim at President Joe Biden's moves to rejoin the Paris climate accord and World Health Organization, and to implement a federal mask mandate.
Wadhams laments that through it all Boebert has been the target of sexist and elitist vitriol.
"Democrats who I respect have made fun of her because she didn't have a college degree," he said. "I got news for those Democrats: That's their problem around the country. There are a heck of a lot of people, blue collar workers without college degrees. And that was part of the Trump constituency."
Boebert says in her Congressional bio that she dropped out of high school to help support her family, taking a job as assistant manager at a McDonald's. In campaign ads, she has said she felt empowered by that first paycheck and wants to empower others on a path to self-reliance. Boebert went on to open her restaurant eight years ago with her husband.
She's had several minor run-ins with police in the last decade, something Wadhams says bears little significance on how she governs now.
"That's not uncommon. A lot of people have those kinds of events happen in their lives and they rise above them," he said.
In another similarity to Trump, Boebert's potential ties to extremist groups have been on display. Boebert has scarcely shied away from this tweeting: "I am the militia."
A 2019 photo depicts her standing with people flashing a three-finger sign for the far-right militia movement the Three Percenters. Some allegedly linked to that movement, including a Colorado man, face charges for their reported involvement in the Capitol insurrection. And a new video shows Boebert accepting a bespoke Glock 22 handgun from a man who appears to be wearing a Three Percenters patch. Accepting such a gift violates state and federal law.
"The most important thing to understand about Three Percenters is that as part of the militia movement, they are extremists," Mark Pitcavage, extremism expert with the Anti-Defamation League, told the Mountain West News Bureau. "They have an extreme ideology based on opposition to the government and on the conspiracy theories surrounding the new world order. And the militia movement has a long history of violence and criminal activity."
Pitcavage says militia members broke norms when they supported Trump as a major party nominee. Given Boebert’s allegiance to Trump and her vocal gun rights advocacy, her potential ties to Three Percenters isn’t surprising, he said.
Meanwhile, Boebert's take on the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon has set off a few alarms, too.
She told a conspiracy theorist talk show host last year: "Honestly, everything that I have heard about Q, I hope that it is real because it only means America is getting stronger and better and people are returning to conservative values."
At its core, QAnon alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats and celebrities are running a pedophilia ring – and that Trump is working to take them down.
Rutgers University professor Jack Bratich studies conspiracy theories and points to QAnon's obsession to restore early America. For example, he says followers like to use the refrain "1776."
"That kind of ties into a certain version of nationalism tied to whiteness and settler colonialism," he said.
Among a number of Boebert's provocative tweets before and during the insurrection, she tweeted, "Today is 1776” on the morning of January 6.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.