On a Saturday afternoon in December, Lauren Boebert’s restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, sat mostly empty. Shooters Grill was understaffed and out of mustard, said a waiter in a MAGA hat, with a gun-emblazoned shirt that announced “I AM THE SECURITY.” An old man in a hunting hat sat at the counter watching Fox News. A cutout of former President Trump stood in a corner.
I had driven three hours through the mountains from my home in Denver to Shooters, where the servers are encouraged to open-carry firearms, in hopes of learning something about the hard-right congresswoman who rose from relative obscurity to Republican stardom when she unseated five-term incumbent Scott Tipton in the 2020 primary election.
The diner, deep in the Rockies, is a shrine to the former president. In addition to the cutout of 45, there’s a flag that says “Trump 2024: The Revenge Tour”; a T-shirt on a mannequin by the door that reads “Guns don’t kill people. Alec Baldwin does”; and a sign on the wall warning “Prayer is the best way to meet the lord; trespassing is faster.” The restaurant occasionally sells more straightforward apparel saying “Trump Won.” I ordered a Rifle burger (bacon, cheese) and paid $2 extra to have it “Trumped,” which involved smoking the patty on a fire over a cedar plank. The burger was a little dry but huge; the handful of fries, dusted with an Old Bay–type seasoning, was fine.
Boebert, a star of the GOP’s shitposting generation, has led a career as brash and Trump-loving as the restaurant she operates. She joined Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in heckling President Biden at this year’s State of the Union. She insinuated that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was a terrorist, calling her the “jihad squad.” On the morning of the January 6 insurrection, Boebert tweeted, “Today is 1776”—and then objected to the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
This trolling has made it hard for liberals to understand how someone so brazen and bigoted could be elected in a state supposedly full of outdoor recreation enthusiasts and pot-smoking hippies. But her themed restaurant and constant outrage bait belie the simplicity of her political appeal.
Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which Boebert represents, is geographically the 15th largest in the nation. It encompasses much of the state’s mostly rural Western Slope, then swings east to scoop up Pueblo, a politically moderate steel-producing city with a large Latino population. Unlike Greene’s district, CD-3 isn’t deep red: It’s a competitive congressional seat where more than 40 percent of voters are unaffiliated.
Boebert’s status as a straight-talking small-town business owner appeals to voters. “I could relate to her,” one Boebert supporter told the Associated Press. “Just like President Trump. He’s not a politician and she’s not a politician, and running this country is a business.”
Indeed, like Trump, Boebert pitches herself as a bootstrapping political outsider. On her website, in her speeches, and on the campaign trail, she touts herself as a Chamber of Commerce champion of the working class. “I’m a mom, I’m a business owner, I’m an ordinary average citizen just like all of you,” she said upon winning the congressional seat in 2020, “and we’re tired of politicians.” Boebert has said her rise to Congress is tantamount to “living the American dream,” an uplift that will “keep radical socialists out of government so that people can be empowered to lift themselves out of poverty.”
But a close look at Boebert’s past reveals cracks in the narrative she’s built. And for several people who worked at her restaurant and know her personally, Boebert’s American dream has been more like a “nightmare.”
Lauren Opal Roberts was born in December 1986 in Orlando, Florida, to an 18-year-old single mother—who has asserted for decades, and with some pretty convincing evidence, that Boebert’s biological father is pro wrestler Stan Lane. (Lane denies this assertion, noting he failed a paternity test; there are open questions about whether the test was administered properly. Lane’s friend and adviser Sal Corrente said, “We have no comment.”) According to media reports, Boebert’s mother went on to have three sons before eventually settling down on Colorado’s Western Slope, where she had her fourth son.
Boebert likes to talk about her embrace of Republican values as the natural result of her hardscrabble upbringing. “I am a conservative because of real-life experiences,” she said in a Facebook Live video in 2020. “My mom was a true blue Democrat and she believed all of the lies that she was told—that she could not support me and my brothers on her own. She was told that if she went out to try to support us without the help of Democrat politicians, she would fail, and because of that, we grew up poor.”
But registration records show that Boebert’s mother—today an outspoken Trump supporter who once recorded a series of racist rants about “Mexicans” and “brown people”—was actually registered as a Republican in Colorado in 2001, when Boebert was 15. She changed to unaffiliated in 2013 and to Democrat in 2015. It’s unclear what her registration was before 2001. (Boebert’s mother did not respond to requests for comment.)
Boebert has made a practice of using her difficult young adulthood as proof that Democratic policies to help people like her don’t work. Welfare comes under particular ire. One of the more pivotal moments of her story, as Boebert tells it, is when she took a job at McDonald’s at 15. She says the experience cemented her conservatism. “I learned very quickly that I could do a better job taking care of myself and my own life than the government ever did taking care of us,” she said, adding that she did not like having to pay taxes.
In January 2004, when she was 17, she went bowling with the 24-year-old man she would later marry. It wasn’t exactly a fairytale courtship. At the bowling alley that night, Jayson Boebert exposed his penis to two teenage girls. (In a witness statement, a victim claims that before Jayson exposed himself, he commented on her fading ankle tattoo, saying, “Well, I have a tattoo with your name written on my dick.”) Jayson pleaded guilty to public indecency and lewd exposure and spent four days in jail, followed by two years on probation. A month after the bowling alley incident, Jayson pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge—reportedly against Lauren—for which he would spend seven days in jail. Reached by phone for comment, Jayson said, “Oh, Jesus,” and told me to reach out to Lauren’s staff.
By the next summer, the couple was back together, and Lauren was pregnant with her first son. This is when Boebert says she chose to drop out of high school. “I was a brand-new mom, and I had to make hard decisions on successfully raising my child, or getting to high school biology class,” she told the Durango Herald. “And I chose to take care of my child.” As she later wrote on Twitter, “I left high school to help feed my family & I’m proud of that.”
After marrying in 2007, Lauren and Jayson went on to have three more sons, one of whom was born in the front of Jayson’s Ford F250 on the way to the hospital—an experience she once used as a justification for mocking Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg for taking parental leave. (“I delivered one of my children in the front seat of my truck,” she said. “Because as a mom of four, we got things to do. Ain’t nobody got time for two-and-a-half months of maternity leave. We have a world to save here.”)
Boebert spent the next few years raising her children and preaching to incarcerated women at the county jail. She said she preached there for seven years and called her work “far more powerful than any government program could ever be.” (Volunteer attendance logs obtained by Colorado Newsline suggest that she only preached for two and a half.)
In 2010, amid the national foreclosure crisis, she and her husband were evicted from their home in Silt, a town just down the road from Rifle, according to housing records. The details of the next several years are murky, but the couple seems to have landed on their feet: In 2013, the Boeberts opened Shooters Grill.
Before Boebert stoked liberal rage on the national stage to forge a political career, she did it to sell hamburgers. Boebert claims that workers at Shooters began to open carry because a man was “physically beaten to death” in the alley outside her restaurant. A man did die on the sidewalk down the street from her restaurant, and police initially investigated his death as a homicide, but they ultimately determined his cause of death to be a drug overdose.
Whatever caused the open carry policy, it garnered plenty of attention. After a local reporter published a story about the restaurant’s gun-toting waiters, CNN and Nightline sent cameras. “Almost all the waitresses pack heat, publicly and proudly,” Nightline anchor Dan Abrams explained in 2014, adding incredulously, “They say it makes them safer.” Boebert claimed her policy was unremarkable: “It is a very common thing here,” she said. “We see people open-carrying all the time.”
Former Shooters employees tell me that, in the early years of Boebert’s fame, people visited the restaurant from across the country, and that the dining room was often packed with tourists on summer days. But they also say that the reality of working at Shooters was far removed from the lighthearted atmosphere shown on TV.
In fact, five former Shooters employees tell me that Boebert frequently failed to pay her employees on time. (Two of the former workers wished to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation; another did not want to be named and publicly associated with Boebert.) “The second the restaurant blew up, her head blew up, and it became something entirely different,” one former waitress says. “And I got to meet a new version of her that is a monster.”
Multiple employees say that they were paid in cash, either out of the register or from Boebert’s husband’s wallet, without any taxes deducted. While many workers were struggling to make ends meet, they say Boebert spent exorbitant sums on breast implants, private schooling for her sons, and a new Cadillac Escalade. They describe her as alternately absent, showing up only when news crews were at the restaurant, or demanding. “If she would come into the restaurant,” one former employee tells me, “everyone just knew we were just gonna have a bad day, because she would just walk around and nitpick.”
Boebert insisted in her television appearances that gun safety was paramount, telling CNN, “There’s no accidents that are gonna happen…There’s no reason a waitress is ever allowed to unholster.” Most workers describe Boebert as consistently safe with guns. Still, one worker says safety was “not how it was perceived on TV.” Another claims that Boebert pointed a loaded gun at him when he said that he would have voted for Obama for a third term. “She would tell it like a joke,” he tells me. “She thought it was hilarious.”
Boebert’s employees say they helped out at her other enterprises, which included a catering service for visitors at the local airport and a now-shuttered restaurant called Smokehouse 1776. Food safety in Boebert’s emerging restaurant empire was not always flawless. Many workers vividly recall the day in 2017 when 80 attendees at a local rodeo catered by Smokehouse 1776 came down with nausea and diarrhea. A report from the county health department determined the cause to be food poisoning from pork sliders sold at an unlicensed mobile stand and likely stored at an improper temperature. Instead of owning up to the accident and apologizing to the community, Boebert lashed out at her critics, publishing an op-ed in the local paper saying the stool samples had been “improperly handled” and suggesting that “the level of filth that was on the grandstands at the fairgrounds” was somehow to blame. “I am sorry so many people have been misled by bits and pieces of stories that were released in an excitement to create some sort of ‘news’ in our uneventful area,” she wrote. Josh Boyington, a former cook, puts it more bluntly: “They poisoned the whole town.”
Still, it wasn’t all bad. Boebert frequently employed previously incarcerated workers, and she could be generous with her money, in one instance buying a former worker a $3,000 car. One worker, Mac Mcglaughn, says that Boebert bailed him out of jail, put him up in a hotel room, and paid him out of the till. “There wasn’t anything really set as far as structure as far as pay,” he says, “but I greatly appreciate what she’s done for me.”
Workers say that once Trump became president, Boebert increasingly intertwined her political views with the restaurant. In 2019, Boebert attended a Beto O’Rourke presidential campaign event in Aurora, responding to the candidate’s proposal to take away assault rifles with, “Hell no, you’re not.” “When she went to confront Beto O’Rourke, that’s when she started selling T-shirts and stuff,” one waitress says, “and then so we lost a lot of our customers.” Boyington says that her focus turned to social media popularity. “She was running that business into the ground with all her speeches on Facebook Live,” he says.
Employees tell me they believed that Boebert’s husband, who works as a consultant in the oil and gas industry, was keeping the company afloat. “There were times when we were waiting for him to get his check, so that way she could get us our check,” one former employee says. According to Boyington, “He’s the one who paid the rent, all the bills, everything.”
“Shooters don’t make no money,” Boyington, who says he left the restaurant in 2017, tells me. “I left because I don’t even think we were topping $500 a day.” According to Boebert’s congressional disclosures, Shooters lost $143,000 in 2019 and $226,000 in 2020.
Reached for comment by phone, the congresswoman said, “Who’s this?” When I told her I was a reporter for Mother Jones, she hung up.
In the 2020 congressional primary, Boebert was up against Scott Tipton, an incumbent Republican who had represented the district since 2011. He may have had Trump’s endorsement, but he was also a disengaged sexagenarian. “I don’t think he was even aware that there was a large faction of the party that was dissatisfied with him,” Seth Masket, a political scientist and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, tells me.
And Boebert had something that Tipton didn’t: personality. “She was good at identifying the kind of Trumpist wing of the party in that district, seeing that there was a segment of the party that wanted something more bombastic, more anti-institution, anti-establishment than Representative Tipton was delivering,” Masket says. As Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis, who represented the district as a Republican from 1993 to 2005, put it to Colorado Public Radio, “Spunk is a pretty deadly weapon.”
Boebert staked her candidacy on two things: gun rights and an end to pandemic restrictions. Both were intertwined with the Shooters brand. On May 9, 2020, Boebert defied state and county bans on in-person dining and opened her restaurant to the public. According to the county, the local government issued a cease-and-desist order requiring her to switch to takeout-only service, and, when she didn’t comply, served a temporary restraining order forcing her to close her dining room. The day after, Boebert moved a set of tables outside, tweeting, “This morning I decided to open on the city street because my employees still need paychecks. I will not back down!” In response, county officials suspended her restaurant license. (The irony of her tweet was not lost on one employee, who texted me, “Never cared about her employees getting paid before!”)
That showdown was a little over a month before the June 30 primary election, but it didn’t seem to faze voters, who turned out in record numbers for the primary. “I am not surprised that she has ruffled feathers, but I actually like it,” a supporter explained to a local paper. “She says what she thinks.” Many were also struggling with the immediate economic impact of the pandemic. During that first chaotic pandemic summer, Boebert defeated Tipton by nine points.
After Boebert won the primary, opposition researchers uncovered a series of low-level run-ins she’d had with the law. In 2010, she received a citation for allowing her pit bulls to run around outside, threatening a neighbor’s dog. In 2015, she was arrested for disorderly conduct for trying to prevent police from arresting underage drinkers at a country concert. She said they hadn’t been read their Miranda rights. (One worker told me that she stepped in because they were her employees.) She twice failed to show up in court, but the charge was eventually dropped. In 2016, she was issued a summons for careless driving, and she was charged with a misdemeanor in 2017 after failing to appear in court. And she’s been cited for numerous traffic offenses, from failure to use proper child restraints to driving without a seatbelt and speeding.
But these revelations only seemed to help Boebert, who used them as fodder for her attacks on the “fake news media.” When a PAC called Rural Colorado United started erecting billboards with Boebert’s mugshot from her arrest for missing a court appearance, Boebert shot back by claiming that the mugshot pertained to a parking violation (it didn’t) and joking, “I even got a pretty mugshot out of it.” She began branding herself as a right-wing counterpart to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who also left a job in the food service industry to unseat an older, entrenched, white, male congressman. But unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Boebert wasn’t a shoo-in during the general election, and she had to campaign aggressively to ensure that her district didn’t vote Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush into office.
Bush might have had a shot if it weren’t for the pandemic. At 70, she was at higher risk for severe illness from Covid, and she engaged with the district mostly through virtual events. Boebert, on the other hand, held in-person gatherings, zigzagging across the district to appear at cookouts and rallies with her signature high heels and a gun on her hip.
In the end, Boebert won with a six-point lead in the general election—though not, as Masket notes, nearly as wide a margin of victory as Tipton typically enjoyed. “It’s possible that her rhetoric was alienating some voters,” he says, “but it was not enough to cost her the seat.”
In DC, emboldened by Trumpism, Boebert doubled down. She played up her outrageous behavior, to the delight of Fox News and OAN. She refused to have her bag searched after setting off a metal detector while entering the Capitol. She sponsored bills to ban mask mandates and to impeach Joe Biden. And, unlike some of the other more infamous MAGA world representatives in her freshman class, she has managed to not say anything so scandalous (Jewish space laser, cocaine orgies) that top Republicans need to seriously reprimand her. She continues to hold a spot on the Natural Resources Committee, despite her husband making nearly half a million dollars a year as a consultant for an energy firm—a conflict she failed to disclose until last summer.
The Boebert supporters I’ve spoken with seem unbothered by her inflammatory presence on the national stage. One small-dollar donor told me that she fights for “American rights, not liberal crap.” Bring up examples of her more ludicrous behavior, and people point to progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), whom they see as just as obtuse, but on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Referring to Democrats, McInnis, the former congressman, says, “They’re not saying anything about the radicals or some of the people that they are dealing with on their side. And so I don’t think Lauren’s being radical at all. You know, you got to speak up if you want to be heard.”
The high percentage of unaffiliated voters in Boebert’s district lends a degree of unpredictability to the upcoming election, but the tea leaves seem to read in her favor. Boebert supporters, unsurprisingly, are confident that Boebert is not a fluke, but the future. “I think she’s going to become a very powerful member of the US Congress,” McInnis says. Or, as the donor who denounced “liberal crap” tells me, “Maybe she’ll be president someday.”
Still, two former Shooters employees point out that Boebert did not win her home county, Garfield County. “It blows my mind she was able to get elected,” one worker tells me. “I’m just disillusioned with the entire system.” Boyington, the cook, says he agrees with a lot of conservative beliefs, but doesn’t think Boebert ought to be in the House of Representatives. “She’s an easy person to love if you don’t know her,” he says. “It’s just, once you get to know her, you just don’t love her.”