Department

Politics: Under Fire

Congressman Doug Lamborn is untouched by scandal and has impeccable conservative credentials. So why do so many Colorado Springs Republicans want to see him go?

August 2008

On a crisp May morning, the Safeway-size expo hall in Colorado Springs hums, a flea market of Second Amendment Americana. Several hundred people at the Sertoma Gun Show wander through folding tables stacked with firearms: old-time gamblers' derringers, 9mm handguns, 12-gauge shotguns, and .306 hunting rifles. Cardboard boxes of rifle casings, some empty, some full, dot every third table. There's a BB gun that looks like an Uzi and large, World War II propaganda posters decrying the German and Japanese enemies. One vendor is even hawking an AR-15—the slightly less lethal civilian cousin of the M-16.

Amid the swirling crowds stands Doug Lamborn, the ultra-conservative Congressman from Colorado Springs, here to campaign for his upcoming primary battle. Wearing a navy blazer and brown cargo pants, he stands out among the flannel shirts, jeans, and bolo ties. He browses the tables awkwardly, randomly picking up empty rifle casings or peering at handguns through display glass. He tries to talk to a few gun sellers, but many of them are busy with actual customers, so he hovers like a shy high school boy waiting to ask a girl to dance.

When he finally gets his chance, the words spill out. "Hi, I'm Doug Lamborn," he says. "I'm the congressman here in the 5th District." The sellers eye him suspiciously and offer little more than a hello. Lamborn moves on. When he finds someone more agreeable—or better yet, someone who recognizes him—he makes relieved small talk about taxes, gas prices, and the Second Amendment. Lamborn reminds the attendees of his anti-tax stance and support from the National Rifle Association. He encourages the registered Republicans to visit his booth and sign his petition for inclusion on the August ballot, an unusual—and, one imagines, humbling—request from an incumbent.

It's a week after Barack Obama made his ill-advised comments on blue-collar Pennsylvanians, and the gaffe sits heavy on the minds of the gun show attendees. A large, mustachioed vendor gestures toward the men and women buying weapons and ammunition: "This is Obama's bitter world." Lamborn chuckles, happy for the jab—and the respite. Obama is the enemy here. But in a strange, unexpected way, Lamborn has become the enemy—of his own party.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. By 2006, Lamborn had served 12 proud economically and socially conservative years in the state legislature. So when Joel Hefley, a popular 10-term congressman, decided to retire from his seat in the 5th Congressional District, Lamborn ran to replace him. Barring a major scandal, getting elected meant Lamborn probably would have a seat for life. The 5th is one of the most conservative districts in the United States, an area where a Democrat has never been elected since the district's creation in 1972, Republicans outnumber Democrats by two to one, and in 2004 George W. Bush won 66 percent of the vote.

The potential for congressional job security enticed six Republicans, including Lamborn, to run for Hefley's seat. Among the competition: Colorado Springs mayor Lionel Rivera and Jeff Crank, a former Hefley aide and the head of the city's chamber of commerce. Crank was the favorite of the GOP establishment, with endorsements and money from Hefley and oilman Bruce Benson.

The newer and more radical wings of the Republican Party backed Lamborn—and fought dirty throughout the election. The Club for Growth PAC, a powerful anti-tax group that targets moderate Republicans in primaries, endorsed Lamborn and spent about $86,000 to paint his opponents as tax-hikers.

Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition of Colorado—run by the brother of Lamborn's then campaign manager—sent mailings claiming that Crank and Rivera were members of a "radical homosexual lobby." Lamborn denied any connection to the mailings, but he didn't denounce them. He eked out a victory with a 27 percent plurality, just ahead of Crank's 25 percent. Bentley Rayburn, a former Air Force major general, finished third with 17 percent.

Lamborn crushed Democrat Jay Fawcett in the general election yet failed to make amends with his Republican opponents or their supporters. Hefley denounced Lamborn's campaign as "dishonest" and "sleazy" and refused to endorse him. "Ordinarily, I would get behind whoever wins the primary," Hefley says. "But I determined I wasn't going to support any more Republicans that ran those kind of races."

The wounds are still festering; state GOP chair Dick Wadhams says he expects another battle in this year's Republican primary. "After the election [in 2006], you didn't get the sense that the fight was over with," he says. "[This is] a fight that has to go through one more election cycle. It's just a family feud that has to play itself out, and when someone emerges as the victor on August 12 the party will move on."

Two hours before Lamborn arrived at the Sertoma Gun Show, Jeff Crank strolled around the hall introducing himself to sellers and shoppers. Wearing green plants and a plaid shirt, Crank moved easily through the room, breaking into a boyish grin whenever he recognized someone.

Crank and Bentley Rayburn are eager for another shot at Lamborn and have ramped up their campaigns this year. Rayburn has hired Mike Hesse, the former state GOP executive director in the mid-'90s and a former chief of staff for Congressman Scott McInnis. Crank brought in campaign manager Alan Philp, a political veteran and the former director of the Trailhead Group, a 527 organization funded by GOP rainmakers such as Benson, Coors, and former governor Bill Owens.

Still, Crank and Rayburn are in an unenviable position: trying to out-Republican the most right-leaning member of Congress in one of the most conservative districts in the country. During his freshman term, Lamborn voted with Republicans 99.2 percent of the time—making him the most partisan member on either side of the aisle. Accordingly, he received a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, and the National Journal named him the most Republican member of Congress, all credentials Lamborn eagerly points out. "All that shows," he says, "is that my opponents have little to no reason to remove me from office."

Hefley disagrees. "To just be a knee-jerk conservative, and never vote different than what the right-wing groups would want you to vote, tells me that you're not thinking much," he says. "Are you trying to solve problems? We send you there to solve problems."

The difference Crank and Rayburn say they would make is with their leadership, which they'd demonstrate by raising money and recruiting younger Republicans for entry-level political positions. "It's not enough to just go and vote right," Crank says. "Our problem as a party is that we just send people to Washington and expect them to vote. We don't expect them to lead."

Rayburn concurs. At a tiny diner in Colorado Springs, he tells a constituent, "Doug's a nice guy, but his staff is the largest thing he's ever run." Rayburn points out that during his 31 years in the military he managed a $17.2 billion budget at the Air Combat Command, and he served as president of the Air War College for two years. "When you're in the minority party," he says, "sitting and voting 'no' isn't enough."

Then there are Lamborn's missteps. He spent $135,606 on "franking," sending taxpayer­-funded mailings that informed constituent's of his recent work. It's a common practice, but Lamborn spent almost twice as much on it as any other Colorado representative. He also became embroiled in a public spat after the small community newspaper Woodmen Edition published a constituents' letter criticizing Lamborn for accepting money from gambling interests and opposing a law strengthening dog-fighting penalties. Lamborn left two voicemails for the letter writers, warning of "consequences" if the issue wasn't resolved immediately. He later apologized, but the damage was done.

His biggest mistake, however, was his stubborn failure to acknowledge a looming defeat. In June 2007 the House voted whether to expand the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, a tank warfare training area for Fort Carson troops. The Army wanted to triple the size of the training grounds and needed approval to launch an environmental impact study. Many Colorado Springs residents were in favor of the expansion— which would base more troops in Fort Carson—because more troops would mean a bigger local economy.

There were two problems: Local ranchers feared the government would steal their land via eminent domain, and it wasn't in Lamborn's district—Piñon Canyon is part of the 3rd and 4th districts, represented by Democrat John Salazar and Republican Marilyn Musgrave. Salazar and Musgrave banded together to block the funding for the environmental study, preventing the Army from expanding the site. Lamborn, the lone Colorado congressman pushing for the site, wound up on the losing end of an embarrassing vote: 383-34.

Lamborn remains unrepentant about the loss, citing his other military-related accomplishments: Securing a coveted seat on the House Armed Services Committee and receiving approval for a new veterans' cemetery near Colorado Springs. "I've done more on [the cemetery issue] in 14 months," he says, "than Joel Hefley did in 20 years."

Back at the gun show, Lamborn is getting exasperated. He has to wrangle 1,000 Republican signatures to get on the primary ballot, and, like it or not, he needs the attendees' help. This humbling exercise is unprecedented in Colorado; most incumbents sail through ratification at the party's district assembly, held three months before the primary. Lamborn claims he didn't have enough time to court the assembly vote; others say it reveals his dearth of support.

Lamborn has hired Robin Coran, a campaign manager whose political experience consists of serving on Fountain's city planning commission and as a state GOP delegate. Lamborn has declined to debate Crank and Rayburn, both of whom have been racking up endorsements from local political, military, and business leaders. More precariously, Lamborn's fund-raising operation is floundering: He's raised substantially less than other Colorado congressional incumbents and was out-fund-raised by Crank in the first quarter of 2008 and by Rayburn in the last quarter of 2007. Lamborn will get a financial boost from the Club for Growth—which has endorsed him again—and from his ties to the Christian community. Lacking strong support from the local party, though, Lamborn can only hope that his name recognition will carry him to reelection.

Even amid all the red flags, he has a good shot. Early in the race there had been talk of the weaker Republican challenger, Crank or Rayburn, throwing his support to the stronger one in order to topple Lamborn. In late May, the two men agreed to a jointly conducted poll, which showed that Crank held a double-digit advantage over Rayburn. Despite the agreement, Rayburn reneged after he claimed the poll hadn't been conducted properly. As the primary approaches, it's clear that neither candidate plans to exit. If the Crank and Rayburn votes cancel each other out, Lamborn could pull out a win yet again, setting up a potentially one-sided general election race against Democrat Hal Bidlack. All of which would mean that Mr. Lamborn, bruised and unliked as he might be, would once again be going to Washington.