Lamborn fends off challengers

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

COLORADO SPRINGS — U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn hurdled anti-incumbent sentiment and captured 45 percent of the vote to win the 5th Congressional District primary against Republican challengers Jeff Crank and Bentley Rayburn.

Lamborn’s triumph appeared to validate the prediction made by Rayburn and others that two challengers would split the votes of Lamborn’s GOP detractors and deliver victory to the incumbent in the Aug. 12 primary.

The lost opportunity to wage a one-on-one campaign weighed heavily on the hearts of Crank supporters gathered at Cowboy’s on Tejon Street. Eyes watered and stray tears trickled down cheeks as Crank delivered his concession and thank-you speech to more than 100 supporters.

Rayburn’s fans mingled at a cocktail party in a luxurious model home at the base of Cheyenne Mountain, which houses NORAD. About 10 minutes after the polls closed, most seemed blissfully unaware that results already showed Lamborn with a decisive victory.

Lamborn, surrounded by beaming and boisterous fans at Giuseppe’s Depot Restaurant, counted his blessings as he welcomed a call around 8 p.m. from Crank, who conceded the race and pledged his support.

More than two hours later, Rayburn finally conceded.

Lamborn, whose decision to petition onto the primary ballot marked the beginning of an unorthodox GOP campaign, said he was aware of the “anti-incumbent mood.”

“Experts said, ‘you should be concerned.’ I think it was partly an anti-Washington feeling,” said Lamborn, adding that his conservative voting record against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s agenda answered the concerns of most GOP voters.

“I didn’t have much time to campaign in the district because of my schedule in Washington,” Lamborn said. “Credit goes to a great group of committed volunteers who helped me. I am pleasantly surprised by the election results.”

Crank campaign consultant Alan Philp attributed Lamborn’s victory to the incumbent’s expensive television and radio ad blitz, which pummeled Crank and promoted Rayburn. Philp also noted that Lamborn avoided debates and promoted himself through a year of franked mailings that promoted the congressman.

Lamborn’s campaign also received an invaluable gift in June, when Rayburn backed out of a signed agreement to withdraw from the race if a poll showed him to be the weaker of Lamborn’s two challengers. When the poll showed Crank to be the stronger challenger, Rayburn maintained it was flawed.

Rayburn had said a year earlier that “in a three-way race, Doug Lamborn wins … we gotta come to the understanding that this needs to be a two-man race. If I’m the weakest candidate, I’m not going to be the guy responsible for getting Doug Lamborn re-elected.”

His refusal to honor the deal wasn’t overlooked by D.C.’s Roll Call newspaper.

“Should freshman Rep. Doug Lamborn, (R-Colo.), survive his Aug. 12 primary, he might want to send a thank-you note to retired Air Force officer Bentley Rayburn, one of his two GOP opponents,” advised the reporter on July 30.

Having survived, Lamborn is now planning to debate his Democratic challenger, Hal Bidlack, in the final lap to the general election.

“He can play Alexander Hamilton, and I’ll be Aaron Burr,” said Lamborn with a wry grin.

Lamborn was alluding to a side job for Bidlack, a retired Air Force officer: portraying Hamilton for audiences throughout the country.

In 1804, Burr took umbrage to a remark made by Hamilton during a dinner party and challenged him to a duel. Hamilton was mortally wounded. Although Burr was acquitted of the murder charge, his political career was finished.

Lamborn says he is eager to debate Bidlack.

“There are many major and obvious differences on the issues between myself and my Democrat opponent,” Lamborn said. “I enjoy trying to persuade unaffiliated voters to my positions.”

He said it wouldn’t have been productive to match wits with Crank and Rayburn, however, because there was no substantial difference in the trio’s political positions. Crank and Rayburn disagreed.

Reading the primary election fine print

In the district, which comprises El Paso County and rural communities in Chaffee, Fremont, Lake, Park and Teller counties, Lamborn captured 45 percent of vote, Crank received 29 percent, and Rayburn trailed with 26 percent.

Both Crank and Rayburn ran against Lamborn in a six-way primary in 2006. Then, Lamborn won with 27 percent of the vote, edging out Crank by 892 votes.

Republicans recall a divisive and bitter battle in 2006, and many claimed Lamborn’s victory was fueled by dirty campaign tactics. That might explain the anti-incumbent sentiment in this primary election and suggest why Lamborn won less than 50 percent of the vote in all but two
counties.

Had Lamborn faced one Republican challenger, it would not have threatened his re-election bid in either Fremont County, where he won 60.4 percent of the vote, or Park County, which rendered 54.4 percent.

The incumbent would have been more vulnerable in the remaining counties. Lamborn won only 38.3 percent of the votes in Teller County, 41.7 percent in Lake County, and 44.3 percent in El Paso County.

Lamborn lost Chaffee County to Crank, who received 44.2 percent of the vote. The county is home to Crank campaign press secretary Amber O’Connor Glus, the daughter of Nancy O’Connor, who served as county GOP chair for many years.

Crank placed second in the remaining five counties in CD 5.

Rayburn lagged in every county, with votes ranging from 11.4 percent in Park County to 28.7 percent in Teller County, where, as a child, he spent summers on a ranch owned by the Rayburn family trust.

“Lamborn spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads in the remaining three weeks of the campaign,” said Philp, adding that the television market reached all the counties in CD 5.

The ads attacked Crank for having been a lobbyist and alleged that he gained several hundred thousand dollars pushing earmarks — a practice opposed by Crank during his campaign. The only correct assertion in the ad was that Crank had been a registered federal lobbyist.

“The Crank campaign couldn’t counter the attack because it didn’t have the money,” Philp said.

After it was clear that Rayburn would not withdraw from the race in June — despite having agreed to do so — Crank’s funding dried up.

“It was too risky,” Philp said, adding that contributors knew that a three-way race between Rayburn, Crank and Lamborn favored the incumbent congressman.

Added to that drawback, Philp said Rayburn got a boost in Lamborn’s radio ad that shocked listeners with the question, “Why is Jeff Crank lying about Congressman Lamborn and Bentley Rayburn?”

Lamborn’s ad never identified the alleged falsehood. What it did do, said Philp, was boost Rayburn’s name recognition. Others said it created an impression that Crank was guilty of dirty campaign attacks against Lamborn and Rayburn.

Did the Lamborn campaign pay high dollars to pump Rayburn’s name in the race in order to shave votes off Crank, who was perceived as their biggest threat?

“We invested serious money,” said Lamborn of the radio television ads, particularly the one that blasted Crank during television coverage of the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

As for the question of the ads pumping votes for Rayburn to deflate Crank’s support, Lamborn said, “That’s a better question for my media strategists. I’d rather not divulge that info.”

There were charges of lying on all sides. Rayburn claimed to be above the fray, but that wasn’t true. His campaign acknowledged sabotaging the Crank campaign’s Web site, and people known to be on Rayburn’s staff hammered Crank on political blogs night after night.

In a silly stunt during the campaign’s final hours, witnesses saw Rayburn campaign manager Mike Hesse posting Rayburn signs around Crank’s campaign headquarters. Hesse also orchestrated a procession of cars plastered with Rayburn campaign placards that rode through downtown Colorado Springs.

Though Lamborn was accused of sleazy campaign tactics in 2006, the publicity surrounding skirmishes between the Rayburn and Crank campaigns might have elevated Lamborn above the fray in the eyes of voters.

On election night, Rayburn lauded his campaign manager and staff for their efforts in the primary.

The following day, folks wondered if Rayburn would have been better served by having had political advisers and consultants rather than relying on Hesse. Rayburn was the lone GOP candidate who, rather than using additional consultants, relied almost solely on his campaign manager, who was paid more than $8,000 monthly.

“It’s a mistake to solely rely on the advice of a campaign manager whose sole income is derived from the campaign,” said Steve Durham, a lobbyist and former state senator from Colorado Springs. “You need a campaign adviser who has no financial stake in the campaign. It’s deadly to rely on the advice of someone who is financially dependent on the campaign.”

Regardless of the advice Rayburn received from Hesse, the candidate chose to lend his campaign more than $90,000 to keep the campaign afloat. And perhaps that says much about the passion of politics.

Rayburn and Hesse did not return calls for comments.

Classy exits

Less than an hour after the first election results were posted, Crank stood with his wife, Lisa, son, Joel, and daughter, Jessica, on a stage erected at Cowboy’s, a western nightclub in Colorado Springs.

With tears in his eyes, Crank presented a bouquet of flowers to his most stalwart supporter, his wife. After embracing her, he delivered an emotionally difficult concession speech.

“It is time for us to give a round of applause to Doug,” Crank said. “This is his night, and we need to unite behind him.”

Crank thanked his campaign staff, consultants and volunteers, saying, “I want each of you to know that our campaign did make a difference.”

In the final 48 hours of the campaign, Crank’s volunteers had made more than 20,000 phone calls to turn out the vote and offer rides to the precinct polls.

“I hope that all three candidates in this race — their staffs and volunteers included — will come together now to help elect Doug, John McCain and Bob Schaffer.”

At that moment, it was tough for his campaign volunteers and supporters to embrace Crank’s ideas.

Within minutes, Crank arrived at Lamborn’s celebration to congratulate and pledge his support to the incumbent.

After waiting for the returns from the five rural counties in the district, Rayburn called Lamborn to concede the race. His next call was to KVOR radio, extolling the marvelous efforts of his campaign staff and pledging to unite the El Paso County GOP.

Well after 10:30 p.m., Rayburn arrived at Lamborn’s campaign celebration, where he ceded the race and congratulated Lamborn.

Crank ruled out any future efforts to challenge Lamborn in CD 5. Rayburn also said he wouldn’t challenge Lamborn, but said he might consider other political races in Colorado.

The candidates agreed to join Lamborn at a Unity Rally, sponsored by El Paso County GOP, on Aug. 23 at the Flying W Ranch, here. The next goal is healing the wounds and uniting the party to turn out Republicans in the general election in support of former Congressman Schaffer for U.S. Senate and Arizona Sen. McCain for president.

That might prove difficult, considering that the incumbent didn’t get the majority of the votes cast in the primary.