Rayburn loses GOP gamble

Major General welches on bet

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

COLORADO SPRINGS — Republican 5th Congressional District candidates retired Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn and Jeff Crank signed a do-or-die agreement last month setting the conditions under which the weaker of the two candidates would drop out of the primary race against Congressman Doug Lamborn.

Rayburn, who was overheard at one point saying he might settle the issue with a coin toss, signed after a year of tete-a-tetes with Crank. They had forged the agreement out of the realization that a three-way primary would almost certainly split the Republican votes and deliver a victory to the incumbent.

They agreed to stand by the results of a poll of 400 respondents scheduled to start May 27.

When the polling was complete, Crank truly believed the day of decision had arrived.

Crank held a 17-point lead over Rayburn throughout the poll.

But Rayburn denounced the deal on Monday, June 16, during an appearance on KVOR radio’s “Richard Randall Show.” The shocking revelation spurred days of heated rhetoric between the campaigns exchanged through talk radio shows and blogs.

“It is not often that people who are running for political office are willing to set aside their ambitions to sign such an agreement,” Crank told KVOR listeners.

“I prayed about it and I felt this was what God wanted me to do, sign the agreement,” said Crank, “I knew that in the end, I may have to get out of the race. Even if I did that, I would get out with my integrity and respect.”

“There is nothing I could say that would question my opponent’s integrity more than the fact that he didn’t live up to this agreement,” said Crank.

Rayburn said he backed out of the deal because “many, many things happened that weren’t in the original agreement.”

Failing to uphold the signed agreement, Rayburn lamented to radio listeners, has resulted in his “positive” campaign being “pulled down into talking and just attacking people on their character and integrity.

“My integrity has been called into question, and if there’s one thing that I’m the most concerned about and the most protective of, it is my integrity,” said Rayburn.

“I took the oath as a young cadet at the United States Air Force Academy in 1971, to not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those among us who do,” said Rayburn, reciting the military honor code for the second time on the radio show.

To detractors, it appeared that Rayburn had broken every element of that code, from having backed out of the signed agreement to stealing an opportunity to improve Crank’s chances in the primary election.

“At the start, it appeared to be an agreement between two honorable men,” said Patrick Davis, a Springs-based political consultant popular with conservatives. “In the end, it showed that Bentley Rayburn may be an officer, but he’s certainly not a gentleman.”

Crank and Rayburn had worked nearly two months with a group of businessmen to develop standards, measurements and questions in a poll that would assess each candidate’s chances against Lamborn.

The poll was created and orchestrated by Crank campaign pollster David Hill Research and Rayburn’s pollster Wilson Research Strategies. It was implemented by Western WATS in Utah, a call center that had been used previously by Wilson Research Strategies.

The agreement stated that 400 registered Republican voters would be polled from May 27 to May 29. Both campaigns requested editing changes in the final days before the polling calls were to begin.

Crank signed the agreement in the morning on May 27, allowing ample time to start the polling that evening.

Rayburn demanded more edits to the questions, and refused to sign.

On May 28, Rayburn waited to sign the agreement until 5:30 p.m., narrowing the time threshold to relay the poll questions to the call center in Utah.

Even then, it wasn’t clear whether Rayburn’s pollster would call the call center that he contracted or Crank’s pollster.

On the verge of missing two days of polling, neither Crank nor Rayburn had suggested changing the dates specified in the agreement.

“It’s unrealistic to expect the polling to be conducted on the 27th when you don’t sign the agreement until the 28th,” said Crank of Rayburn. “…I question whether he ever intended to uphold this agreement, even if it’s been done to the absolute, absolute letter of this agreement.”

The poll started May 29, and ceased the following day at the orders of the Rayburn campaign. No one knows who gave the instructions to resume the poll, which was eventually completed by June 5.

Instead of 400 voters, about 525 voters were polled. The Rayburn campaign objected to the calls made on Sunday, June 1, so those weren’t counted in the 400-count results.

“A poll of 500 will be more accurate than one of 400,” said David Hill, director of Hill Research Consultants in Texas. “In this case, the outcomes are basically the same.”

“Under no circumstances did Rayburn even come close in the poll,” said Hill, noting that Rayburn trailed Crank by double digits in every question.

“There’s no reason to think the methodology was flawed because of the dates of polling or the number polled. That’s just goofy thinking,” Hill said.

Mike Hesse, Rayburn’s campaign manager, objected to the changes in polling dates because voters may have been influenced by Crank’s media “bump” after the 5th Congressional District Assembly on May 29.

Crank’s “bump,” however, was countered by the May 28 television and newspaper coverage of Rayburn and Lamborn turning in their petitions to get on the primary ballot.

“It’s an inexperienced candidate who will give that argument of media attention,” said Hill, adding that it had no impact on the polling results. “These protestations are almost an absurdity.”

“There were businessmen in this community who spent six weeks of their time trying to negotiate this agreement,” recalled Crank, adding that “no one questioned the validity of the poll except for Bentley Rayburn’s campaign.”

Hesse said the Rayburn campaign as well as the Colorado Springs Home Builders Association, which helped facilitate the poll, didn’t want the poll released because it was, “so flawed.”

But Kevin Walker, political adviser to the Colorado Springs HBA, said, “We don’t have an opinion of the poll.”

Walker said the original agreement “structured for the poll had not been followed” by the two campaigns, their pollsters or the call center.

Don’t look, don’t tell poll

“Even if I knew what the results were, I don’t have the authority to release information because HBA owns the poll,” said Rayburn, implying that the poll was owned or controlled by the Colorado Springs HBA.

In several fast-tracked media releases, Rayburn campaign manager Hesse hammered on the message that the poll results would not be revealed because it’s owned by the HBA, and continued hammering from after Monday’s first morning talk show until a few minutes before midnight.

“While our campaign has always opposed a ‘good ol’ boys’ backroom deal, we felt that scientific polling data might provide a better indication of support among the rank-and-file Republicans in the Fifth District,” stated Hesse in a press release.

“Too often our party has allowed a small group of ‘kingmakers’ to make the candidate decisions that resulted in our party’s loss of elections on all levels,” Hesse said. “Unfortunately, the implementation of this poll was a disaster.”

Hesse told The Colorado Statesman that Rayburn hadn’t looked at the poll results because the campaign was instructed by the HBA to not open the file. Opening the poll results, he said, would be in violation of the Federal Election Commission rules.

Alan Philp, Crank's campaign manager, said that the call center, recommended by Rayburn's pollster, sent the poll results to each campaign and the HBA.

“The Crank campaign intends to pay for their part of the poll,” said Philp, adding that HBA does not own the poll.

Walker clarified, “We did not do the poll; HBA only facilitated the agreement between the two parties. We were a third party to assist in the development of this agreement.”

He speculated that the poll will be paid for by the campaigns. Some HBA members have offered to personally contribute money to the campaigns to compensate the pollsters.

However, Walker said the HBA plans to consult an attorney to clear up any questions of ownership, billings and FEC regulations.

Crank and Rayburn both have been endorsed by the Colorado Springs branch of the HBA.

Preview of the poll

The only other impediment to sharing the poll might be a gentlemen’s agreement between Crank and Rayburn to keep the poll results private at the request of the losing candidate. However, that appears moot because Rayburn backed out of the deal.

The poll consisted of more than 30 questions. In the first round, before respondents heard information about the candidates, 51 percent of the voters said they intended to vote for Lamborn. Of the remaining 49 percent, 27 percent favored Crank, 13 percent favored Rayburn, and 9 percent remained undecided.

On positive name recognition, Lamborn received a 68 percent, Crank 46 percent, and Rayburn 33 percent. Lamborn also had the highest negative name identification.

The poll revealed that Rayburn and Crank have to overcome a lack of name recognition. About 28 percent of the polled respondents said they did not recognize Crank’s name; 37 percent had never heard of Rayburn.

Lamborn was described as the incumbent Congressman and one of the most conservative members in the House of Representatives, a former member of the Colorado House and Senate and a lawyer. In the mix of positives and negatives, the poll reportedly incorporated statements about his excessive use of franking privileges and promoting earmarks.

Crank was defined as a conservative businessman, former candidate who came close to beating Lamborn in the 2006 Republican primary election, a former lobbyist, and candidate who aims to replace the IRS with a fair tax system and opposes pork barrel projects and all earmarks.

Rayburn’s distinguished military career was described, including his knowledge of the Middle East and terrorism, and the fact there are few members in Congress with military experience. It was also noted that since Rayburn moved to Colorado in 2006, he paid state income taxes in 2006 and 2007, but has never paid property taxes in Colorado.

When respondents were asked again whom they would vote for, Lamborn’s support slipped to 46 percent. Of the remaining 54 percent, 26 percent said they would vote for Crank, 15 percent for Rayburn and 13 percent remained undecided.

The polling agreement weighted results that, when averaged, gave Crank a 17-point lead over Rayburn. The agreement would have allowed both candidates to remain in the race if they polled within 4 percent of each other. The poll has a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error.

Trust, lies and e-mails

Calling the controversy over his decision to withdraw from the agreement, “brouhaha,” Rayburn told listeners on KVOR radio, “this issue really is about trust, who the public can trust to be their next congressman.”

Rayburn directly asked Crank, “Am I a liar?”

The voters will decide, said Crank, adding that he’d signed the agreement because he trusted Rayburn. “But having integrity means that you live up to an agreement.”

Rayburn said he believes that “you’re not bound by your word to uphold a promise to something you didn’t promise… you are not necessarily bound to promise things that you never promised in the first place. And that’s the way the world works.”

During this exchange on the radio, Crank and Rayburn each received an e-mail from a Colorado pollster, who offered to run another poll with a much larger voter sample. It would be an in-kind contribution to both campaigns.

Crank was receptive to the idea; Rayburn was less enthusiastic.

Related: A Reporter's view of the Rayburn Fallout