One handed over hot dog buns and the other dished up baked beans.
Clad in patriotic aprons, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a three-term incumbent, greeted hungry Republicans just feet away from his determined primary challenger, businessman Robert Blaha. They joined other local politicians who helped serve a sumptuous spread on Tuesday at the annual El Paso County Republican Women’s picnic in downtown Colorado Springs.
It was a rare joint appearance by the two candidates, who have engaged in increasingly vitriolic exchanges on the airwaves over which can best represent the overwhelmingly Republican 5th Congressional District.
As ballots in the all-mail primary start to pour in to election officials, the two candidates maintained broad smiles at the picture-perfect gathering even as their TV ads, radio commercials and campaign literature continued to blister each other in a race most observers rate as too close to call. Voting continues through June 26.
“We’re keeping up a strong effort in the media and contacting voters,” said Lamborn, adding that this primary — his third in four elections — “is not the hardest and it’s not the easiest, it’s kind of in the middle.”
“I knew all along that if someone was willing to spend a fortune trying to buy a seat in Congress, they could get some notoriety, so I took this seriously from the very beginning based on the assumption that he had money to burn,” Lamborn told The Colorado Statesman as the picnic was winding down.
And his challenger has proved Lamborn right, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into a blistering series of attack ads aimed at the incumbent. Through March, the most recent deadline for FEC filings, Blaha reported loaning his campaign $375,000 while raising an additional $60,000 from other donors. In the same period, Lamborn reported raising $365,000.
“I saw this develop in a very negative way and was sorry to see that,” Lamborn said, shaking his head and looking somewhat baffled that a political newcomer like Blaha is giving him a real run for his seat. “But I’m not going to stand idly by and let someone tear down my reputation without responding.”
Blaha came out of the gate swinging, blasting Lamborn as an ineffective representative too accustomed to congressional benefits, but has been subject to plenty of attacks in return, including Lamborn ads criticizing his business record and his history with area nonprofits.
“Some of the negativism has been a little over the top,” Blaha told The Statesman. “We did catch some breaks from some media where they actually vetted the commercials, and we’re just being vindicated every day,” he added, noting that local reports have questioned some of Lamborn’s claims.
“Literally, this congressman is just off the hook,” a bemused-looking Blaha said, shaking his head. “It’s sad, in a way, to see, but we’re out there, we’re taking the high ground, and we’re going to win this thing.”
Lamborn routinely touts his longstanding designation as the “Most Conservative Member of Congress,” as determined by the National Journal, and boasts of 100-percent and A-plus ratings based on his voting record from conservative groups including Americans for Prosperity, the American Conservative Union, Club For Growth and Open Doors USA.
But Blaha insists that a pristine voting record isn’t enough, especially in a safe Republican district, where he maintains voters should expect a fighter, not just a rubber stamp for the conservative agenda.
“We’ve got to have people who will go out and attack the Left, not just vote a certain way,” Blaha told the crowd. “We’ve got to take back from the Left what they’re trying to take from us. We’ve got to have clear, cogent arguments, and we’ve got to win the day in the court of public opinion. We can’t just hide behind votes, we’ve got to be aggressive.”
Though he continues to press his contention that Lamborn’s tenure amounts to “a vote, not a voice,” Blaha told The Statesman that his disagreements with the incumbent go beyond matters of style or effectiveness.
Blaha supports congressional term limits and would cap lawmakes to six years in office. He wants to overhaul what he calls lavish congressional perquisites and exemptions from the rules that apply to everyone else. He also touts an efficiency tool he helped develop as a way to tackle overgrown bureaucracy.
The 5th CD race is just one of a half dozen primaries on the ballot in El Paso County, where Republicans have such a commanding lead among registered voters that, in most places, a win in the primary amounts to a win in the general election. (Democrats aren’t even fielding candidates for the congressional seat or, for that matter, in seven of the 10 legislative seats on the county ballot this fall.)
The other local primaries this year include a fierce battle between incumbent state Reps. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, and Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, for a seat the two share after reapportionment; state Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, is facing a strong challenge from Owen Hill for an open Senate seat; Lois Landgraf and Albert Sweet are vying for an open House seat; and two county commissioners, Dennis Hisey and Sallie Clark, are running against challengers Auddie Cox and Karen Magistrilli, respectively.
Though it’s easy to portray the primaries as upstarts trying to unseat more establishment candidates, County Republican chairman Eli Bremer said that’s an overly simplistic view of the dynamics.
“It’s more complicated than old guard vs. new guard,” he said. “Each race is unique.” Still, he admitted that it’s a volatile political season, and suggested that the easiest prediction to make is that many predictions will turn out wrong.
“We could see some surprises,” he said. “But some of those surprises could be incumbents being retained, some of them could be newcomers getting elected. Every election there’s always surprises.”
A former state Senate colleague of Lamborn’s, Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut, a Democrat, took over last week as the special prosecutor investigating a complaint filed by a Blaha supporter who charged that one of Lamborn’s television ads violated an obscure Colorado law that makes it a crime to disparage the financial health of a bank.
The Lamborn ad attacks Blaha’s business bona fides, at one point charging that a bank he co-founded, Integrity Bank & Trust, “ranked among the worst in the region.”
Blaha points to a Denver Post analysis that finds Lamborn’s ad “leans deceptive” based on “misuse of data and playing with semantics,” but a Blaha supporter took the push-back to another level when she filed a criminal complaint against Lamborn with El Paso County District Attorney Dan May. (Because May has political connections with Lamborn, he kicked the matter to Thiebaut under a longstanding agreement between the two offices.)
The Lamborn campaign scoffed at the complaint and turned its fire back on Blaha.
“This is a baseless allegation that is going nowhere,” said a campaign spokeswoman. “Congressman Lamborn has made it clear that the poor performance of the bank under Mr. Blaha’s leadership was in the recent past, though not today.”
Although Blaha contends he had no idea a supporter planned to report the ad to authorities, the Lamborn camp wasn’t willing to let him off the hook.
“It is hardly a surprise that someone associated with the Blaha campaign is making this bogus allegation. This is yet another pathetic abuse of the process by a desperate candidate. Mr. Blaha is determined to make headlines anyway he can — with no regard for the truth,” a spokeswoman said.
The Lamborn campaign suggested Blaha was playing politics with the attacks.
“This is not the first time Mr. Blaha has abused the process. A similar, equally bogus allegation from Mr. Blaha was dismissed as groundless. This one will be, also,” the campaign official said in a statement.
She was referencing a complaint Blaha filed months ago with the congressional committee tasked with overseeing use of the franking privilege, which allows lawmakers to send mailings to constituents bearing only their signatures, instead of stamps. Blaha charged that Lamborn violated the rules by sending a mailer that served no purpose other than to boost his image as a conservative, but officials disagreed and tossed the complaint.
Saying he was “really sad to see” how the race had developed, Lamborn told The Statesman he was disappointed in the constant attacks from his opponent.
“Even before I did any ads whatsoever, he was saying very misleading and negative things. For instance, he said I was unethical and violated congressional rules on mailings, and that got thrown out for being groundless. But he never apologized, and he never admitted he was wrong, he just said that proves there’s a problem in Washington.”
This year’s earlier primary — moved to late June from early August in order to allow extra time to get general election ballots to military and overseas voters — could be a boon to Republicans taking sides in divisive primaries, Bremer suggested, because it will afford plenty of time for bruises to heal.
“There are always hard feelings that come out in a primary — it’s a family spat every single time,” he said. “But, then again, like a family spat, we always make up afterwards, and I firmly expect that in July, August, we’re going to be unified and our friends are going to drive down to House District 18 to get behind Jennifer George.”
George, who is hoping to unseat state Rep. Pete Lee, D-Manitou Springs, is one of two county Republicans embroiled in tough races this year. The other is state Rep. Mark Barker, R-Colorado Springs, facing a strong challenge from retired firefighter Tony Exum, a Democrat running in the southside swing district.
“After these contested primaries, people are going to be able to say, we all agree on Jennifer and Mark,” Bremer said, adding that nothing unites Republicans like the chance to take on Democrats.
Elections officials are anticipating between 25 and 30 percent turnout among active voters, which could result in the neighborhood of 40,000 votes on the Republican side in CD 5, or some 35,000 GOP votes in El Paso County. Through Wednesday, about a week after mail ballots were delivered to voters, the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s office reported that 22,768 Republican ballots had been returned. In addition, 6,697 Democratic ballots and 47 American Constitution Party ballots had been voted, though neither party has a contested primary in the county.
It’s the third time in four elections for the seat that Lamborn has faced a primary. in 2006, following word that U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley wouldn’t seek an 11th term, Lamborn won a six-way primary with 27 percent of the vote. The next time around, in a rematch with two of his original primary opponents, Lamborn won more handily with 45 percent of the vote. He was unopposed for the nomination in 2010.
He said he understands that voters are annoyed at politicians but disagrees that replacing himself with an unproven rookie is the answer.
Talking with voters, Lamborn said, he encounters “some that are very dissatisfied with Congress, and they have every reason to be. I am dissatisfied with Congress. I share that same frustration and anger. Most say, ‘But Lamborn, you’re doing everything we’ve asked you to do, so keep at it,’ rather than switching horses in the middle of the stream when it’s an unknown horse.”
Still, he added, “There are some — they’re a distinct minority — that say let’s throw everyone out and start over. But they are a very small minority.”
Blaha is counting on winning over enough disgruntled voters but said his own message is getting through too.
“We’ve been burning a lot of shoe leather for the last six months, and when you do that, it pays off,” Blaha said. “My grandfather used to say, if you get up early and work harder than the next guy, you get really lucky. We’ve been getting up early and working really hard, and we’re looking forward to a positive outcome.”