U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn easily rebuffed a well-funded primary challenge from fellow Republican Robert Blaha on Tuesday, trouncing the political newcomer with 61.7 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican 5th Congressional District.
Because Democrats aren’t fielding a candidate in the general election, the primary win — his third in four elections — is tantamount to a ticket back to Washington for Lamborn, who regularly tops rankings of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress.
“I didn’t know what the final margin would be. I knew all along that I would prevail,” Lamborn told The Colorado Statesman after the polls closed. “Not that I was being presumptuous,” he added, “but because all I had to do was have sufficient resources to get my message out, and I did.”
A complete vote count was delayed until Thursday after El Paso County officials were forced to evacuate a ballot-counting facility in the path of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which roared into residential neighborhoods on the west side of Colorado Springs on Tuesday afternoon. The preliminary totals, however, included the vast majority of mail ballots cast in the five-county district — also encompassing Chaffee, Fremont, Park and Teller counties — and the initial margin proved to be within a point or two of the final results.
Including the totals released by El Paso County officials on Thursday, Lamborn received 43,709 votes, or 61.7 percent, and Blaha got 27,159 votes, or 38.3 percent.
Both candidates cut short election-night watch parties in downtown Colorado Springs, which was choked with heavy smoke from the nearby fire, and both campaigns reported that key staffers and volunteers had been among those evacuated earlier that day.
Lamborn said the concurrent crisis cast a “bittersweet and subdued” pall over the night’s celebration.
“That tempers everything here,” he said. “Our hearts are going out and our thoughts and prayers are going out to those who have been hurt.”
Blaha waged a spirited campaign against the three-term incumbent, spending in the neighborhood of $1 million to plaster the airwaves with television and radio ads that charged Lamborn was an ineffective voice for one of most conservative districts in the country. While the two agreed on most issues — though Blaha backs term limits for federal lawmakers and blasts Congress for exempting itself from rules that apply elsewhere — Blaha maintained that 5th CD residents deserved “a voice, not just a vote.”
Pointing to a string of incidents that have drawn ridicule to Lamborn — including an apology to President Obama after referring to him as a “tar baby” and Lamborn’s decision to skip the State of the Union speech this year — Blaha asked voters to give him a chance at the bully pulpit.
Lamborn reminded voters that he was as conservative as they come and fired back at Blaha’s business bona fides, attacking his stewardship of a bank he co-founded and raising questions about spending by a national boxing organization while Blaha served on its board.
Blaha attempted to counter the volleys by listing media reports that labeled Lamborn’s attacks as “deceptive” and poured on his own advertising with more jabs of his own.
But in the end, Republican primary voters didn’t buy it and returned their congressman for another term by a wide margin.
Blaha reported spending $804,794 through June 6, including 731,208 in loans to his own campaign. Lamborn spent $590,556 through the same period and loaned himself $15,000.
“What I had to do was remind people what I had done and what I stand for,” Lamborn told The Statesman. “At that point, it doesn’t matter how much money he spent. He spent a million dollars. He could have spent another million dollars, it would not have made any difference.”
The day after the election, Blaha told The Statesman that the results had taken him by surprise.
“We thought we were in very good shape going in. We didn’t wind up near where we thought we were going to. It’s a great example of the power of incumbency and the permanent political class and their expertise at getting reelected,” he said, adding that he called Lamborn to congratulate him on Tuesday night.
Still, Blaha said the thumping wasn’t enough to push him out of politics.
“We’re not done with this,” he said. “This is a message that needs to go further than it has.”
Asked whether Blaha had raised any valid criticisms during the scorching campaign, Lamborn chuckled briefly and then turned serious.
“I think a lot of his accusations were off-target, and they did not resonate with the voters, and that’s obvious from the results,” he said. “But I have never claimed to be a perfect person, I can always learn to do a better job. That’s the beauty of the American system, where competition makes you better. So I’m going to come out of this stronger and better, and where I can learn from my experiences, I’m happy to do so.”
Blaha said he intended to take a few days off and then perform an “exhaustive” analysis of his campaign and why it turned out the way it did.
“What you normally do with business things is the same thing we’ll do with this,” he said, adding that he didn’t have a single negative thing to say about his experience as a congressional candidate.
“We had the opportunity — we got up every day, we worked long, long hours, we met literally hundreds of great people. At the end of the day, it was probably what we expected,” Blaha said, adding that “some of it, viscerally, was more intense than what is permitted in business.”
But he didn’t linger more than an instant on a less-than-sanguine take.
“It was a great opportunity,” he said. “America is still the land where you have an opportunity, every day, to get up and make a difference.”