Bentley Rayburn hopes the third time is a charm as the retired Air Force major general challenges U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in next week’s Republican primary for the central Colorado seat Lamborn hopes to represent for a fifth term. For Lamborn, it’s another election year, another primary in the heavily Republican 5th Congressional District.
The winner of the June 24 primary faces Democrat Irv Halter, who is also a retired Air Force major general.
Rayburn has run against Lamborn twice before — in 2006, when the two were among six Republicans vying to replace the retiring U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley and in 2008, when Rayburn and Jeff Crank challenged the incumbent Lamborn — coming in third both times.
It’s the fourth time Lamborn has had to run in a primary in his five runs for the seat. Last time around, he defeated businessman and political newcomer Robert Blaha with 61 percent of the vote. He’s also easily dispatched his general election challengers each time, though Halter is raising money and talking like a serious contender.
The two Republicans squared off in a debate on Monday in Colorado Springs, where they traded barbs over which candidate is better suited to lead conservatives.
“I’m one of the most conservative members (of Congress) there is,” Lamborn said, though Rayburn countered that the incumbent has dropped the ball when it comes to the 5th CD’s military and veterans at the same time his ranking as a top conservative has also taken a dive.
“I’m glad that we could have a spirited debate,” Lamborn told The Colorado Statesman this week, calling himself “cautiously optimistic” as the primary election nears.
“I’m working real hard on the campaign every chance I get. At the same time I’m also busy here in Washington working on amendments and working on initiatives to change the law,” Lamborn said in a telephone interview as he began work on the Defense Appropriations bill as a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
On Wednesday, House Republican leaders named Lamborn, who also serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, to a conference committee tasked with resolving differences between House and Senate bills designed to fix problems with the Veterans Administration. Lamborn is one of eight House Republicans — U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican, is another — who will meet to sort out legislative language that would let vets go outside the VA medical system if they’re facing long waits in response to the scandal over treatment delays that has recently erupted.
Rayburn isn’t impressed, faulting Lamborn for failing to watch over the VA from his committee perch.
“He not only sits on the VA committee, but he sits on the oversight subcommittee,” Rayburn told The Statesman this week. “You’d think it was your responsibility to pay some attention to oversight.” He blasted Lamborn for missing a subcommittee hearing earlier this spring that looked at VA wait times.
“This problem has been around, they’ve known there was horrendous wait times,” Rayburn said. “They may not have figured out there were secret books they were cooking. But if it’s your responsibility, you need to get on it.”
Rayburn contrasted Lamborn’s record with his own as an inspector general for the Air Force. “You don’t just walk into the office and say, ‘How’s it going,’ and take whatever they say as the gospel and write your report. You dig into it.”
“There’s a lot of frustration out there with Lamborn,” Rayburn added, noting that he only jumped in the race after Republicans approached him at the El Paso County assembly and begged him to run.
The challenger also criticized Lamborn for what has been one of his campaign signatures, pointing to rankings by national groups and media outlets that have pegged the incumbent as among the most conservative lawmakers in Washington.
“His central thing is that he’s the most conservative guy around,” Rayburn told The Statesman. “The problem is, as he’s gone on in the House, he’s drifted further and further away.”
It’s the same problem that led to the stunning upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a little-known and underfunded challenger in a primary earlier this month, Rayburn said.
Cantor, who attended a Lamborn fundraiser a month ago in Denver, “is one of these entrenched Washington guys,” Rayburn said. “He came out to raise money for Lamborn in the middle of a Republican primary. I suppose he’s doing that for payback because Lamborn’s voted right as far as Cantor’s concerned on some key bills.”
Cantor’s Republican opponent, college professor David Brat, “was pounding on that people go to Washington and get entrenched and forget they’re supposed to be doing the people’s business,” Rayburn said, likening the Virginia GOP stalwart to Lamborn. In particular, he noted, Brat hit Cantor hard over his willingness to compromise with Democrats on immigration, branding his stance as supportive of “amnesty.”
“I do not support amnesty of any kind, and I never have,” Lamborn wrote in a Facebook post the morning after Cantor’s defeat stunned the political world. He added, “I will oppose any amnesty, to any person, of any age, that is not going through our legal immigration process,” and cited votes against the DREAM Act and his support to rewrite the 14th Amendment “to end birthright citizenship.”
Crank, a radio host in Colorado Springs, surprised many by endorsing Lamborn this go-around, citing his consistent voting pattern and qualms Crank said he has with Rayburn’s “character.”
“While I haven’t always agreed with Doug Lamborn on every issue or decision, Doug has voted the right way while in Congress on the most critical issues that face our country,” Crank wrote in a letter to Republican delegates to the district assembly in April. “He has stood firm against increasing debt on future generations and he has voted against wasteful government spending.” Lamborn has stood firm against Obamacare and other attempts to expand “the nanny state,” Crank continued. “There can be no doubt Doug Lamborn has been a reasonably solid vote on these issues.”
While he declined to go into detail, Crank added, “I’ll simply say that I don’t believe Bentley Rayburn possesses the character to serve in elected office.”
Rayburn apologized in 2009 — and again at Monday’s debate — for lifting passages of a speech by a former U.N. ambassador without attribution. Rayburn and Crank also argued over whether Rayburn should have stepped aside in the 2008 primary after they agreed that whoever polled better should be the one to take on Lamborn.
Following Monday’s debate, Halter said the exchange displayed the reason 5th CD voters are ready for a change.
“I was in the Air Force for 32 years, and I was a Republican even longer,” Halter said in a statement. “Tonight’s debate was a great example of why many are turned off by extreme party politics — both Doug Lamborn and Bentley Rayburn spent much of the night squabbling about which one of them is the most out of the mainstream. It’s exactly the sort of extreme partisanship that is tearing this country apart. I’m the only candidate running for Congress on a mainstream, moderate platform. I’m willing to stand up to others in my party by supporting the Keystone Pipeline and Second Amendment rights, and as our congressman, I’ll be a truly independent voice that doesn’t just stick to the party line.”