Blaha challenges incumbent Lamborn in CD 5 GOP primary

The Colorado Statesman

In an election year already crowded with primaries, the Colorado Springs Republican repeatedly ranked as the most conservative member of Congress is facing a challenge from a conservative businessman who says the constituents in the safely Republican 5th Congressional District deserve an “articulate champion” for their values.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn — first elected to Congress in 2006 after a bruising six-way primary — kicked off his bid for a fourth term on Saturday at the El Paso County Republican Party Central Committee meeting in Colorado Springs, pledging to “stand up for the conservative, Republican, and Christian values that our country was founded upon.”

A day earlier, businessman Robert Blaha announced his run and launched a television and radio ad campaign aimed at ousting Lamborn, terming the incumbent a “career politician” and an inadequate standard-bearer for the Republican cause.

Robert Blaha

“I’m running for Congress because we’re losing our country,” Blaha says in one of several television ads running in heavy rotation. It’s happening on our watch, and I won’t sit by and watch anymore.” As his wife, Susan, gazes adoringly at the candidate, Blaha adds, “We can’t fire all the career politicians this year, but we can fire one.”

The owner of Human Capital Associates, a consulting firm devoted to streamlining organizations and increasing efficiency, Blaha also serves on the board of Colorado Springs-based Integrity Bank and Trust. He called the 2012 election a “pivotal moment” in the country’s history, a realization he said hit home when he learned his fourth grandchild was on the way.

The decision to take on Lamborn, he said, was easy. “He’s voting as a conservative, but we don’t see him out there being that articulate advocate for what conservatives believe in,” said campaign spokeswoman Laura Carno.

Lamborn defended his record and scoffed at the notion an unproven newcomer was what the 5th CD needed.

Pointing to his “thousands of votes” — he’s served in elective office since winning a state House seat in 1994 — Lamborn asked fellow Republicans why anyone would want to swap his “unquestioned strong conservative record” for a blank slate.

“Why would someone want to knock off the most conservative member of Congress?” he said. (Lamborn routinely reminds voters that the National Journal has listed his voting record as the most conservative in Congress and points to similar rankings from other organizations.)

“Who is gullible enough to put their faith in campaign promises by someone without a voting record, compared to a proven Reagan conservative like me who doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk?” he asked.

For his part, Blaha argues it’s Lamborn’s lengthy voting record — and nearly two decades in office — that’s part of the problem. Pointing to the challenger’s experience “helping improve companies,” Carno said that Republican voters are hungering for a fresh approach to the nation’s ills.

“Robert is somebody who sees the state of the country we’re in and realizes that bringing home the bacon isn’t going to fix the problems we have,” she told The Colorado Statesman.

Even though Blaha “primed the pump” with a hefty donation to his own campaign — including $45,000 for an initial media buy on Colorado Springs radio and television stations — Carno said the wealthy business owner is “aggressively fundraising” and doesn’t anticipate having to sink much more into self-funding his challenge.

“Anytime you start a new business venture, you put some of your own seed capital into it to start it up,” Carno said, noting that Blaha, a newcomer to the political scene, doesn’t have the “years of donor lists that career politicians have.” She wouldn’t say how much Blaha intends to spend on the race.

Through the third quarter of 2011 — the most recent deadline for filing reports with the Federal Election Commission — Lamborn reported raising $174,000 with $214,000 cash on hand, including funds from prior campaigns. Fourth-quarter reports are due at the end of January.

Lamborn opponents in the heavily Republican district see an opening to dislodge the incumbent, who has already survived back-to-back, unusually divisive primaries. Just 47 percent of 5th CD Republicans agreed that Lamborn “deserves to be reelected,” according to a poll commissioned by Blaha’s exploratory committee late last year. Of the 632 Republican voters surveyed — 89 percent said they were “extremely likely” to vote in a primary — local polling firm Magellan Strategies reported that 34 percent want “someone new” and 19 percent had no opinion. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.89 percent.

Though he spent last Saturday courting Republican stalwarts at the GOP Central Committee meeting, Blaha plans to petition onto the primary ballot rather than attempt to get there through the caucus and assembly nomination process starting in early February.

Carno said it wasn’t Lamborn’s organizational strength deterring Blaha from the caucus route. “If we were to go through the caucus, we would want to do justice to the caucus,” she said. “To come on the scene relatively close to caucus, it doesn’t honor and respect the process delegates really are due. This is why we are most likely to petition on.” She pointed out that Lamborn himself petitioned onto the ballot, adding that “there’s nothing unusual about it” in the 5th CD.

If Blaha makes the ballot for the June 26 primary, it will be the third time in four elections that Lamborn has battled fellow Republicans for the nomination. In 2006, Lamborn faced five opponents for the chance to succeed U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, and emerged as the GOP nominee with 27 percent of the vote, less than 1,000 votes ahead of second-place finisher Jeff Crank. In a 2008 rematch with Crank and the previous primary’s next runner-up, Bentley Rayburn, Lamborn garnered 44 percent of the vote. In November elections, Lamborn has cruised to victory by increasing margins each time out, winning 66 percent of the vote in 2010.

Blaha took Lamborn to task this week for the incumbent’s latest splash in the national media — his decision to skip President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.

“A true patriot respects the office, even if not the person: Lamborn won’t attend Obama’s State of the Union,” Blaha tweeted shortly after Lamborn announced he planned to boycott the speech. “Lamborn is like a petulant child who’s holding a tantrum. He needs a time-out. A 2-year time-out,” Blaha tweeted.

It wasn’t the first time Lamborn has garnered national attention in the past year. He raised ire last summer for saying that working with President Obama was like “touching a tar baby” during a radio talk show appearance. He later apologized for his choice of words. And during last year’s congressional budget fights in Congress, Lamborn led the charge to defund National Public Radio, saying the broadcasting giant “can survive on its own.”

During his campaign announcement last weekend, Lamborn fired back at critics.

“Some may believe I am too outspoken and too conservative. Some have even opposed me because I’m not afraid to take a stand,” he said, acknowledging that “not all people agree with these actions of mine.” Still, he concluded, “I believe you who are gathered here today want a strong, conservative representative, because you have the conservative backbone that makes this party great.”

Voting the right way isn’t enough, Carno said.

“Somebody has to be an articulate champion of our message,” she said. “In a safe district like this, to not have an articulate champion who can really stand up and say we need a change in Congress and in the White House — we should be able to say that in a safe district like this.”

On Wednesday, Blaha released a notarized “pledge” to adhere to a set of conservative principles, including a vow to cut taxes, decline to seek earmarks, and vote to “compassionately reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid because we must.” In addition, the sworn statement says the candidate is avowedly pro-life, supports the 2nd Amendment, and plans to vote to repeal the President’s signature health care legislation “immediately.”

Republican Douglas Bergeron has also filed papers with the FEC indicating an interest in the race, although local GOPers say he hasn’t made much noise about it since.

Democrat Robert Evans and Libertarian James Pirtle are also running for the seat, but unaffiliated candidate David Anderson has so far amassed the most money for his campaign. He posted $118,000 in campaign funds — including a $104,000 loan from the candidate — through the end of December.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com