Lamborn Primary Redux: A Tough Fight

Posted July 29, 2008 at 6:47pm

Should freshman Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) survive his Aug. 12 primary, he might want to send a thank-you card to retired Air Force officer Bentley Rayburn, one of his two GOP opponents.

According to some Colorado-based Republican strategists, former Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce executive Jeff Crank would be a shoo-in to beat Lamborn if he weren’t competing with Rayburn for the anti-incumbent vote. Crank and Rayburn both ran in the 2006 open-seat contest, when Crank finished a close second to Lamborn in the GOP primary.

“If this was head-to-head Crank versus Lamborn, Crank would be up 8 to 10 points. Bentley is taking about 8 to 15 points of the anti-Lamborn vote,” said one Republican operative based in the Centennial State. “I think Lamborn wins with less than 50 percent because the anti-Lamborn vote was split.”

Crank campaign strategist Patrick Davis said Tuesday that his candidate is in striking distance. An internal poll conducted in late June for Crank’s campaign showed Lamborn with 36 percent, Crank with 30 percent, Rayburn with 16 percent and 18 percent undecided. Davis argued that Rayburn’s support ceiling is 20 percent.

But some Republican strategists familiar with this year’s race contend that the outcome of last cycle’s 5th district GOP primary shouldn’t be misinterpreted to mean that Crank has a better chance of defeating Lamborn this time around.

The Colorado Springs seat is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Rayburn is a retired Air Force major general. Last cycle, he began the contest as an unknown candidate, but went on to finish in third place with a respectable 17 percent of the vote.

Republican pollster Chris Wilson, who has done some polling for Rayburn, said Crank is fatally flawed — particularly because of attacks leveled against him last cycle by the Club for Growth. The conservative free-market advocacy group advertised heavily in the 2006 race on behalf of Lamborn, whom it endorsed.

“The club’s attacks on Crank were effective,” Wilson said. “Rayburn, because of his background with the Air Force, he [is] a very strong candidate.”

Lamborn, then a state Senator, won a highly contentious six-way GOP primary in 2006 with a mere 27 percent of the vote.

Crank, who worked for Lamborn’s immediate predecessor in the 5th district, popular ex-Rep. Joel Hefley (R), finished with 25 percent of the vote. Crank actually won among those who voted on Election Day, with Lamborn finishing on top because of his success with absentee voters.

Hefley backed Crank in the primary but refused to endorse Lamborn in the general election.

The Lamborn campaign declined to discuss its primary campaign activities. But Davis, who is monitoring the race as Crank’s consultant, said the Congressman is advertising on broadcast and cable television, on the radio and by mail, while also being active via phone banks.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Lamborn said his campaign is in great shape. As to why Crank and Rayburn are challenging him again after losing in 2006, the Congressman said it was because of “emotions.”

“It’s more emotional than rational,” he said.

Lamborn said he plans to spend as much time as his Capitol Hill schedule will allow during the last two weeks of the campaign communicating to voters what he has accomplished for the 5th district since taking over for Hefley, who retired in January of 2007.

Although some Republican insiders in Colorado disagree, Davis believes Crank can win despite Rayburn’s presence in the race.

Crank is campaigning on the radio, via direct-mail and over the phone, with some cable television to supplement those efforts. Davis believes that Lamborn’s refusal to debate his primary opponents and his heavy use of franked mail could cost him on Election Day.

Lamborn said he has refused to debate his opponents because he did not want to provide them an easy platform from which to level personal attacks against him. He was also unapologetic about his use of franked mail.

“I have not seen a need to debate because there do not appear to be any significant policy differences” between the candidates, Lamborn said. “As a matter of fact, I did listen in long-distance to a debate … and I just heard a lot of vicious attacks taking place, and that will be the result when issues are not really the topic of discussion.”

Crank is attempting to make the case that he is the better fiscal conservative among the three candidates and will do the best job in rolling back earmarks and addressing the federal deficit. Davis said Lamborn has fallen short on reforming the earmark process and reining in federal spending, and he believes voters are noticing.

“There are no differences on social issues,” Davis said. “But on economic issues, there is pattern evolving that Doug Lamborn is not the fiscal conservative he makes himself out to be.”

The Club for Growth, which has spoken out vociferously against earmarks and government spending, recently bestowed upon Lamborn its Defender of Economic Freedom award, suggesting that Davis’ contention might not be shared in all quarters.

Meanwhile, Rayburn is attacking Lamborn for his lack of national security credentials.

Rayburn’s spokesman, Mike Hesse, said a House district with five military bases should have a Congressman with military experience. Hesse conceded that toppling Lamborn would be easier without Crank in the race, but claimed that victory was possible nonetheless.

However, Hesse acknowledged that he had no polling data to support his optimism. He said Rayburn would attempt to win the race by relying on grass-roots campaigning with a heavy emphasis on door-knocking and phone-banks.

Hesse said Rayburn plans to campaign around the clock during the last 48 hours of the race. He touted endorsements from former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) and a popular ex-state Senator.

“We feel it’s very close between all three of us right now,” Hesse said.