By Mark Lisheron | Watchdog.org
Astounding as it would have seemed just a few months ago, businessman Robert Blaha has a realistic chance of unseating three-term U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in the Republican primary in Colorado’s 5th District.
Blaha has run the kind of race Bob Loevy thought he would never see in the 5th Congressional District, where he has lived for many years and taught political science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
Blahabrought the revolt against Washington, D.C., to a conservative representative in one of the most conservative congressional districts in the country.
“Out of nowhere, very early in this election, as the textbook says you should, comes this flood of advertising about a guy nobody’s ever heard of,” Loevy said. “When I saw those first Blaha ads, I was flabbergasted.”
Less than two weeks before the June 26 primary it would be tough to find anyone of voting age who doesn’t know now who Blaha is. Blaha is riding a wave of energy and internal polling that says he has slashed a 30 percentage point gap to 5 and closing.
“We feel very good about where we’re at right now,” Blaha said. “We’ve said all along that if we can get better than usual voter turnout for a primary, we will win this.”
The first serious primary challenge since he was elected in 2006 has elicited a curious response from the Lamborn campaign. When contacted for this story, Catherine Mortensen, Lamborn’s communications director, said Lamborn wouldn’t be answering questions. He would rather not have the attention.
The outsider narrative, Mortensen said, was created and perpetuated by the media outside of Colorado. There is no close race, as some stories suggest, she said.
“We have no interest in solidifying this narrative of a year of anti-incumbency,” Mortensen said. “We do not fit the pattern we’ve seen elsewhere.”
Loevy respectfully disagreed. “As this thing has gotten going, a lot of what you’ve seen here is what is going on in U.S. politics in general, this distrust of anything to do with Washington,” Loevy said. “From any perspective, what you have here is a very strong challenge to an incumbent.”
The district’s conservative reputation made it hard to think this kind of insurgency would happen here, Loevy said. For the past 25 years, the district has been represented by two congressmen, Joel Hefley, who retired after 10 terms, and Lamborn.
Lamborn was not Hefley’s pick to succeed him. His primary win over five other candidates in 2006 fragmented the Republican Party in the district, Loevy said, and although Lamborn has won each of his three general elections, his voting percentages haven’t matched Hefley’s.
Lamborn has spent a relatively quiet three terms in Washington, D.C. According to PoliticalGuide.com, none of the 25 bills he has sponsored got passed into law. The average for a House member is five for every 25 bills sponsored.
Still, Lamborn has been a reliable conservative voter. National Journal earlier this year had him in a 10-way tie for the most conservative House member. He voted against tax increases, every bailout and stimulus plan and against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“My evaluation is he’s been a dutiful vote as a conservative but hasn’t done anything to distinguish himself,” Loevy said. “I say this keeping in mind that he’s a member of the House, one of 435, and hasn’t any seniority. It is the same for all the congressmen in his position.”
Blaha said he didn’t think Lamborn’s performance was enough for the district. “What conservatives in this district want,” Blaha said, “is a loud voice, not just a vote.”
Blaha said he concluded that Lamborn had become part of the “permanent political class in Washington.” What Republican constituents says they want in Washington, D.C., is an infusion of business experience, he said.
After founding and running Human Capital Associates, a company that reorganizes other companies, Blaha said he held several corporate senior management positions. His involvement with start-up businesses led him to start Integrity Bank & Trust in Colorado Springs where he is vice chairman of its board of directors.
A political unknown, Blaha, committed to putting his own money into the campaign. Through June 6, he had raised more than $818,700, with $722,000 of that his own, according to his most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Suddenly in spring, central Colorado was inundated with television and radio ads with a single message: Washington is the problem. Doug Lamborn is Washington. Change is Robert Blaha.
“There is this torrent of ads that lead to everyone asking who is Robert Blaha,” Loevy said. “And the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”
For weeks, the response from the Lamborn camp was to do nothing, Loevy said. Blaha began traveling the district talking about his opponent as a career politician and touting his business experience.
To this rather narrow platform, Blaha has added a promise to support a limit on terms for Congress inspired by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Congressmen would pledge to serve no more than six years in Congress, no more than 12 in the Senate and no more than 18 years combined. Blaha said that if elected, he intends to serve no more than three terms in the House.
Blaha said he would apply his business principles to getting rid of waste in the federal budget.
In late February, Denver-based Republican polling group Magellan Strategies reported Blaha trailing Lamborn by 31 percentage points. In late April, a Magellan poll paid for by the Blaha campaign showed Lamborn getting 43 percent of likely Republican primary voters, Blaha getting 38 percent and a significant 19 percent undecided, said Tamra Farah, his campaign manager.
After ignoring the Blaha blitz, the Lamborn campaign returned its own fusillade, a series of ads like this one aimed at Blaha’s record in business. Although he has accused Blaha of buying his way into the primary, Lamborn through the first quarter had spent almost as much, $365,000, and, unlike Blaha, without assuming any debt. The gap has since widened, according to the latest reports, and Lamborn earlier this month loaned his campaign $15,000.
The Colorado media hasn’t run any stories substantiating the allegations made in the ads and at one point Blaha threatened to sue Lamborn for defaming him.
Not until June 14 did voters in the 5th District get a forum from which to assess the positions of both candidates. Blaha and Lamborn had separate, back-to-back interviews with the Gazette in Colorado Springs, not a face-to-face debate.
Lamborn, a member of the House Armed Services, Natural Resources and Veterans Affairs committees, told viewers he was opposed to term limits because of the way it blunted the role and influence of members in their committees.
Lamborn said federal spending cuts were a necessary first step to creating jobs, but he opposed defense cuts.
Blaha said tax reform to foster small business was the key to job creation. He told viewers Lamborn had not introduced any legislation regarding the economy since taking office.
And yet in spite of evidence that Blaha’s campaign is credible, Lamborn continued to strike an indignant pose. He told the Gazette Blaha had not earned the right to a face-to-face debate.
“He’s buying himself attention,“ Lamborn told the Gazette. “He bought his way onto the ballot. He’s not going to buy a debate.”
Mortensen, Lamborn’s spokeswoman, said there is little substantive difference between the two conservatives.
“We’re not talking about the issues; we’re talking about stylistic differences,” she said. “Why would conservatives in this district want to make a change over what amounts to a difference in personalities?”
Blaha said that sort of campaigning is the worst kind of entitled condescension from a Washington insider.
“The way he talks, that seat belongs to him. He waited in line for it, and now it’s his,” Blaha said. “Well, I’m here to say, ‘No, sir. It’s the people’s seat, and I’m going to reclaim it for them.’”
Mark Lisheron works for Texas Watchdog.