Colorado Republican who always struggled to win decides to stop trying

Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, whose career in Congress has been defined by a series of underwhelming primary victories, announced on Friday that he wouldn’t seek a 10th term in Colorado’s 5th District. His constituency, which is based in the Colorado Springs area, favored Donald Trump 53-43 in 2020, so the winner of the June 25 GOP primary will be favored in this longtime conservative bastion.

The filing deadline is March 19, and as we recently wrote following fellow Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert’s attempt to swap districts, getting on the ballot is often a difficult task in the Centennial State. Boebert’s decision to run to succeed retiring Rep. Ken Buck in the 4th District rather than defend the 3rd also means that, with Lamborn retiring, all three of the state’s GOP-held House seats will be open this year.

Lamborn first got his start in elected office in 1994, when he won a seat in the state House, though he soon earned an appointment to the upper chamber, in early 1996. Lamborn was still in the state Senate a decade later when Republican Rep. Joel Hefley decided to retire, a move that gave Lamborn the opportunity to seek a further promotion.

In the crowded primary that unfolded, Hefley backed a former aide named Jeff Crank over Lamborn, who had the support of the radical anti-tax Club for Growth and the state branch of the Christian Coalition. The latter organization sent out a mailer that depicted photos of same-sex couples and accused Crank of backing the “homosexual agenda.” Lamborn pulled off a tight 27-25 win, with retired Air Force Gen. Bentley Rayburn taking third, with 17%.

A furious Hefley reportedly mulled waging a write-in campaign for the general election, and while he passed on the idea, he said of Lamborn, “I feel that he ran the most sleazy, dishonest campaign I’ve seen in a long, long time, and I can not support it.” The intraparty drama didn’t stop Lamborn from winning 60-40 in the fall, but Hefley ominously predicted the next year, “I would be very surprised if he did not have a very substantial primary.”

In 2008, Crank and Rayburn both came back for a second round, but his two rivals may have split the anti-incumbent vote enough to save the congressman: Lamborn turned back Crank 44-30, with Rayburn close behind them, at 26%. Lamborn got a bit of a breather in the ensuing two cycles, even running unopposed for the GOP nomination in 2010. Two years later, his 62-38 victory against self-funder Robert Blaha, while still not impressive for an incumbent in a primary, wasn’t dire. But if Lamborn thought his nomination battles were over, he was in for a series of surprises.

Rayburn returned in 2014 and, despite raising little money, held the congressman to just a 53-47 victory. Lamborn excused his near-loss by claiming that primary voters were blaming their own party’s incumbents for their inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But his closest near-death experience came in 2016, when delegates at the GOP convention in the district favored little-known legislative aide Calandra Vargas by a wide 58-35 margin.

Colorado allows candidates to reach the primary ballot by collecting the requisite number of signatures or by taking 30% of the vote at their party gathering. Because Lamborn had decided to pursue only the second route, he came extremely close to getting eliminated from contention. He managed to rally to beat Vargas 68-32 in the primary a few months later, but that experience foreshadowed another tough race for 2018.

Two notable Republicans decided to take on Lamborn that cycle, 2016 Senate nominee Darryl Glenn and state Sen. Owen Hill. Lamborn this time decided to gather petitions and skip the convention, but that decision almost blew up in his face when the state Supreme Court knocked him off the ballot after finding that he’d violated state law by hiring a petition collector who did not meet the state’s residency requirements. The congressman, however, successfully sued in federal court to overturn that law, and he went on to beat Glenn 52-20 in the primary.

Lamborn’s 2020 primary was his first uncontested one in a decade, but he still had one last scare in store the following cycle. State Rep. Dave Williams launched an intraparty challenge at a time when the House Ethics Committee was investigating allegations that the congressman had misused official resources by having congressional staff perform personal and campaign-related tasks for him and his wife.

A former aide named Brandon Pope also filed a lawsuit in 2021 accusing Lamborn of firing him in retaliation for raising concerns about the congressman’s “reckless” approach to COVID-19 safety in his congressional office. Pope further claimed that Lamborn had allowed his son “to live in a storage area in the basement of the U.S. Capitol for a period of weeks,” though the OCE did not address that charge.

Lamborn, however, made use of his financial advantage to run commercials portraying Williams as insufficiently conservative, and he benefited from the presence of two minor candidates on the ballot. Lamborn won 47-33 in what would turn out to be his final primary. The House Ethics Committee does not appear to have taken any public action since then, though the congressman reached a settlement with Pope in early 2023. There’s no word on where Lamborn’s son is living at present.

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