Doug Lamborn is Colorado’s political escape artist.
The Colorado Springs Republican, serving his eighth term in Congress, has had more close calls than a long-tailed cat on a porch full of rocking chairs.
First elected to represent the heavily Republican 5th Congressional District in 2006 — only the fourth person to have that distinction, following Bill Armstrong, Ken Kramer and Joel Hefley, all Republicans — the lawyer and former state lawmaker has managed to survive six primaries on the way to an unbroken string of general election romps.
You know an election year is approaching when the political chatter turns to speculation about which ambitious Republican might be primarying Lamborn this time.
Many have tried over the years — counting his first five opponents for the open seat, 13 Lamborn challengers have made the ballot, but the 66-year-old has rebuffed everything that’s been thrown at him.
Lamborn won the congressional seat in a bitter, six-way primary to take over for Hefley, who was retiring after 10 terms.
With 27% of the vote — just 2 percentage points and about 900 votes ahead of second-place finisher Jeff Crank, a long-time Hefley aide — Lamborn secured the most valuable prize in the 5th CD, the GOP nomination.
The primary was so nasty that Hefley refused to endorse Lamborn, calling his successor’s win the results of “one of the sleaziest, most dishonest campaigns I’ve seen in a long time.”
As he would for nearly all of his general elections, Lamborn won a seat in Congress with about 60% of the vote.
Two years later, Crank and the primary’s third-place finisher, retired Air Force Major Gen. Bentley Rayburn, struck a deal — they would conduct a poll, and whoever finished highest would consolidate forces to dislodge Lamborn. But even though he came in last in the poll, Rayburn stayed in the race, and Lamborn won a second nomination, with 44% of the vote to Crank’s 30% and Rayburn’s 26%.
Lamborn won a third term in a walk, without a primary in 2010, and then fended off self-funding businessman Robert Blaha in the next primary cycle, easily prevailing 62% to 38%.
Rayburn surprised Lamborn at the congressional district assembly in 2014, winning a place on the primary ballot with a last-minute candidacy and keeping it close, but Lamborn won the nomination with 53% of the vote.
In 2016, Lamborn was surprised again at the assembly and nearly lost his seat to young activist Calandra Vargas, who came within 18 delegate votes of sending the incumbent packing. Under the rules, Lamborn needed 30% of the vote to make the ballot and made it with 35%, in a closer call than the primary turned out to be, when Lamborn dispatched Vargas 68% to 32%.
The next time around, Lamborn faced four primary challengers, including former El Paso county commissioner and U.S. Senate nominee Darryl Glenn and state Sen. Owen Hill, who had also previously run for the U.S. Senate. He won on primary night with 52% of the vote, far ahead of his next-closest opponent, Glenn’s 20%, but had to survive cliffhanger after cliffhanger to make it that far.
Taking a lesson from the previous year’s close scrape, Lamborn decided to petition into the primary rather than throw his lot in at a less predictable GOP assembly, but when it turned out that the firm he hired to collect signatures had done a poor job vetting signature-gatherers, Lamborn had to go to court — again and again — to keep his spot on the ballot. At nearly the last minute, he won a decision from a federal court and the state Supreme Court, ensuring he could run and win again.
Last cycle, Lamborn got a bye, without a primary, and easily won his latest term.
The message, say long-time Lamborn watchers: Don’t count him out.
Which brings us to his latest hurdle, as a setback for his district and the sudden emergence of a congressional scandal threaten to loosen the incumbent’s hold on his seat.
While Lamborn has yet to draw a serious Republican opponent, some potential candidates have been circling — first emboldened when news broke in January that Space Command headquarters had been awarded to Huntsville, Alabama, instead of Colorado Springs, where the temporary headquarters has been, amid the Pikes Peak region’s plethora of military installations.
The Biden administration could reverse what appears to have been a last-minute decision by former President Donald Trump to move the headquarters, but if that happens, it’ll be thanks to Colorado’s two Democratic senators and their sway with the White House.
Lamborn’s path to a ninth term is complicated only slightly by the chance that the 5th CD could be redrawn into a less heavily Republican district, but the chances of that happening are vanishingly small. While the final maps won’t be firm until sometime this fall, it appears that El Paso County is headed to have a district of its own, since the county’s population and the required population for one of Colorado’s congressional districts almost exactly coincide.
If that happens, Lamborn will be on the friendliest of friendly territories both in a potential primary and a general election, though his share of the vote in November slipped slightly last year from his customary 60% to 57%.
Still, while the power of incumbency is strong, it isn’t a guarantee — just ask Scott Tipton, Lamborn’s former fellow Republican House member, who lost his bid for a sixth term last summer when he was surprised by newcomer Lauren Boebert in the neighboring 3rd Congressional District’s GOP primary.
It’s possible there’s a nascent Boebert lurking in Lamborn’s district, but since she accomplished something that hasn’t happened in Colorado in nearly 50 years — knocking off a congressional incumbent in a primary — it probably isn’t likely.
There's a misleading myth that Lamborn only keeps winning because multiple primary challengers divide the opposition, but that's only happened once, in 2008. He's cleared 50% in every other primary he's faced.
Recent news, however, could have provided an opening for a challenger.
Last week, a former congressional aide sued Lamborn, alleging the congressman took a lax approach to COVID-19 safety protocols last year, leading to outbreaks among staff, and then fired the aide in retaliation when he kept raising concerns.
The lawsuit also alleges all manner of misdeeds by Lamborn, including that the lawmaker let his adult son live in the basement of the U.S. Capitol for weeks and had government staff run errands for Lamborn and his wife.
Lamborn denies the allegations, attributing them to a disgruntled former employee, and has vowed he’ll be vindicated.
Some of the lawsuit’s more salacious aspects have already landed Lamborn in the pages of People Magazine and in other publications that don’t normally cover a Colorado congressman, but whether it blossoms into a true scandal remains to be seen.
It’s a good question, too, whether Lamborn’s voters will even be bothered by what the lawsuit alleges, if any of it turns out to be proven in court. Evidence he downplayed the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, in fact, could turn out to help Lamborn in a primary.
Either way, it could be decided and old news by the time next year’s elections roll around.
If there’s one lesson from Lamborn’s unbroken string of electoral wins, it’s that it’s a mistake to count the soft-spoken congressman out.