Deadend Democrats

Photo of Sisyphus sculpture by Ann Wuyts via Flickr

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]olorado’s 5th Congressional District is about as red as they come. It’s home to the conservative Christian non-profit Focus on the Family, multiple military installations and a total of zero Democrats elected to Congress in its history. But not for lack of effort: Democrats have tried to win the congressional seat in the 5th for years.

In 2002, Democrat Curtis Imrie ran and lost.

In 2004, Democrat Fred Hardee ran and lost.

In 2006, Democrat Jay Fawcett ran and lost.

In 2008, Democrat Hal Bidlack ran and lost.

In 2010, Democrat Kevin Bradley ran and lost.

Now, in 2014, incumbent Rep. Doug Lamborn is running for his fourth term. He’s won at least 60% of the vote in the last three cycles, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect his actual popularity. Local Republicans express sentiment ranging from ambivalence to frustration with their congressman.

Lamborn, through campaign spokesman Jarred Rego, declined to comment for this story.

Earlier this summer, Lamborn faced his most robust primary challenge yet from retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn. Rayburn led an aggressively critical campaign, positing Lamborn as a do-nothing career politician who doesn’t listen to constituents. Rayburn’s military credentials earned him support from the armed services community which makes up a hefty segment of the electorate in Colorado Springs. He scoffed at Lamborn for having never served in the military and failing to meet the needs of veterans in the district. The Lamborn camp offered a limited response, mostly reiterating generalities about the congressman’s conservative ideology. Politicos in the district speculated there might have been an Eric Cantor-esque upset in the making, but Lamborn squeaked by on election night by slightly more than five percentage points.

Primary season was undeniably divisive and bruising for Republicans in the 5th, but conventional wisdom is that Lamborn is still a shoe-in. “Everybody says ‘wow that [primary] was close,’ but the fact is, in 42 years, no incumbent Republican has ever been defeated,” political scientist and professor emeritus at Colorado College Bob Loevy mused. “It won’t matter in the general election where there are all these people who come out and the only thing they know how to do is vote Republican.”

El Paso County notoriously has almost double the number of registered Republicans than registered Democrats and according to historical voting patterns, the unaffiliateds tend to be of the more libertarian-leaning variety.

And yet, Democratic challenger retired Air Force Maj. Gen. and former businessman Irv Halter is mounting a campaign to pull off the impossible—to unseat the incumbent Republican in this Republican district.

“It’s an uphill battle—no doubt about that,” said Ethan Susseles, Halter’s campaign manager, “but when you dig a little deeper and talk to people here, you can see that with the right candidate running, anyone is willing to vote across party lines.”

In many ways, Halter is a classic blue dog Democrat, but in other ways, his policy positions are more in line with the GOP’s. He advocates for a “repeal and replace” strategy when it comes to Obamacare. He supports building the Keystone XL pipeline as soon as possible. He says our tax code should not “penalize success.” But when it comes down to it, Halter fundamentally believes government has an active role in improving the lives of citizens.

“I was a lifelong Republican—I voted along those lines for much of my life, ” Halter said, “I didn’t so much leave the Republican party, as they left me. I became a Democrat because they allow a much broader set of views inside their tent.”

The challenge for Halter’s campaign is to frame the election in terms of issues, character and competence, not in terms of party affiliation. To do that, Halter has been on the road, talking to constituents in all corners of the district.

“We have to appeal to a large swath of Republican voters,” said Susseles, “but parties do not define who he is.”

Executive director of the El Paso County Democrats Christy Lelait agrees that “party affiliation is not the be all end all” in the 5th. Local Dems are working to “counter this idea that Doug Lamborn can’t be touched,” she said, citing increasingly competitive primaries as indicative of the congressman’s vulnerability.

Lelait campaigned for Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, Lamborn’s Democratic challenger in 2008. Bidlack had a similar Air Force background and blue dog reputation as Halter, but didn’t quite get 40 percent of the vote.

“Every year someone comes along who’s willing to run,” Loevy said. “These people are not serious politicians because no serious politician would take a 60/40 loss and expect to have any position in the party or in state politics after such a defeat.”

Bidlack was elected chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party in 2010 and currently works on Senator Michael Bennet’s staff as a constituent advocate for veterans and military affairs. But it’s true that other Democratic candidates in Colorado’s 5th have been more obscure. One is an online bookseller. One raised $0. One is a donkey racer/documentary filmmaker.

Both Lelait and Susseles insist that Halter is a profoundly serious candidate. They proffered the notion that Halter’s campaign is different from failed equivalents of the past because voters have had enough time to see and really evaluate Lamborn’s performance.

“Everything we hear from voters around the district when we travel the trail is that they’re tired of a congressman who doesn’t do anything,” said Susseles.

The latest FEC reports show that Halter’s been outpacing Lamborn on the fundraising front, with about three times as much cash on hand. In total, since the start of the election cycle, Halter has raised $514,853 to Lamborn’s $389,069. Halter has also already vastly out-raised other Democrats who have run in the past, with two months still left to go. According to information compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, the bulk of Halter’s donors are individual citizens, whereas Lamborn’s are mostly out-of-state political action committees.

But Loevy thinks Halter’s fundraising edge just means “a lot of people are wasting their money.” Colorado’s 5th congressional district was drawn in the 70s—by Democrats, no less—with the express purpose of securing a permanently Republican seat. “It’s in the interest if both parties to create safe seats … They dump the opposition party into safe seats to get rid of them.”

As a result, the only serious challenge these incumbents will face is either from further to the right, or in the case of analogous Democrats like Rep. Diana DeGette, further to the left. “That’s what creates the present polarization in the two parties,” noted Loevy. “The system is highly criticized by political scientists, including me.”

Along those lines, Loevy was blunt in describing the Halter’s prospects: “It’s like a good sci-fi thriller—if you accept the original premise that none of this is true, then anything can be rationalized… This is a Republican district. Nothing is going to change that.”

But, as Susseles pointed out, “there are plenty of districts around the country more conservative than the 5th with Democratic representatives… Look at Jim Matheson in Utah. That’s a very Republican district and he won it.”

As November approaches, Susseles says the campaign will try to talk to as many voters as possible. Lamborn has ignored Halter’s multiple requests to debate.

Whether people who only ever vote for candidates with an R next to their names will consider straying across party lines remains to be seen. Until then, the premise of this sci-fi thriller—that a candidate with a D next to his name actually has a shot at winning in the 5th—still holds.

[This story has been updated.]

[Photo of Sisyphus sculpture by Ann Wuyts via Flickr/Creative Commons.]