Back in the spring, a volunteer for Bentley Rayburn posted fake endorsements on the Web site of Jeff Crank, a fellow competitor for Colorado's 5th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the time, the site apparently had no filter. Rayburn says he quickly fixed things after learning of the prank, making calls of apology and having a few words with the staffer.
Or, as he recently put it, "I took the lad to the woodshed."
Most have likely forgotten this episode in the long race between Rayburn and Crank to dislodge Doug Lamborn as the Republican candidate to represent El Paso, Teller, Park, Chaffee and Fremont counties and part of Lake County. Since then, there have been higher-profile tussles and Lamborn's refusal to debate.
But the event, and Rayburn's reaction to it, serve as a good starting place to distill the character of the Republicans competing in the Aug. 12 primary election to face off against Democrat Hal Bidlack in November.
Rayburn, a retired Air Force major general, is the butt-kicker who believes his command experience would help him become a House leader.
Crank, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley and past senior vice president of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, is the polished, businesslike candidate who still seems puzzled he lost to Lamborn in the 2006 primary.
(Lamborn, with 27 percent of the vote, beat Crank by a margin of only 892 votes in the bruising six-way race; Rayburn finished a surprising third with 17 percent.)
Lamborn, the incumbent and former state legislator, seems hopeful he can simply lob out some commercials and ignore the fact a race is happening. Asked in a phone interview Monday if there is any chance he'll debate Crank and Rayburn before Aug. 12, he stopped just short of saying "no."
"I would have to be convinced that there were major differences on policy that would make it worthwhile to have a debate," he says. Otherwise, he continues, debates are mostly about personality, which can "degenerate into personal attacks."
Much the same
Lamborn is correct about policy similarities: shades of difference, at most, separate the three on approaches to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, skepticism about human-caused climate change and other conservative issues.
Crank made noise last week about one area of difference when he criticized Lamborn's 2007 vote against the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, which sets hefty penalties for interstate commerce related to holding fights of dogs, birds and other animals. Crank created the "Dogs for Jeff Crank" coalition, listing Big Bear, Maximus and 22 other dogs joining him in condemnation of dogfighting.
Lamborn was one of only 39 legislators who opposed the bill. He says the law, backed by numerous animal welfare groups, is unnecessary, given most states already make it a felony to hold animal fights. It would be a "drain on resources" for federal authorities, he says, adding, "I don't think everything has to be a federal issue."
That Crank raised the issue shows he's "grasping for straws," in Lamborn's view.
Rayburn, for his part, attempts to up the ante in the animal-fighting question, suggesting it's part of an even larger "life issue."
Ask Rayburn about policy differences with Lamborn, though, and he's likely to steer you back to what he sees as the incumbent's leadership deficit, most evident when he tried to rally legislators against a proposed moratorium on activities related to expanding the Army's Pion Canyon Maneuver Site in southeastern Colorado.
The one-year moratorium passed the House, 383-34.
Lamborn protests that representation of his leadership.
"That was already a losing issue before I even took office," Lamborn says. "Positions had already hardened."
He says he's encouraged by the Army's recent plan to scale back the proposed expansion to 100,000 acres, to be obtained through landowners' sales rather than property seizures. He's proud of other accomplishments in his first term, listing four when asked to give two: getting on the House Armed Services Committee, helping bring an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to Colorado Springs, getting new troops stationed at Fort Carson and pushing for a veterans cemetery in El Paso County.
Crank is not impressed. Like Rayburn, he mentions Pion Canyon, and offers mild contempt for the incumbent's boast of having the most conservative voting record in Congress.
"Are you going to just go to Washington to vote?" Crank asks.
At the end of June, Lamborn had collected more than $450,000 in campaign contributions, with more than half of that still available in the last weeks before the election. At the same time, Crank reported having $105,000 remaining; Rayburn's account was down to $62,000, and he's taken out a $60,000 loan.
The majority of Lamborn's money comes from political action committees, something he says attests to the heft he's developed in Washington. Never mind that many PACs like to support conservative incumbents, no matter who they are.
Both Crank and Rayburn have him beat in individual contributions, but whether that translates into votes Aug. 12 is unknown. As the campaign heated up in the spring, Crank and Rayburn agreed their best chance to remove Lamborn was in a two-way race. In late May, each signed an agreement to withdraw if results from a joint poll showed the other candidate in a stronger position to win.
The poll showed Crank well ahead of Rayburn in a three-way race, but Rayburn says the polling was flawed, with calls going out after the Republicans held their 5th District assembly, where Crank was the only candidate. (Rayburn and Lamborn petitioned onto the ballot.)
Rayburn withdrew from the agreement, drawing criticism from Crank and, more recently, an anonymous posting at coloradopols.com, with a recording of Rayburn expressing support for the two-candidate idea.
"I am not going to be the guy responsible for getting Doug Lamborn re-elected," he says on the recording.
Rayburn says he doesn't know when he was recorded or by whom, but he raises questions about where it could have come from if not someone close to Crank's campaign. Crank says Rayburn has made similar statements a handful of times. Regardless of the sentiment in the recording, Rayburn seems intent to carry on.
"I'm not going to come in third," he says. "I intend to win the election."