The elephants have escaped.
Anyone who actually expected the Republican primary to replace U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley to be a staid affair, full of pomp, circumstance and earnest discourse over serious issues, was, to put it politely, delusional.
Instead, voters in the GOP stronghold of El Paso County have been treated to accusations of plagiarism, undercover support of gays and lesbians, and promises to support soldiers who aren't even American.
Ronald Reagan's famous 11th Commandment Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican was trampled long ago. The stakes are simply too high.
"The prize is tremendous," says Robert Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor and longtime observer of local politics. "All you have to do is win this primary, and you are a tenured member of Congress for the next 20 years."
Such a sweeping statement is not entirely accurate. The winner of the Aug. 8 primary will face Democratic candidate Jay Fawcett, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. Fawcett has been raising considerable money and bringing high-profile supporters to town to stump for him, including 2004 presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark last week.
Loevy acknowledges that in a perfect political storm, Fawcett could win in November. But, he noted, with a 70 percent average Republican turnout in general elections, the 5th Congressional District which includes El Paso, Teller and portions of four other surrounding counties is considered one of the most conservative in the country.
Even though many Americans across the political spectrum report they are growing weary of social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage at the forefront of the debate, five of the six Republican candidates are flashing the mantle of ber-conservative. Their positioning is a far cry from the politics of Hefley, who was first elected in Reagan-era 1986.
"The Republican Party, both nationally and in El Paso County, simply has changed over 20 years," Loevy says. "Hefley is an old-style economic conservative ... he was never challenged on social issues.
"Things have changed so much that [the six men now running] cannot run as Joel Hefley. We are going to have a very different Republican person in Congress."
March to the right
At this time last year, the rumors over whether Hefley would retire had already been swirling for months. In 2004, as chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Hefley rebuked then-House Speaker Tom DeLay for the third time, for hardball political tactics. Soon after, Hefley was unceremoniously removed from his leadership post. (Earlier this year, DeLay was indicted on conspiracy charges and resigned.)
Tired of waiting for official word from Hefley, who long ago claimed to be a supporter of congressional term limits, former El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson announced that he was likely going to run for the seat, whether Hefley was in or not. Other likely contenders accused Anderson of being an upstart.
But by the time Hefley finally announced his intention to retire, on Feb. 16, several other candidates clearly had assumed election mode. The congressman's former aide, Jeff Crank, and state Sen. Doug Lamborn quickly jumped into the race. They were followed by former County Commissioner Duncan Bremer and Bentley Rayburn, a recently retired Air Force general. Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera was the last to enter.
And then the march to the right began. Lamborn began touting himself as the lawmaker who has introduced more anti-abortion bills than anyone in Colorado history. He also painted himself as the only candidate who has consistently opposed taxes of any kind, a position that enraged the others, who maintain they also virulently oppose taxes.
Illegal immigration, which all oppose, and the war on terror, which all support, have been topics of debate. All the candidates have tried to outdo each other by brandishing endorsements from conservatives ranging from retired military generals to Focus on the Family executives.
And the passion over social issues most notably abortion and a marriage amendment is ever at the forefront. With the exception of Anderson, and, to a lesser degree, Bremer, all have vowed to go to Washington with the intent to actively work to overturn Roe v. Wade. All support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Radically reforming or even completely eliminating the IRS has been heralded. Eliminating the minimum wage has been suggested.
But as the candidates' skirmishes to out-conservative each other have continued, the more intriguing battle has been waged largely by handlers and shadowy 527 groups, which can attack candidates as long as they don't openly support any candidate.
In April, Jeff Crank's campaign was embarrassed after a Denver GOP operative accused the candidate of plagiarizing. Numerous position statements posted on his Web site on issues from health care to the economy and the war on terror were strikingly similar to statements that had already been made by other politicians. For example, his Web site read:
"Jeff believes the role of the government is not to create wealth, but to foster and support an environment in which America's entrepreneurial spirit can thrive and achieve great things. We must help the economy grow by encouraging production and the creation of jobs and opportunities."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas had this on his Web site:
"The role of the government is not to create wealth, but to foster an environment where America's entrepreneurial spirit can thrive and achieve great things. We must help the economy grow, encourage the creation of jobs and opportunities."
Crank took the statements off his site, saying the positions had been posted by a former volunteer, Sarah Shelden, a former Hefley spokeswoman.
But that was only the beginning.
"An out-and-out falsehood"
Earlier this month, Crank, along with Bremer, Anderson and Rayburn, called a press conference announcing their promise to be "honest and truthful" in their campaigns. "I will provide facts to back up my statements," reads the pledge. "If a statement I make can easily be misconstrued, I will clarify it to avoid misunderstanding. If a statement I make proves incorrect, I will promptly, publicly apologize and immediately cease to make the incorrect statement.
"I will require my campaign management and my major supporters (all PACS and institutions who endorse me) to sign this agreement as well or publicly refuse their support. If a 527 organization appears to be supporting me or opposing my opponent(s), I will publicly request that they sign and abide by this agreement as well, and make public their response."
Neither Rivera nor Lamborn signed the pledge, but the clear target of the other candidates' ire was Lamborn, who has repeatedly been accused of slinging mud and misrepresenting his opponents especially when it comes to taxes.
"I've known Doug Lamborn for a long time, and yet he has attacked me [and] my record and says he is the only candidate with a record of cutting taxes," said Bremer, who wrote the pledge. "That is an out-and-out falsehood."
Said Crank: "Duncan's a tax-cutter, Jeff Crank's a tax-cutter. I'm a Ronald Reagan conservative, and Ronald Reagan didn't believe in attacking other conservatives."
State Sen. Andy McElhany, who is supporting Crank, lambasted what he termed "unfounded attacks on fellow Republicans."
"It's deeply concerning," McElhany said. "I call on Lamborn to correct the record and clean up his campaign."
Afterward, Jon Hotaling, Lamborn's campaign manager, was nonplussed.
"It's a campaign stunt by the minor candidates who realize their campaigns are desperate and flailing," he said. "They are trying to take shots at the front-runner."
"This race is really coming down to Lamborn and Rivera, and our fear is the other four candidates will take enough votes away and Rivera will take it."
Rivera's spokeswoman, meanwhile, termed the pledge "unnecessary."
"Rivera runs a clean campaign; he ran a clean campaign for City Council, and he is running a clean campaign now," said deputy campaign manager Theresa Sauer. "The people of Colorado Springs know that he is a man of integrity" he doesn't have to sign a piece of paper for people to know he is as good as his actions."
And just that day, Sauer noted while Crank was pledging to be honest and truthful and hold supporters accountable for doing the same a 527 group called Energize Colorado launched a radio ad calling Rivera a "tax-and-spend liberal" for supporting last year's statewide Referendum C, a countywide public transportation measure and the TOPS open space program. The 527 group is headed by Colorado lobbyist and former legislator Steve Durham, who is supporting Crank.
"They were taking all the hard work that Lionel has done, making a safer, better community, and trashing him for it," Sauer said. "Tell me in good conscience that [Crank] and his supporters won't be inaccurate and misleading."
As for Lamborn not signing the pledge, Hotaling said Lamborn has already promised to be honest. And, Hotaling claimed, the pledge itself is illegal, as it specifies that candidates would instruct 527 groups with which they are not supposed to be working or coordinating to abide by their own campaign rules.
"It doesn't make much sense," Hotaling said. "When they signed their names on the dotted line, they pledged to break the law."
Bremer rejects that interpretation, arguing that there is nothing illegal about asking a group to stop spreading lies.
Standing for un-American soldiers
Nothing is too trivial for serious scrutiny in the race. Take "Soldier-gate," for example. In a video introducing himself at his campaign Web site, Crank paints himself as a true patriot, standing for America, for the president and "for the brave men and women who are fighting for us now and for those who have protected our way of life in the past."
The images behind Crank show an American flag, soldiers, fighter jets, President Bush and so on. But there's a problem: In the part where he says, "for the brave men and women who are fighting for us now ..." the soldiers behind him do not appear to be American soldiers at all. At least one retired general speculates that the soldiers out of configuration, some a bit overweight, one wearing a softcap and the rest in no headgear at all are actually from the Balkans, possibly Bosnia, Romania or Bulgaria. And that, to him, is a grave insult.
"I am very sensitive to someone who may misrepresent American soldiers," says Ed Anderson, a retired U.S. Army general and former deputy commander at Northern Command. "I'm not challenging whether Jeff Crank supports American soldiers; all I'm saying is there is a picture where he's referring to American soldiers, and someone could interpret that they are American soldiers. And they are not.
"I am very proud of our soldiers and the job they are doing, and I want to make sure they get the credit they are due," says Anderson, who is supporting Rivera.
Crank's campaign manager, Jim Banks, responded, saying that by law, active-duty American soldiers cannot support specific candidates for public office. The advertising company that created the video, Banks says, merely used stock video footage to illustrate Crank's point that he supports U.S. soldiers and stands by the president.
"We are never going to exploit a soldier in a political ad," he says.
Yet Sauer, Rivera's deputy campaign manager, suggests that's exactly what Crank did in the video. In addition, she says, Rivera's campaign headquarters has received numerous calls from other military personnel who say that other images in Crank's commercial don't appear to be American, either. One fighter jet could be a British plane used by Europeans and the Saudis.
"It's kind of intriguing," she says.
In bed with the gays
Last week, the Christian Coalition of Colorado which is run by the brother of Lamborn's campaign manager dropped what it clearly hoped would be a bombshell on Rivera and Crank. A glossy full-color mailer sent to thousands of would-be voters accused the candidates of being in bed, at least figuratively, with gays and lesbians and took an out-of-context portion of a 2003 news story from the Independent as "proof."
On the front stand two cartoon "grooms," arm-in-arm, atop a wedding cake. They're accompanied by this message: "Poor Choices, Bad Decisions, Political Ambition, Poor Judgment, Compromising ... these are the words some are using to describe Jeff Crank's and Lionel Rivera's public support for members and efforts of the homosexual agenda while campaigning as "pro-family' candidates."
Inside are photographs depicting a happy-looking lesbian couple, a gay couple and a scene from what appears to be a gay pride parade. The mailer also includes portions of news articles from the Rocky Mountain News and Independent. The Rocky reported that, in 2003, Rivera had signed a declaration recognizing the Springs' annual gay pride festival. The Christian Coalition also took a portion of a lengthy Independent news story and stuck a new headline on it: "Crank endorses Skorman."
The original headline of the story, which appeared in the Feb. 27, 2003 Independent, was "Take me to your leader." It chronicled the hard right turn that the Colorado Springs City Council was taking at the time.
In that year's election, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed Richard Skorman, who was running as an incumbent. Skorman, who has since given up his seat to work for U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, is a longtime community activist and advocate for gays and lesbians, as well as the environment. At the time, Crank was the government affairs director for the Chamber of Commerce, which had also endorsed five conservatives for City Council that year. When the Christian Coalition's hit piece came out, Crank was livid.
"I'm actually disgusted by it," he said. "The people who put [the mailer] together know it isn't accurate. If they can't put their own vision up, then they shouldn't be running if they're just going to tear everyone else down."
Crank and his campaign manager, Jim Banks, presume that the mailing was sent on behalf of Lamborn, though the candidate's name doesn't appear on it. In addition to the Hotaling connection, Banks notes, the president of the Christian Coalition of Colorado, Chuck Gosnell, has contributed to Lamborn's campaign.
"It's obviously below the belt and over the top," Banks says. "And the worst part about it is, it's simply not true; it shows a desperate candidate who will say anything to get elected."
Negative advertising no matter how outrageous the claim usually hurts those being targeted, notes Loevy, the Colorado College professor. People would rather vote for someone they know nothing about, he says, than someone they've heard ugly things about.
With a little more than a week remaining until the primary, it's anyone's guess what other surprises are in store. And Loevy says that the biggest surprise may occur on Aug. 8.
"I'm still adhering to the position that any one of the six could win," he says.
Reported campaign contributions so far: $6,064*
A 30-year cop with the Colorado Springs Police Department, John Anderson was elected sheriff of El Paso County in 1994 and held that seat for eight years. Shortly after he took office, he installed a controversial countywide program to issue concealed weapons permits. After leaving office in 2002, Anderson went to work as a homeland security expert for aerospace defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Anderson's campaign has focused on improving border security, tackling illegal immigration and supporting the war on terror.
Of all six candidates running in the primary, Anderson alone has pledged not to seek constitutional amendments to overturn Roe v. Wade or to prohibit gay marriage. He has been endorsed by the Colorado Springs Professional Fire Fighters Association, numerous area law enforcement officials,and the Independent.
The day after the Independent issued its endorsement, Anderson announced that Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., who forces prisoners to wear pink underwear and sleep in desert tents, has also endorsed him.
Reported campaign contributions so far: $152,400*
After serving six years on the Colorado Springs City Council, Lionel Rivera was elected mayor in April 2003. In that election, Rivera cast himself as the most conservative candidate in a heated seven-way battle, pledging to end a program that extended health benefits to the partners of same-gender couples working for the city. Rivera, 49, has since twice refused to sign a proclamation recognizing the city's annual gay pride week, claiming that gays and lesbians were trying to politicize their celebration by promoting same-gender unions.
Last year, Rivera, a former Army captain with no combat experience, enraged a group of war veterans, as well as peace activists, by first agreeing to support a program for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and then reneging, suggesting that the project bashed the military. During this election campaign, his opponents have gone after him as pro-tax for supporting last year's statewide Referendum C, as well as a tax extension of the city's Trails, Open Space & Parks (TOPS) program and a countywide bus system. Rivera maintains that he wears his support for the initiatives as a "badge of courage," in the interest of improving the community.
One reason Rivera may be taking such hits is because of a poll he commissioned, released last month and conducted by the respected Virginia-based Tarrance Group, showing that largely due to name recognition, he was the front-runner in the race, with 22 percent support and a nine-point lead over Doug Lamborn. (At the time, Jeff Crank came in at 11 percent, John Anderson at 10 percent, Duncan Bremer at 5 percent and Bentley Rayburn at 2 percent.)
Reported campaign contributions so far: $189,457*
Jeff Crank has never held elected office, which his critics like to point out often. A former aide to Rep. Joel Hefley, Crank, 39, also was a lobbyist and vice president of governmental affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. Crank contends that his experience in Washington is a huge bonus; during the campaign, he has stressed that he helped write legislation while working for Hefley that has benefited soldiers at Fort Carson.
He has received endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce, as well as Focus on the Family President Jim Daly. Hefley has also given Crank his blessing, which has opponents complaining that he has been hand-picked. Crank is offended by another claim: that he named his own son Joel to further ingratiate himself to Hefley. "I like the name Joel," he said last year. "I told [Hefley] that if his name was Maurice, then my son would not have been named that."
Reported campaign contributions so far: $242,836*
Doug Lamborn was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1995. Three years later, in one of the more bizarre episodes in recent local Republican politics, then-Colorado Springs state Sen. Charlie Duke claimed that God had instructed him to quit. Lamborn was selected to take his place. A year later, Duke showed up at the state Capitol, telling Lamborn that God wanted him to have his old seat back. "Sorry, Charlie," Lamborn responded. "God didn't tell me that."
Lamborn's sense of humor and his amiable nature have earned him points on both sides of the aisle over the years as a legislator. But during this campaign, the 52-year-old has infuriated several of his opponents with claims he is the only candidate who is absolutely opposed to tax increases.
He has been endorsed by anti-tax activist and County Commissioner Douglas Bruce, by Focus on the Family executive Tom Minnery and by Colorado Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, whose former campaign manager, Jon Hotaling, is running his campaign.
Reported campaign contributions so far: $130,442*
Bentley Rayburn freely admits to being the novice in the race. In fact, he surprised himself when he decided to enter the primary, his first run for public office. Rayburn, 55 is a very recently retired two-star general in the Air Force; as he puts it, on March 1, he was still in uniform, and had no idea that exactly one month later he would be on the campaign trail.
With a phalanx of endorsements from other retired Air Force officers, Rayburn maintains that Congress already has a plethora of lawyers, lobbyists and former business executives. What the body really needs, he says, are more leaders with actual military experience. "This is going to be a long war," he says of the war on terror. "We need concerted, unwavering leadership."
A 1975 Air Force Academy graduate, Rayburn has been stationed around the world, but has always considered Colorado Springs home. His uncle, Jim Rayburn, founded Young Life, an international non-denominational Christian ministry for teenagers that is based in Colorado Springs.
Reported campaign contributions so far: $65,882*
A Yale University graduate, Duncan Bremer was first elected to the El Paso County Commission in 1994. Since leaving office four years ago, he has been a lawyer in private practice, specializing in real estate, planning and business.
Now 63, Bremer has focused his campaign on limited government, national security and the war on terror. He vows he is a social conservative through and through, but emphasizes the need to increase military spending while cutting taxes and unneeded "pork projects."
He has also played up the fact that his brother is Paul Bremer, the Bush-appointed former director of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance for post-war Iraq. Through his brother, Bremer says, he has established important connections in fighting terrorists.