Between Redistricting, Changing Demographics And New Political Trends, Doug Lamborn’s Long Tenure In Congress Faces New Challenges

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Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn greets a supporter at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs on Monday, June 11, 2018.

Krystal Hearne thought the Veterans Administration office should be doing more for her father.

He’d been exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam and had now developed Parkinson’s disease. But she just couldn’t get a response.

“I think at this point I had left like four or five messages and was just getting nowhere,” she explained.

Hearne mentioned her troubles to a staffer for her local congressman, Rep. Doug Lamborn. By the next day, Hearne had an appointment to meet with a local VA official. 

“It was fantastic. I am so grateful to them because ... I just didn't know what to do and I was overwhelmed.”

Lamborn has represented the people of the 5th Congressional District for the past 14 years. His office gets high marks for constituent services, even from those that don’t agree with him politically.

But with changing demographic and political trends, the holder of Colorado’s safest Republican Congressional seat could be facing more challenges from the left and the right.

Lamborn's voting record has helped keep him afloat during many primary challenges.

Since he was first elected in 2006, Lamborn has kept his job generally by double-digit margins. One of the main reasons, according to Sara Hagedorn, assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, is his conservative voting record.

“He does vote in alignment with CD-5,” she said. “His representation record is right on with what the majority of the voters in this district want.”

But for all his supporters that point to his conservative voting record, there are others on the right who are frustrated or disappointed with Lamborn's overall performance in Congress.

He's drawn primary challenges in six out of his eight runs. In 2016, Calandra Vargas, a state legislative aide who had never run for office before, mounted a challenge at the Republican Assembly. She came within 18 votes of having Lamborn kicked off of the ballot after she gave an electrifying speech that swayed the crowd of party insiders.

Calandra O'Hanlan, as she's now called, is no longer in politics. She said she was motivated to run then because she was disappointed that someone in such a safe seat wasn’t leading from the front.

“There’s so many other leaders in D.C. that are in the spotlight. They’re being interviewed all the time, they’re debating. All over the place, really being influencers,” she said.

Lamborn won that primary against O’Hanlan by more than 30 points, but it didn’t stop another crowd of conservatives from launching challenges against him two years later.

Republican consultant Tyler Sandberg doesn't think that desire by some on the right to have a more outspoken representative is going to go away. He thinks Lauren Boebert’s primary upset of incumbent Scott Tipton should be a cautionary tale for Lamborn, “that a conservative dynamic leader from the right can show up out of nowhere and really upset things.”

In January, Lamborn did join Boebert in voting against Biden's election certification —a move that impressed O'Hanlan. But he wasn’t a leading figure in that effort. And many Lamborn supporters said, overall, that's just not his style.

There’s another reason Lamborn has been a target for primary challenges: Republicans are having an increasingly tough time winning statewide seats in Colorado, and face term limits in the state legislature. So, as Wayne Williams, former Secretary of State and current at-large member for the Colorado Springs City Council, explains, that leaves limited options for Republicans with political ambitions.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Colorado Springs At-Large Council Member Wayne Williams, who formerly served as Colorado Secretary of State.

“There is this kind of the pressure of the simmering pot, of saying, ‘Well, the only place I can go is Congress. So I need to run against the Congressman,’” Williams said.

Sandberg agrees. There is a lot of conservative political talent in the El Paso County area looking for somewhere to go.

Kevin Grantham, a former state senator and current Fremont County Commissioner, believes a safe seat also lends itself to playing it safe.

“If you're not out in front, you're not sticking your foot in your mouth,” Grantham said.

Lamborn has limited his opportunities for gaffes. He doesn't participate in primary or general election debates, and he doesn’t hold many town halls, in person or virtually, compared to other members of the delegation. His office declined multiple requests for an interview and did not answer questions CPR News submitted about his record.

“He’s probably better served by, you know, putting his head down and voting correctly and maybe he does a whole lot more behind the scenes than I realized,” Grantham said.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Fremont County Commissioner Kevin Grantham looking at a redistricting map that would move his county into the 4th Congressional District.

In Congress, Lamborn doesn't introduce as many bills as his colleagues.

It’s tough to get a bill passed into law and so far Lamborn has four under his belt. That number rises to eight if you include ones that were rolled into larger packages. 

But he doesn’t introduce policy at the same clip as many of his colleagues. Last Congress, when Lamborn was in the minority, he only introduced nine bills over the course of two years, the least of any member in the Colorado delegation. Rep. Ken Buck, who ranked second to last, introduced 18 bills. And he serves on two committees: Armed Services and Natural Resources, holding the title of ranking member on one subcommittee.

Former El Paso County GOP Chair Eli Bremer worked with Lamborn on Olympic reform legislation. The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee is headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Bremer, who competed in the modern pentathlon at the 2008 summer Olympics, said Lamborn’s office was involved behind the scenes on the creation of an oversight commission, specifically who its members would be.

Still, it was Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette who introduced the bill and led the effort in the Democratic-controlled House, while former Sen. Cory Gardner shepherded it through the Republican-controlled Senate. 

Bremer said it doesn’t matter that Lamborn didn’t get top billing; he is pleased with the work his office put in. 

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Community activist Liz Rosenbaum works on a poster outlining what the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition has been working on. She said she's disappointed Rep. Doug Lamborn has not sent staff to attend the group's meetings.

But as Colorado Springs and El Paso County change, so might Lamborn's chances of keeping his seat.

But on other issues, Lamborn’s record is more mixed. 

Community activist Liz Rosenbaum is part of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, which is taking on toxic PFAS contamination in water systems south of Colorado Springs. The chemical leached into the groundwater from firefighting foam used at nearby military bases.

“We’ve never seen [Lamborn]. He doesn’t send someone to our meetings. [Former Sen.] Cory Gardner at least sent somebody to our meetings,” she said. 

Rosenbaum even went to Washington, D.C. to lobby in person. She met with a Lamborn staffer, but left angry.

“[They] just kept insisting that Air Force airplanes were more important than people,” she recalled.

Despite this, though, El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWef said he would give Lamborn an “excellent” grade for the job he’s been doing, saying he does see the congressman at events around the district and that he’s helped on infrastructure and transportation issues, like securing federal funds to widen the I-25 gap.

Wayne Williams, the city councilman, added that Lamborn delivers on the things that really matter to the district. “Doug's position on the Armed Services Committee has been beneficial to El Paso County in terms of the number of projects, number of dollars that are coming in,” he said.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWef said he's pleased with the job Congressman Doug Lamborn has done representing his constituents.

Lamborn did not support two of the largest legislative packages sending funding to Colorado and people in his district right now: the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan — packages popular with Democrats and unaffiliated votes.

This could matter down the road. While Lamborn's voting record may play well with conservatives in the district now, UCCS’s Sara Hagedorn points out Colorado Springs and El Paso County are changing.

“And I think whoever represents us, needs to be aware of that. We're getting younger and more unaffiliated,” she said.

Colorado Springs had the largest swing in the country away from supporting Trump between the 2016 and 2020 elections.  And that data point gives Democrats a little hope.

Redistricting could also change political calculations for him too. El Paso County has grown enough in population that Lamborn’s district is likely to shrink geographically. Currently, it includes three red rural counties, but they could end up in other seats once the new lines are drawn.

Ultimately these are the forces Lamborn will have to keep an eye on: Conservative voters looking for more of a show horse in Congress, and other voters wanting a stronger workhorse.

And the risk that either could try to put him out to pasture.

CPR’s coverage of Colorado’s congressional delegation focuses on accountability and on providing information constituents need to live their lives. Read more about our priorities here.