In deep-red El Paso County, GOP challengers hope to pull off a congressional upset over incumbent Rep. Doug Lamborn

Listen Now
4min 16sec
Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn greets a supporter at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs on Monday, June 11, 2018.

If history is any guide, Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn should be able to beat back his primary challengers at the end of June and sail to victory in November. He’s done it plenty of times before.

But this isn’t your parent’s GOP any more. The populist wing of the state party has propelled far-right candidates, who loudly proclaim the 2020 presidential election was stolen, to the top of the ballot, while cheering on politicians that “own the libs.” In this atmosphere, challengers see a new opportunity to upset the congressional status quo.

Due to El Paso County’s growth in the last decade, the 5th congressional district has shrunk, shedding rural areas so that it now encompasses just the heavily populated eastern portion of the county. The redrawn boundaries give Republicans a 20-point advantage, based on recent election results.

State Rep. Dave Williams, the first Latino elected to House District 51, said constituents in this newly-compact district are itching for a different type of congressperson — a “fighter.”

“We deserve someone who's going to Washington to be a wrecking ball, you know, against the corrupt establishment in both parties,” Williams said over the phone. “That's what makes my campaign different from (Lamborn’s).”

Williams is trying to pull off a repeat of Lauren Boebert’s out-of-nowhere, run from the right primary defeat two years ago of a long-term Republican incumbent. He has developed a reputation as a hard-right instigator at the state House and is promising voters he’d bring that attitude with him to Congress

“If one red cent, you know, goes to abortion funding, if one red cent goes to gun control enforcement or, or critical race theory training, or trying to implement, you know, so-called diversity officers, then I'm voting no a hundred percent,” Williams said.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Rep. Dave Williams speaks during a rally for Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters on the Colorado Capitol steps. April 5, 2022.

On a purely policy front, those positions aren't all that different from the ones that Lamborn has held in Congress. 

During his eight terms, the incumbent has been a persistent anti-abortion voice in Washington, such as introducing a bill to require abortion providers to give patients information about reversing a medication abortion, something not supported by science. And the American Conservative Union gave Lamborn a ‘Conservative Award of Excellence’ for voting in line with its positions 90 percent of the time last year.

Williams has also pushed claims of election fraud and he’s sued to have the anti-Biden slogan ‘Let’s go Brandon’ appear as his nickname on the ballot (on Thursday a judge ruled against that effort. Williams has pledged to appeal).

But if he’s hoping to harness the MAGA World’s energy for his primary challenge, there are some in the local Trump campaign camp that are pushing back. 

“Dave Williams is one of the most selfish politicians I've ever encountered,” said Brian Seitchik, a Republican political consultant and former regional political director for Trump Victory. He said he “fired” Williams from a volunteer position with the 2020 campaign in Colorado. “He was trying to use his volunteer title to push his own interest.”

Williams dismissed his critics' complaints, saying they are most likely “establishment, insider politicians that want to maintain the status quo.”

Local GOP drama spills into ballot contest

Williams is one of three Republican challengers trying to unseat Lamborn in the primary. His name will be the first one voters see on their ballots, after he won topline billing at the Republican assembly by pulling in 74 percent of the support from delegates. 

However, the assembly outcome is not necessarily a good indicator of how Republicans voters in the district writ large are feeling, said Karl Schneider, vice chair of the El Paso County GOP. 

“It’s easy to garner a lot of votes, if you’re running against yourself,” Schneider said, noting that Lamborn and many of the other candidates chose to go the petition route, which he blamed on distrust in due to irregularities with the assembly process led by the chair of the El Paso County GOP. “The touting of the top line as an indicator of support — it’s a false claim.”

The El Paso County GOP has had well-publicized leadership controversies over the last few years which reared up again during the assembly process. The current chair blasted Lamborn for not taking part in the assembly, while Lamborn and others complained about issues like not getting full delegate lists. Williams has been an ally of the current county chair.

Aside from Williams, Lamborn’s other two primary challengers both submitted petitions to get on the ballot.

“I was out there in the bitter cold (and) blistering winds, getting signatures. I couldn't even feel my fingers anymore,” Rebecca Keltie recalled. 

Initially, Keltie, a Navy veteran, was going to try to get on through both the assembly and petition processes, but she  said once Williams entered the race, she had people telling her to avoid the assembly, which she did.

Keltie is an outgoing woman with a bubbly personality. She’s also not new to a congressional run; two years ago she entered the CO-5 race as the Unity Party candidate. She said that attempt was just so she could learn the process. Now that she has, she’s following through on her original plan: trying to claim the Republican nod in 2022.

“My basic platform is God, country, constitution, and family,” she said.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Rebecca Keltie, a Navy veteran, is seeking the Republican nomination for Congress.

She moved to the Springs after she retired from the military to be closer to her son’s family. 

Her campaign pledges include getting rid of fraud and abuse within the federal government, supporting American manufacturing and allowing people to take their health insurance across state lines. She has also questioned the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. 

Keltie said the voters she’s talked to in El Paso county are tired of career politicians who say one thing on the campaign trail and vote another way at the Capitol. 

“My voice should absolutely reflect the people who are voting me in. Well, not just those, but actually all my constituents, everyone in the district,” she explained, pledging to hold townhalls to hear from the public. 

Lamborn held a tele-townhall last month, but prior to that his last one open to the general public appears to have been more than two years ago. His office said he did hold sessions with local businesses in 2020 and 2021. 

Like Williams, Keltie hopes to appeal to ultraconservative voters dissatisfied with Lamborn’s approach, if not his policy positions.

“That's probably one of the strongest things that we have, is people want something new. They want some, they want fresh blood. They want warriors,” she explained. “They want people… like the Ted Cruzs and the Lauren Boeberts, you know, I heard (that) a lot.”

A pitch to the dissatisfied middle

The Lamborn campaign did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. But in his reelection announcement, Lamborn stressed his record of pushing back on President Biden and Democrats, as well as his seniority on the Armed Forces Committee, where he is set to chair a subcommittee if Republicans take back the House.

But his opponents in the primary see vulnerabilities, including a lawsuit brought by a former staffer, which also launched an ongoing ethics investigation.

That’s one of the reasons businessman Andrew Heaton jumped into the race.

Heaton is a tall, burly man who started his conversation with CPR by noting he’s no politician. “I'm probably not as smooth and as polished as I should be. And I'm a little more direct than probably I should be.” 

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Businessman Andrew Heaton, a candidate in District 5, is focused on business issues and the concerns of veterans and the military — traditional Republican priorities.

His professional background includes running a cannabis company in Colorado and a vanilla farm in East Africa. And in addition to business issues, Heaton said he’s focused on the concerns of veterans and the military — traditional Republican priorities. 

When Colorado Springs lost the headquarters of Space Command to Huntsville, Alabama, Heaton said he started asking questions about Lamborn’s effectiveness.

“Basically the answer I got from everybody — whether it was Trump's staff or local people in the political party here — was that (Lamborn) just never showed up,” he explained. He’d heard that members of Alabama’s delegation were continually going to former President Trump’s office to get the command moved to Redstone Arsenal.

Colorado’s delegation, including Lamborn, and Gov. Jared Polis, did all lobby the Trump administration to keep the headquarters in Colorado, and the congressman has pushed for the decision to be reevaluated. But Heaton’s complaint speaks to a larger theme he’s trying to pitch to voters — having a congress member that is responsive to the needs of the district.

“We need people willing to listen to their constituents. And the longer they stay in that beltway, the less interested they are about all of us that are here. And I think that's being shown with the current incumbent,” he explained. 

Heaton said people have told him they call Sen. Michael Bennet’s office because they couldn’t get help through Lamborn’s. However, throughout the pandemic, Lamborn has touted that he has kept the district offices staffed and open to respond to constituents’ needs.

If the other candidates are vying for who can be farthest to the right for the primary, Heaton is also trying to appeal to the middle, pitching himself as someone with problem-solving abilities and a willingness to talk to people on both sides of the aisle. 

“It's something I think we need a lot more of in politics nationwide,” he said. “We've seen things go to the extreme here over the last decade and a half, two decades or so in a very disturbing trend.”

It’s a trend he sees in both democratic and republican politics. 

One potential vulnerability for Heaton: he doesn’t currently reside in the district, although many of his businesses are located there. Instead, he lives closer to his elderly father in Douglas County. District residency isn’t a requirement for Congress, and Heaton said if his primary opponents — who all do live in CO-5 — bring it up, they’re less pro-family than they claim to be.

Lamborn’s advantages: lots of name recognition and lots of opponents

With just about two months to go before the June 28 primary, Williams, Keltie and Heaton have all expressed their desire to hold debates to discuss the issues. But whether Lamborn will participate remains to be seen; he has largely avoided debating opponents in the past. 

El Paso County GOP vice chair Schneider believes competition is always a good thing, including in this primary. He’s hoping for robust debate that goes beyond hot-button topics to cover issues that actually impact the district, like taxes and national security, given the many military bases and commands in the area.

But there may be little advantage for Lamborn to engage too actively in this primary, especially with so many challengers in the field.

“There's kind of an anti-Lamborn vote that is gonna be split three different ways right now,” said University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket. “It's possible that one candidate could do a lot better. But again, all Lamborn has to do is get a plurality of the vote and he's the nominee.”

As the incumbent, Lamborn also goes into the primary with more campaign money and wider name recognition than the other candidates.

In downtown Colorado Springs, William Koch, a registered Republican, has at least heard of his current congressman, if not the other candidates. He said economic issues are his priority. And if all the candidates share his views on policy, the deciding factor will come down to “the way they comport themselves in public.”

“If one is irrational or whatever and is prone to wild statements,I’d be more aligned with the person who is not like that,” he said.

Kristina Kelly of Colorado Springs, who describes herself as conservative, is looking for a candidate who focuses on the things she values, like getting rid of mask and vaccine mandates. “I will pick someone probably with the most conservative values just to get us back on track.”

But most Republican voters CPR talked with said they’re keeping an open mind, and will make a decision closer to primary day.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with the ruling in Rep. Williams' nickname lawsuit.