A rare open congressional seat has kicked off a tough GOP primary battle in El Paso County

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dave Williams at the 2024 GOP state assembly was held April 6, 2024, at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo.

Updated at 9:44 a.m.

A recent Tuesday evening found Jeff Crank, a Republican candidate for Congress in the 5th Congressional District, sitting on a stool in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the rec center clubhouse of a northern Colorado Springs subdivision.

He said he was more interested in answering questions than talking, but still started out by explaining “why this race is so important.”

“America’s at a crossroads,” he told the crowd. “We see our country that we love slipping away. And we see that values that we hold dear, aren’t held dear anymore.”

For the first time in almost 18 years, voters in the 5th Congressional District will get a new representative, after longtime Congressman Doug Lamborn announced he will retire at the end of this term. However, unlike the state’s other two open seats, which have attracted extremely large Republican fields, the 5th district’s primary is shaping up to be a two or three-man contest. 

And while the candidates have similar viewpoints, their differences in style and political philosophy reflect larger divisions in the Republican Party in El Paso County and the state overall.

Crank has been building a coalition to help his bid. At the clubhouse meet-and-greet, he was introduced by Joshua Griffin, a former competitor in the race who didn’t end up making the ballot. Three former chairs of the El Paso County GOP were also there to support him. 

“This campaign has mojo going right now,” Crank told CPR News after spending more than 90 minutes taking questions and then talking with the crowd and taking photos. “The reason we do is because it isn't about me. It isn't about power, it isn't about any of that. It's about everybody here.”

Crank is proud of his conservative record and said he’ll put it up against both of the other candidates in the primary race. He thinks border security is a problem. He supports law enforcement. He said the government is chronically overspending and needs to abolish the Department of Education and reform the major entitlement programs.

“When people talk about Social Security and not touching it and all of that, it's demagoguery,” he explained. “The politicians who don't want to do anything with Social Security and don't want to fix it, they're bankrupting it. And so we need to sit and figure out how we do that.”

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Republican congressional candidate Jeff Crank at a meet and greet with voters in Colorado Springs on April 2, 2024.

This isn’t Crank’s first run for Congress. The former talk radio host challenged Lamborn in 2006 and 2008 – losing both times. 

Since then he’s watched the Republican party shrink and shrink in Colorado. It’s a trend he believes he could help turn around.

“I want to make it bigger and I want to grow a movement, and that's what's going to have unaffiliated voters come over to us. They agree with us on the issues,” said Crank.

Controversy over party chair’s bid for the seat

The question of how the party is being managed is particularly relevant to this race because of the man Crank is up against on the primary ballot: Dave Williams. In addition to running for Congress, Williams is the current chair of the state GOP.

How Williams has handled his dual roles has brought sharp criticism from Crank and alarmed many in the party. 

Williams used the state GOP email list to announce his run for Congress and in recent months the party has sent emails and mailers attacking Crank, tying his support from Americans for Prosperity with the group's support of GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley Crank, who used to work for the organization’s Colorado branch, has AFP’s endorsement in the race.

For his part, Williams said his critics are out of touch with what the rank and file of the party wants.

“They're just Never Trump sell-out Republicans who want to keep the status quo,” Williams told CPR News. “They'll say and do anything to try and prevent a conservative grassroots Republican from representing the fifth district. There really is no legitimacy to their argument.”

Williams added the email and mailer that included Crank were about defending the party from attacks from other groups, including claims by the Colorado Gazette that the party was considering using Dominion Voting machines at the state assembly. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Republican Party Chair Dave Williams at the 2024 Republican 4th Congressional District Assembly. April 5, 2024, at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo.

Williams’ willingness to attack fellow Republicans has been on display during his time as the head of the state party and goes beyond the fifth district race. The party also attacked a GOP candidate in the 4th congressional district race this week; last year it went after Lamborn and former Rep. Ken Buck for positions they took. Like former president Donald Trump, Williams has made it clear that the role of GOP leaders is to keep party members in line, as much as to battle Democrats.

That hasn’t sat well with those who argue the job of party chair should be to support all Republican officeholders and candidates.

Todd Watkins, the vice chair of the El Paso County GOP and a former ally of Williams, attempted to introduce a resolution to bar elected party officials from holding onto their positions while also seeking office.

“They should not be serving in that capacity while actively seeking or holding elected public office because those roles can influence the conduct of candidate nominations and the outcomes of those elections,” he explained.

Watkins’ resolution, however, was not included on the list of resolutions considered by delegates at the Republican State Assembly earlier this month.

‘We need fighters’

Williams has proven popular with the grassroots, at least the activists who take the time to become delegates. He took the top line on the ballot, garnering just over 70 percent of the votes at the congressional district assembly. He’s also snagged Trump’s coveted endorsement.

The former state Representative earned a firebrand reputation during his six years at the state Capitol. He said, if elected to Congress, he would be a no on omnibus spending packages, no to increased debt, and a supporter of banning stock trading for members of Congress. He would also fight against illegal immigration, for help for veterans and the military and to “drain the swamp.”

This is Williams’ second bid for the seat. He ran two years ago to unseat Lamborn and lost. His pitch to voters is pretty straightforward: “Washington D.C. is broken and we need fighters who are going to advance the America First agenda and back up Donald Trump.”

But while Williams thinks what the district wants is a MAGA warrior, recent elections suggest the fifth is changing. The 2021 redistricting shrank the district’s footprint; it shed a handful of very conservative rural counties and is now focused mainly around Colorado Springs. Last year, for the first time, the city elected an unaffiliated mayor, not a Republican. 

Williams’ critics worry that a far-right congressman could give Democrats an opening in some future election. But Williams said that’s ignoring the current political reality.

“If you look at the presidential primary on Super Tuesday, about 66 percent of El Paso County residents voted for Donald Trump versus Nikki Haley,” he said.

Will it be a two-man race or a three-man?

The wildcard in this primary, however, may be state Sen. Bob Gardner, who submitted signatures to make the ballot and is still waiting to hear if he has enough to qualify.  

“The best way to make a difference is to go to work,” Gardner told CPR News. ”Not engage in performative politics, but to get the job done.”

Like Crank, Gardner chose to get on the ballot through petitions and not the district assembly. The state GOP under Williams has elevated the assembly route for making the ballot, arguing that petitions put too much power in the hands of less engaged voters, versus the party faithful who serve as delegates. The party recently changed its rules so that it doesn’t have to stay neutral toward primary candidates who petition onto the ballot.

“The assembly process was, I think, somewhat controlled by party leadership and I just didn't feel like that was the best way to reach voters,” Gardner explained.

He noted that the people who participate in the caucus and assembly process are less than one-half of one percent of the districts’ registered Republicans, whereas the petition process requires candidates and their allies to approach thousands of voters.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner speaks against proposed gun control measures, in the Senate, March 10, 2023.

Gardner, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has spent the last 16 years in the state legislature, but he doesn’t consider himself a career politician. The 70-year-old said he has signed a term limit pledge, should he win a seat in Congress. 

If elected, the issues he wants to work on include local concerns, like growth and the economy that he'd address if elected.

“I'm not in the race to run against either David Williams or Jeff Crank,” he said. “I'm in the race to tell everyone that we need a change in Washington.”

Colorado’s primary is June 25, with ballots heading to voters at the start of the month.

Editor's Note: This story was updated after the initial story incorrectly described a campaign mailer. The mailer tied Crank to AFP and its support of Haley. Crank did not support Haley.