Ahead of contentious primary, Republican voters in El Paso County consider who they want to send to Congress

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The statue commemorating General William Jackson Palmer at the intersection of Platte and Nevada avenues in Colorado Springs, May 23, 2024.

In Colorado Springs, Tuesday’s Republican congressional primary will be the culmination of a hard-fought contest between Dave Williams, the head of the Colorado Republican Party, and Jeff Crank, a former talk radio host. 

The two men are vying to replace Congressman Doug Lamborn, who’s represented this district for 18 years. Lamborn’s retirement means that, for the first time in nearly two decades, voters here have an open field as they decide the region’s political future.

“They both make good arguments as to their background and what their plans are,” said Republican voter Robert Ford of Crank and Williams. Ford, who’s 72 and retired from the military, moved to El Paso County 14 years ago with his wife. Ford likes that he still lives in a red pocket of what’s now a deeply blue state. 

“Hopefully we can maintain an R next to this district and build it in the House of Representatives,” he said.

In the fifth district’s 50-year history, a Democrat has never held this seat, which as recently as a few years ago had a 20 point Republican advantage. Meaning Ford is unlikely to be disappointed in the general election. But that political reality makes the stakes all that much higher for the primary.

Ford is leaning toward Crank because he listened to his radio show for years and supports Americans For Prosperity, which has endorsed Crank. But one thing gives him pause — Williams has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

“That's why I'm still on the fence a little bit,” Ford explained. “because a Trump endorsement means something to me. It really does.”

Courtesy photos.
Dave Williams (left) and Jeff Crank are candidates in the June 25 primary for Colorado's 5th Congressional District race.

Williams has made his Trump endorsement a central part of his pitch to voters — featuring the former president in ads and quoting his endorsement in a banner at the top of his campaign website. While Trump’s margin of victory here declined between 2016 and 2020, he still won El Paso County in 2020 with 54 percent.

In some ways this race is on the front lines of a battle that’s been going on for years between the more traditional conservative wing of Colorado’s Republican Party and the MAGA wing that has risen to power under Williams. Its outcome will give a window into what Republican primary voters in the state’s largest GOP county are thinking, and where they want to steer the party.

“I'm a Trumpster, no doubt about it. I've never thought we'd have an inquisition like we did for a former president,” said Republican voter Ken Clothier. “We're turning into a third world country.’

Clothier spent his career as a civil engineer in San Diego before moving to Colorado Springs with his wife to be near their three daughters and grandchildren. He plans to vote for whichever candidate he decides is the most conservative — and when it comes to conservative, Fox News is too liberal for him these days. He said he’s concerned about the border, but his top issue is restoring conservative values and the direction of public education.  

“They’re teaching our kids things I don't want them to learn,” Clothier told CPR News. “I want them to learn the three Rs, nothing else.”

As chair of the state GOP, Williams has encouraged parents to pull their children out of public school. Crank also supports alternatives to public education. On policy there’s not a lot of daylight between the candidates, but stylistically they’re quite different.

Williams’ political philosophy has been focused on Republican purity — he tried to ban unaffiliated voters from participating in GOP primaries and aggressively goes after elected Republicans who don’t fit his view of conservatism or party loyalty.

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.

One of the most controversial things he’s done as state chair is push to drop the party’s long-standing policy of staying neutral in primaries. This year it’s started endorsing candidates in primary races, making its picks based on whether candidates went through the assembly process and how they answer a party questionnaire.

In the fifth district race, the state party endorsed Williams, although he recused himself from the process.

William’s leadership of the party has alienated some of its officials. But it’s less clear what voters make of it.

“His style and some of the stuff just doesn't seem right,” said Republican voter Carole Anne of Colorado Springs, who declined to give her last name. She said she hasn’t liked Williams for a while, but when he sent mass emails in June titled “No to Pride, Yes to Jesus” and “God Hates Pride”, it sealed the deal. She’ll be voting for Crank. 

“It paints everybody with a bad brush,” she said of the anti-Pride campaign, adding that she doesn’t personally support those messages.

Republican Darren Davies said he’s still on the fence, looking for the most moderate candidate who is willing to collaborate in Congress.

“I am conservative, but I want someone that's level-headed and not too far one way or the other, that can see both sides of an issue and compromise when needed,” Davies explained.

For Davies, the Trump endorsement isn’t a plus. In fact, he may not even vote for Trump this fall. 

Stephanie Rivera/CPR News
A yard sign for 5th Congressional District candidate Jeff Crank along North Union Boulevard in northeast Colorado Springs on Monday, June 17, 2024.

Joan Lee, an elementary school teacher who works with dyslexic students, is also still making up her mind in this primary. She said she will focus on what the candidates say they’ll do on the issues she cares most about. 

“It's the economy, it's the taxes, it's bringing in illegals — I know they don't even want to use that word, but I don't care. It's real,” said Lee. “And abortion issues. Our state has gone completely ridiculously radical on abortion. That's against my principles.” 

As the election draws nearer, many of the voters who told CPR News they’re still undecided said they’ll be paying close attention before they cast a ballot, knowing that whoever wins the GOP primary is strongly favored to head to Washington D.C. in the fall.