Conservative voters in El Paso County and surrounding counties provided a mixed verdict to the state's Republican power structure in tonight's GOP primary, re-electing an incumbent Congressman and the State House's Majority Leader, even as they chose a fresh faced, conservative young gun over a long-time party stalwart and four-term State Representative in a closely watched Senate contest.
Apparently not interested in the tea party vs. establishment label war popularized in the drive-by media and among some activists, Republican primary voters simultaneously voted for Tea Party Congressman Doug Lamborn, the establishment State House Majority Leader Amy Stephens and conservative rock star Owen Hill.
Lynn Bartels commented that it was the most conservative candidate who won:
In many GOP races tonight, the candidate dubbed most conservative won. #copolitics
— lynnbartels (@lynn_bartels) June 27, 2012
While generally true, it’s an oversimplification. Most people would call Marsha Looper more conservative than Amy Stephens, but it was Stephens’ fiercer campaign that prevailed.
The closest watched race tonight was in CD 5 between incumbent Congressman Doug Lamborn and local businessman Robert Blaha. It got national attention, topping The Washington Post's five things to watch, but ultimately got called early for Lamborn.
Lamborn was taken to the limit by Blaha's aggressive campaign — casting Lamborn as too small to fix the nation's challengers and slamming his inability to get legislation passed in Congress — but that still wasn't enough to knock off the incumbent. Lamborn, never one to wilt from a fight, waged a vicious assault on Blaha's business credentials, hammering him in the closing weeks of the campaign for everything from paperwork violations to tax liens on old businesses. In the end, Lamborn's tough campaign tactics, and his popularized credential as the most conservative Republican in the US House, carried Lamborn to a larger than expected victory.
It will probably be a long time before anyone makes a serious run at Lamborn in a primary again.
Majority Leader Amy Stephens also seized her race with a larger margin than many were expecting, overcoming big name and big gun opposition from many leaders in the conservative grassroots. Despite the attacks on her co-sponsorship of the healthcare exchange bill SB200 — dubbed “Amycare” — Stephens fought back equally as vociferously, slamming Looper for seemingly shifting positions on issues from immigration to civil unions. Looper waged a tough campaign too, and because of her hard hits and long record as a scrappy campaigner, many observers expected Looper to prevail.
But SB200 wasn’t the silver bullet Looper was hoping for, as it was the civil unions bill — and Stephens’ role in killing it — that commandeered the spotlight towards the election. Looper no doubt has a bright tomorrow in the GOP, but this primary day belonged to Amy Stephens. Amy Stephens star now burns very, very bright. Nothing proves a leader’s mettle like trial by fire. Amy Stephens not only survived in this fight of her political life, she thrived in it.
The same is true of Owen Hill, who trounced longtime Rep Larry Liston by a margin of over 20 points.
Hill seemed to have the advantage from the start, leveraging his goodwill from challenging Democrat Senate Majority Leader John Morse in 2010 and the following he built among grassroots conservatives. Despite Grover Norquist’s stellar record in Washington, DC, his endorsement of Liston early on seemed to matter diddly squat come voting time.
That’s not to say an establishment air around Liston was what did him in — it was Liston’s voting record, as told by Owen Hill and his supporters. While Hill was taking incoming fire about whether he slept on his father-in-law’s couch or not, Liston was being slammed as a liberal. In a race to the right, which is what primaries essentially are, conservative philosophy matters more than sleeping locations (unless they’re next to a dead girl or a live boy, of course).
The Republican power structure in the state’s largest Republican county was handed a mixed bag of reviews by the rank and file tonight, but there was one common theme — to win a GOP primary, be conservative or be fierce — be anything but a moderate squish.