Wildfire a Tragic Backdrop for “Bittersweet” El Paso County Primaries

June 28, 2012

Instead of watching election night vote tallies at campaign parties, candidates and their supporters watched live TV coverage of burning homes (Photo by Jacqueline Rogers)

COLORADO SPRINGS– Sizzling Republican primaries were the hot talk for months in El Paso County, but a few hours before the polls officially closed the Waldo Canyon fire erupted, forcing more than 32,000 people to flee their homes.

Instead of watching election night vote tallies at campaign parties, candidates and their supporters watched live TV coverage of burning homes.

That catastrophic event was more shocking than race results that, despite being described as extremely close, delivered relatively comfortable wins for Republican incumbent 5th district Congressman Doug Lamborn over millionaire banker Robert Blaha, House Majority Leader Amy Stephens over Rep. Marsha Looper in House District 19, and County Commissioners Sallie Clark and Dennis Hisey over challengers.

In another closely watched contest, state Rep. Larry Liston lost his Senate District 10 bid to Owen Hill, a Compassion International finance executive. Liston appeared lackluster in defending himself against Hill’s attacks that probed the lengthy voting record Liston compiled while representing House District 16.

“(Election) night was one of conflicting emotions for us as we won our election 61 percent to 39 percent, but also watched friends, family and neighbors lose their homes and businesses to the fires in Colorado Springs,” said Hill in an email.

“Please keep the men and women fighting the 10 fires in Colorado in your prayers and pray to our good God for rain and cooler weather,” said Hill.

“Larry was outworked by Owen Hill,” said political consultant Patrick Davis, who evacuated his home in Mountain Shadows, a northwest Colorado Springs community directly in the path of the raging inferno.

Hill promoted his campaign in Google ads, created an impressive website and hammered Liston in almost daily email blasts.  Davis observed that Liston had failed to effectively utilize social media and relied exclusively on old-school campaign practices like walking precincts and airing radio ads attacking Hill.

Liston’s campaign website had featured an outdated bio and photos of himself with Hill in 2010, when the legislator had endorsed Hill’s campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader John Morse in Senate District 11.

Kay Rendleman, a former county GOP chair, said Hill took advantage of Liston’s voting record and sometimes low ratings from groups like the Colorado Union of Taxpayers. Rendleman, who managed the campaign of state Sen. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs) and U.S. Senate bid of Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, had also been forced to evacuate her home in Rockrimmon on Tuesday.

Reapportionment maps pitted Stephens against Looper in a heated contest over conservative values, but Stephens prevailed, winning 60 percent of the vote.

“It was a strong and convincing win and the people of HD19 spoke loud and clear – they chose a conservative leader with vision and ideas and did not buy the visionless negative campaigning Looper was selling,” said Stephens, who added that it had been a “bittersweet” election night.

Looper hyped the controversy over the state healthcare provider exchange established by Senate Bill 200 sponsored by Stephens last year. Stephens reminded voters that she had consistently opposed same-sex civil unions and asserted Looper had flip-flopped on the issue, having supported it in 2011 and voting against it this year.

Looper did not respond to requests for comment.

“Amy never lost her lead in this race,” said Davis. “She never went defensive and held her ground on Senate Bill 200.”  In contrast, he said Looper was not perceived as likeable and catered to the Tea Party, a small base compared to the number of traditional Republican voters in the district.

In the 5th Congressional District, voters overwhelming favored Lamborn over Blaha, 61 percent to 39 percent. Lamborn campaigned on his three-term conservative voting record and 100 percent ratings by multiple national conservative organizations. Blaha pumped more than $700,000 in a high profile media-based campaign promising that he would be a more “articulate” congressman.

“Articulate, how compelling is that?” mused Rendleman. “Blaha conveyed a message that he should be elected because Congress is out of touch, but Lamborn is not one of those members of Congress.”

Davis said Lamborn, who campaigned on less than half the money as his Republican challenger, “used his money wisely.” In the final weeks of the campaign, Lamborn repeatedly aired radio ads attacking the credibility of Blaha’s purported professional business and banking experience.

“The negative ads that Lamborn ran defined Blaha in a very vicious way,” said Davis.  Blaha refuted the ad content to reporters, but Davis said the candidate should have aggressively responded in television and radio ads.

After Blaha conceded the race to Lamborn on election night, the Congressman told reporters that he had been confident that voters would support his re-election despite the challenger’s abundantly funded campaign.

However, in the final days of the campaign, Lamborn had boasted that he had achieved more than former Congressman Joel Hefley in an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette. Hefley told that newspaper that Lamborn was a “knucklehead” – and Lamborn tried to essentially blame his gaffe on the reporter. Problem was, the interview was video taped.

El Paso County Commissioners Clark and Hisey wound up in primaries over their support of a badly worded ballot initiative in 2010 that extended their two-term limit to three. Voters passed the measure, but some later complained that they had been deceived. Despite that Clark and Hisey easily defeated challengers Karen Magistrelli and Audie Cox, respectively.

In the House District 21 low profile primary, former Fountain City Councilwoman Lois Landgraf defeated candidate Albert Sweet, 61 percent of the vote to 39 percent. Democrats had no primary contests.

Located in the mandatory evacuation area in northwest Colorado Springs, County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams’ office was forced to evacuate to a safer location on Tuesday. Though the ballots collected from seven drop off locations on election night have yet to be counted, the final tallies won’t significantly change election results.

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