Democrats have not won Colorado's Congressional District 5 since it was drawn 42 years ago. But they say this time, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Irv Halter has a chance — because he's reaching out to Republicans.
In 2012, no Democrat ran in the district. In prior years, Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn routed Democrats three times by margins of roughly 60 percent to 40 percent, even though two of the three candidates were retired military officers. That background should count for something in a district that's home to five installations, all in El Paso County, which has six times the number of registered voters than the district's other counties — Chaffee, Fremont, Park and Teller— combined.
To demonstrate the challenge for Halter, consider this: Even if he captures every El Paso County Democrat's vote and half the county's unaffiliated votes, along with all votes in the other four counties, he'll still fall short by 17,000 votes, assuming Lamborn gets half the unaffiliated votes and all the Republican votes in El Paso County.
Which underscores the importance of Halter convincing a lot of Republicans to vote for him without alienating Dems and unaffiliated voters.
Playing both sides
How might he do that? Well, for one thing, Halter's been critical of the Democrats' signature legislation. "The Affordable Care Act," he says, "has missed the mark in making health care affordable."
That comment came in a news release addressing CD5 voters two days after Lamborn won the Republican primary on June 24. In the same release, Halter touted having been a registered Republican "for much of [his] life," having voted for Ronald Reagan both times for president; feeling that reducing the federal deficit is "our top priority"; and believing that "some in the Democratic Party are on the wrong side of issues that are important to Coloradans."
Halter has painted himself as a conservative Democrat — he registered in Colorado as unaffiliated in September 2010 before switching to Democrat on Feb. 7, 2013 — and his 23-year-old campaign manager, Ethan Susseles, says he's making no promises to fall into lockstep with Democrats if elected.
"He's going to vote the way his constituents want him to vote," Susseles says in an interview. "He wants to go to Washington and work across the aisle with Republicans and get something done."
Susseles came to the Halter campaign via his work with a consultant; he's the type of guy who, en route to a political science degree at Washington University in St. Louis, took a semester off to get a Missouri attorney general candidate re-elected. He's pragmatic in this, the fourth race he's guided, saying Halter needs to win two-thirds of the unaffiliated votes and 15 percent to 20 percent of the Republican votes, district-wide. And that's doable, Susseles insists, noting that currently serving Democrats have won House seats in West Virginia and Utah where Republicans have a greater advantage than in CD5.
Besides emphasizing his relatively conservative viewpoints, Halter will pound on Lamborn's record. Susseles notes despite Lamborn's experience — he served 12 years in the state legislature before being elected to Congress in 2006 — he hasn't accomplished much. "He's been in Congress for eight years, and he has nothing to show for it. Voters in this district, regardless of affiliation, know that."
Only one of Lamborn's bills, to legalize the Manitou Springs Incline, has been passed, Susseles notes. And he calls the congressman an "embarrassment" for boycotting President Obama's State of the Union address in 2012, and for failing to attend 58 percent of House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearings where Veterans Administration shortcomings were discussed.
In addition, Susseles says, Lamborn was the only member of the Colorado delegation to vote last fall to shut down the government, which placed nearly 20 percent of the district's population on furlough — the highest percentage in the nation. According to the Washington Post, Colorado Springs surpasses all other cities in the country, including Washington, D.C., for having the highest percentage of its workforce employed by the federal government: 18.8 percent, or 55,000 people.
Those things, says Susseles, helped lead Lamborn to a tight primary race with Bentley Rayburn, despite Rayburn being short on campaign money and not entering the race until spring.
All of which adds up to vulnerability, Susseles contends.
Grips and grins
Asked to respond to Halter's criticism, Lamborn's campaign issued a one-sentence statement: "The only embarrassment in this race is that Irv Halter, after five years of Barack Obama's failed domestic and foreign policies, would turn his back on the Republican [P]arty and become a Democrat so he can cheerlead for the President."
Halter's reaction to that comment is simple. "He's never at fault," he told the Indy during a meet-and-greet at Hooked on Books in Colorado Springs on July 19. "I'm going to take responsibility, and I'm willing to assign responsibility regardless of party."
Few people showed up for the gathering, but Halter and his wife, Judy, chatted with those who did. Most voters he meets at house parties and coffees want to talk about jobs, the cost of higher education and health care, he says. Halter proposes to revamp the tax code and regulatory landscape to spur job creation while protecting the middle class from tax hikes. Taking aim at Lamborn again, he says, "I wouldn't shut down the government if I was the guy representing the district."
Regarding student debt, Halter says it's "a huge drag on the whole economy" and that he would vote to lower student interest rates and find ways to make college more affordable.
While he's not a fan of Obamacare, he criticizes those who want to repeal it without offering an alternative, adding there's "a wealth of ideas out there that need to be looked at." But he doesn't offer specifics, and his website lacks details in saying, "Irv knows that we must work across the aisle to find an outcomes-based solution that drives down costs while increasing access."
Halter has raised $519,605 so far compared to Lamborn's $462,419. Lamborn's total includes a $100,000 loan to himself. Halter has contributed about $33,000 to his own campaign.
"A first-time candidate is not supposed to have more money in the bank than a four-term congressman," Susseles says.
While 69 percent of Halter's money has come from individuals, only 22 percent of Lamborn's has, with most flowing from political action committees and defense contractors.
Susseles won't say if the national party will pump money into Halter's campaign, but he notes he's coordinating with the state party to mobilize Democrats, who he says lean toward conservatism in CD5. He adds that polls show a majority of CD5 voters don't like the Affordable Care Act.
Halter's right-leaning strategy doesn't disturb Christy Le Lait, executive director of the El Paso County Democratic Party.
"I think that CD5 is starving for a representative who will actually represent his district," she says in an interview. "We need someone who's representing our interests, who listens to the voters, who listens to his constituents, no matter what party they are. Our current congressman doesn't bother to talk to anybody who's not in the very narrow faction that he represents."
She adds, "We don't have a litmus test for our candidates. I think people have finally realized the good of the community trumps party affiliation."