He might have his Ph.D. in government, but when it comes to elections, Hal Bidlack has learned that simple mathematics might be even more important.
That's the fast explanation for why Bidlack has decided that unless he wins the lottery, he won't run for U.S. Congress again in 2010 as the Democratic challenger to Rep. Doug Lamborn. After his energetic but underfunded 2008 campaign earned him just 37 percent of the vote, Bidlack realizes knocking off the incumbent will require far more resources.
"It's just too expensive," says the 51-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "I ran through most of my savings last year, and I'm simply not willing to go into debt and mortgage my house. Of course, if somebody wants to give me $1.5 million, I'll be happy to run. But I just don't see that happening."
So from every indication, Lamborn might enjoy a free pass next year to serve a third term in Congress. No Republicans are making a move toward a primary battle, though surely Jeff Crank wishes he could have one head-to-head campaign against Lamborn, after Bentley Rayburn's stubborn insistence on diluting the GOP race last summer. (Rayburn has denied rumors he might run against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet next year.)
You'd have to figure many alienated longtime local Republicans wish somebody would surface from their party to face Lamborn. But it's not happening yet. No other local Democrats are nibbling, either. Jay Fawcett, who lost to Lamborn in 2006, has returned to the staff of a local defense contractor. Richard Skorman has broad name recognition but prefers living and working for change in Colorado Springs.
So we're stuck with a congressman who should be highly vulnerable but instead appears invincible. That bothers Bidlack, who recalls Lamborn's strategy last fall: "He didn't spend money, he didn't campaign, he had no TV commercials, he made no appearances until the end — nothing. And he won."
If Bidlack did anything wrong, it was not being nasty. He needed to create more headlines, but criticizing Lamborn's vanishing act wasn't sufficient.
"When people got to hear me, they were a lot more comfortable with a moderate Democrat, or a Western Democrat," Bidlack says.
Jason DeGroot, new head of the El Paso County Democratic Party, puts it more bluntly.
"Hal would be a terrific representative for this district," DeGroot says, "But he was just too nice, too friendly. He wouldn't go for blood. To beat Lamborn, at some point somebody has to do that. It needs to be a little bloody, a little messy. Lamborn is an embarrassment, a joke. This district should be ashamed to have elected him once, much less again."
DeGroot says meetings are ongoing to determine a possible Democratic opponent for 2010, "but it's hard to find somebody." One possibility, perhaps for 2012, might be state Sen. John Morse, the new state Senate majority leader. Morse will be up for re-election in 2010 and could solidify his prominence even more. Two years later, with the party's help, Morse could go after Lamborn.
Bidlack has other words of wisdom. He thinks area Dems need to make people think about the results of Republican leadership: "That would be low taxes, bad bridges and a reputation for intolerance." He believes his party first needs to win at the city, county and school-board levels (whether defined as partisan or not).
"We also have to make people realize that if Democrats win, nobody's going to come charging in to take your guns away or make your son marry a man," Bidlack says, with his usual quick humor. "But we're not there yet. We have to think little steps."
Yet, if the national party decides to target Lamborn and provide the dollars, Bidlack would not hesitate. He's still involved, and he'll drive north this weekend to emcee the Douglas County Democrats' annual dinner. He says he also knows Lamborn's strategy: "He'll hunker down, be more conservative and more judgmental than anybody else, keep his mouth shut and hope people don't notice that he hasn't accomplished a damn thing."
Yet, Doug Lamborn remains your congressman, and knocking him off will take a lot of spunk. Not to mention money.