The first results of mail-in votes showed U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn with a tenuous 51-49 percent lead, just a 1,200-vote difference, over Republican challenger Bentley Rayburn.
At that moment, 7:01 p.m., Colorado Springs and the other counties in House District 5 (Teller, Park, Fremont and Chaffee) realized their four-term congressman no longer could be viewed as invincible with a guaranteed seat for life.
Lamborn surely reached the same conclusion. After eight years of trying his best to be “the most conservative member of Congress,” earnestly staying as far to the right as possible, Lamborn still came closer to losing than in any race since moving to Washington in January 2007. And this near-miss came against Rayburn, who had lost to Lamborn twice before and never seemed to develop firm traction or momentum this time.
Rayburn seemed content to ride his Air Force two-star general credentials, never effectively creating headlines in a useful way, never presenting a convincing case for how much better he would be in D.C.
And still, he lost by fewer than 4,000 votes, which means 2,000 people could have switched their choices and he would’ve pulled off the upset.
Hidden in the final results was one little twist: Lamborn fared better outside El Paso County than in his hometown of Colorado Springs. He whipped Rayburn by nearly 60-40 percent in Cañon City and Fremont County as well as Park County, by 55-45 in Woodland Park and Teller County, and by 63-37 in Salida-Buena Vista and Chaffee County.
What does this all mean, beyond the fact Rayburn apparently didn’t connect in those other counties?
First and foremost, it means Lamborn hasn’t endeared himself to Colorado Springs, including the business community. Try to think of anything he’s done to bolster the local economy, beyond his stubborn refusal to go along with any military cuts that in the post-war reality have been inevitable.
It also means that a less extreme, more charismatic, well-funded Republican could go after Lamborn in 2016 and win. Who knows, perhaps County Commissioner Sallie Clark? Rumors also had suggested Sheriff Terry Maketa, but not anymore.
Democrats, of course, have come away with a different thought. They think they can succeed where Rayburn came up short.
And the Dems have their own retired Air Force two-star, Irv Halter, who announced his candidacy early and has spent the past year building his presence across the five-county district.
You can be sure that Halter has been doing his version of political math, just as Lamborn’s past challengers have — most recently Independent Dave Anderson in 2012 and Democrat Hal Bidlack in 2010.
Halter and his supporters see that 47.4 percent of Republican voters in this primary, about 35,000 total, already now have voted against Lamborn. Obviously, if those 35,000 folks were enamored with one retired general, many might prefer another — even a Democrat.
If even half of that group would go with Halter, and he can pull a strong Democratic turnout plus many unaffiliated/independent votes, that could create the stunner Rayburn couldn’t consummate.
In a backhanded way, the race for governor could influence the Lamborn-Halter outcome, one way or the other. If enough El Paso County Republicans rally behind GOP nominee Bob Beauprez in his race against Gov. John Hickenlooper, those voters would be likely to go for Lamborn.
But Halter didn’t hesitate to create his own headlines Tuesday night, releasing a strongly worded statement that made it clear he’s fully engaged.
He reminded voters “this election is not about party; it is about who can change Washington.” He said he’s “running on a moderate, mainstream platform, focused on creating jobs and improving the economy in our region.”
Halter added a one-liner that will appeal to many Republicans, saying “the Affordable Care Act is unaffordable.” And he finished with this olive branch: “I too agree that our district has been underserved by a congressman who has become part of the problem in Washington. I share your frustration that we lack a leader who will engage with his constituents — especially the local business community.”
Will that theme resonate? Will Irv Halter convince enough people he would be a better representative and a stronger voice on business and military issues?
Or will Doug Lamborn realize he could have lost this time, and work hard to make amends with his constituents — including business leaders?
In a year when other D.C. incumbents have come tumbling down, this race will be worth following.