Answered prayers?

The base turned out for the GOP candidate -- and against gay marriage -- in Haggard's home turf, but the mood was blue.


Lauren Sandler
November 8, 2006 10:56PM (UTC)

At Mr. Biggs Family Fun Center in Colorado Springs, where Republican candidates were sweating out the local, congressional and gubernatorial elections on Tuesday night, the mood was hardly raucous. As party members trickled in to nibble cheese cubes and wait for word of victory, in a cavernous space off a go-kart track smack in the center of this blood-red district, everyone was looking a little, well, blue.

The mood was subdued while a volunteer wearing an American flag cap that partially covered her mullet circulated through the room, lighting red, scented candles, as a swing band set up on a stage festooned with giant banners blaring candidates' names. Campaign workers hanging placards wore tight smiles. People casually referred to the "enemy" -- which, in this conservative Christian crowd could refer to the Party of Pelosi or Satan himself -- favored in the polls nationwide. A volunteer named Robin Koran hustled around in a cloud of hairspray and a flash of pink sequins, assembling balloon bouquets while discussing the "integrity" of Doug Lamborn, the Republican House candidate here, who Koran assured me was "a good Christian man."

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Though Lamborn was favored to beat his opponent, a retired Air Force officer named Jay Fawcett, the race had become tighter in the past couple of months than anyone could have predicted when Fawcett launched what was called by local newspaper columnists "a quixotic quest." But the race became a nail-biter, especially after Rep. Joel Hefley, whose seat was up for grabs Tuesday night, said he refused to endorse his fellow Republican, a "disappointment" running "one of the sleaziest, most dishonest campaigns" he had seen. Even prayer -- or the endorsement of the Christian Coalition and the NRA -- couldn't cover up that stinging public condemnation with "moral values" chatter, especially in national elections that hummed with talk of corruption.

Wednesday morning the two candidates were considered to be in a dead heat. In this area, which has elected a Republican to the House ever since the district was first drawn 34 years ago, a victory under these circumstances hardly felt like victory at all. Much less when considering who would be in charge of the House. And forget simply despising Nancy Pelosi's liberal ways; these folks were deriding the "liberal Republicans" on the five military bases here who expressed anger against "stay the course" war addicts like Lamborn. Accustomed to the confidence that came with their decisive role in recent national elections, the Christian base here seemed shaken. For once, nobody seemed sure that all their prayers would be answered.

As the band struck up a Muzak-y rendition of "Just the Way You Are," in came the local candidates in their dark suits and American flag ties, smacking their supporters' shoulders and nervously scanning a screen listing exit polls. The song made for an ironic soundtrack to the scandal surrounding the man whose name has been spoken more in this district this week than any political candidate: Ted Haggard, the fallen pastor of this town's nerve center, the New Life Church. Before the news broke last week that he had conducted a three-year affair with a male escort, Haggard had campaigned hard for Amendment 43 here, an initiative to ban gay marriage. It was clear that in this political congregation, no one liked him just the way he was.

But by the time the band struck up "The Best Is Yet to Come," spirits seemed to lift a bit. The numbers coming in on the gay marriage ban, and on a referendum supporting civil unions, looked promising to a crowd that quivered in disgust at any mention of homosexuality, much less homosexuality with equal rights. Of all people, Mike Jones, Haggard's accuser, was being credited with those returns. A volunteer in a black suit and red shirt named Dave Cavanagh -- who calls Dick Cheney, whom he met campaigning this week, a "good man" -- says plenty of blasé voters were spurred into action by the notion that Jones came out with his story in order to have an impact on the amendment effort. "That this was used as a political ploy to affect voting made everyone I know really angry. It was a backlash; it benefited the effort," he said. Jones has said that he publicized his relationship with Haggard explicitly because of the marriage amendment.

Cavanagh was here after campaigning hard for Kent Lambert, a state representative he met when Lambert gave a public showing of slides he put together when he was working the border with the anti-immigration group the Minutemen. Lambert, who calls himself "a man who doesn't keep his faith a secret, and a social conservative," and who looks picture-perfect for his role, with his unmovable hair, giant gold ring and lapels crowded with candidate buttons, sees the scandal as helping his various causes. "The idea of someone trying to manipulate their vote gets them out to the polls," Lambert said. That notion was playing out nationwide, as eight states easily supported prohibiting same-sex marriage. But whether fundamentalists would vote for "the sanctity of marriage" and whether they would vote for candidates who supported the White House's Iraq fiasco still remained to be seen.

All this talk of the marriage amendment was filler, really, just nervous chatter over the vocalist walking through the crowd with a cordless mike, singing "It Had to Be You," pointing to local candidates on the floor. Everyone in this room knew that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter had creamed Republican Bob Beauprez at the polls, and as the night stretched on, the House seat was still undecided in favor of Lamborn.

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When Lamborn won the primary, his response to the press was "I had to say a prayer and ask that God's will be done." One got the sense tonight that plenty of prayers were being whispered around the tables set up in front of the stage.

By the time the coordinator of the Denim and Diamonds ball took the stage to belt out a showy rendition of "Crazy," the returns were favoring this crowd: Lamborn had pulled into a decisive lead, and gay marriage looked like it would exist only in Mike Jones' dreams. But the crowd hardly whooped it up praise-style when the numbers were projected onto a screen over the stage. Even when Lamborn finally appeared in the GOP suit-and-red-tie uniform to announce, "Things are looking good," he was met not with ebullient cries but a polite smattering of applause. Things were looking good for this candidate, sure, but the House he was to serve in was already stacked against him. Senior Republican holy warrior Rick Santorum had been ousted by the time the red pantsuits here were heading to the cash bar. No one even bothered announcing the verdict when the marriage ban was decided by a margin even local voter James Dobson could celebrate.

Meanwhile, Lamborn was biding his time waiting for his opponent to concede. As the band wound up its final set, he talked to reporters about setting his sights on the House Armed Services Committee and made snarky comments about Nancy Pelosi. He commented that the evangelical vote refused to be "sidelined." And then, as Mr. Biggs' cleanup staff circulated with garbage bags, asking the last straggling volunteers to gather up their campaign signs, Lamborn took the stage to summon local candidates, winners all. They were given just a moment for lightning-fast speeches -- a chance to parade the wives, thank the volunteers, and remind the tiny remaining crowd about "Republican principles" and "Republican revival," all standard Christian political rhetoric. That rhetoric tonight would be the language of defeat in Missouri Sen. Jim Talent's campaign: His concession speech opened by giving long-winded thanks to God, but no one here even bothered to do that in their victory speeches. These local wins meant little when the Senate was still hanging in the balance.

Lamborn himself didn't bother to invoke his faith as he wrapped up what could hardly be called a party. Blinded by the success of the "enemy," he couldn't even talk about winning his seat; in fact his quick speech sounded more like an angry concession. "We'll be able to harness a backlash," he said. "We're going to see what the Democrats are made of, and they're going to do things the voters aren't happy with. Mark my words." His words, sure -- but for once in this town, not a breath about His Word.

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This story has been corrected since it was originally published.


Lauren Sandler

Lauren Sandler is Salon's Life editor and the author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement."

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2006 Elections



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