And every time, a Kolbe landslide buries the challenger.
The closest anyone's come in recent years was Democrat Tom Volgy, the onetime Tucson mayor who lost by 7 percentage points in 1998. Two years later, former state Sen. George Cunningham, another Democrat, lost by 20 percentage points. Most recently, in 2002, Kolbe clobbered Democrat Mary Judge Ryan while grabbing 63 percent of the vote, earning more votes than any other congressman in the state.
The champ regularly bats down his puny primary opponents as well. Two years ago, he swatted a weak challenger from the right, Republican Jim Behnke, by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
This year's GOP model is Randy Graf, coming in on Kolbe's right. As a state representative from Legislative District 30, home to a band of well-organized conservative activists, Graf has championed a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-spending and anti-illegal-immigration agenda for the last four years. In the last two years, he's served as majority whip--and watched in frustration as Gov. Janet Napolitano, Democrats and renegade Republicans have twice bamboozled the conservative House leadership on the budget and other issues.
Rather than seek a virtually assured third term, Graf has instead steered himself into a challenge against Kolbe in Congressional District 8, which includes central Tucson, Oro Valley, the Catalina Foothills, Green Valley and much of Cochise County.
"When I look at it from a number of aspects of what the Republican Party should stand for, I just felt that it was time for the Republican voters of Congressional District 8 to have a choice over whether they wanted to keep going with the current representation or take it back to core Republican values," Graf says.
The "core Republican values" at the heart of the Graf campaign are border security, abortion, gay marriage and fiscal restraint.
With border security, Graf has tapped a rich vein of resentment. Ever since U.S. Border Patrol moved to tighten the border in California and Texas, illegal immigrants have been flocking to Arizona. Thousands cross the border every day, leaving behind a trashed landscape.
Hundreds of crossers perish each year in the broiling summer sun or freezing winter cold. Those who survive put a growing strain on health care facilities, law-enforcement resources and the educational system. A recent report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform put the cost of illegal immigration at $1.3 billion annually.
"Ranchers on the border are having their property destroyed, their fences cut, their water lines being cut, their stock tanks being drained, their families being threatened and assaulted, their ranches being trashed," says Graf.
To address the simmering crisis, Kolbe has joined with Sen. John McCain to push for immigration reform that includes a guest-worker program, as well as amnesty for workers who are already here.
Kolbe, whose campaign staff buried a request for an interview for this story (see The Skinny), has also pushed for more resources on the border. The Border Patrol has been beefed up, with funding for more than 200 additional agents in the Tucson Sector, as well as additional equipment such as aerial drones and helicopters.
As a result, apprehensions are on the rise this year. Between Oct. 1, 2003 and the end of last month, the Border Patrol made more than 415,000 apprehensions, compared to 278,667 in the same period last year, according to Border Patrol officials.
The apprehensions have been dropping steadily for the last several months, leading to some speculation that illegal migrants are finding another path into the country.
"We've been hitting pretty hard," says Charles Griffith, a Border Patrol spokesman. "We're having great success with apprehensions."
Graf says it's not enough. To begin with, Kolbe's reform package will reward people who have entered the country illegally and encourage more illegal immigration.
Along with assigning military troops to patrol the border, Graf supports punishing businesses that hire illegal immigrants. During the legislative session, he co-sponsored legislation that would have shut down businesses that hire undocumented workers.
Graf's most high-profile border campaign is the Protect Arizona Now initiative, which would force people who want to register to vote or receive welfare benefits to prove that they're U.S. citizens. The initiative, which appears headed for the November ballot, had the support of three out of four voters in a recent poll by Phoenix PBS affiliate KAET-TV.
Kolbe opposes the initiative, calling it a divisive measure--a position that Graf says shows the incumbent is out of touch with his constituents.
"It highlights the disconnect between the electorate and elected officials on the issue of illegal immigration," says Graf.
Graf was so upset by the immigration reform package introduced by the Bush Administration that he turned a picture of himself with the president upside-down in his legislative office for a few days. He says his election would allow him to straighten Bush out on border policy.
"I would like to go back there in January and knock on President Bush's door and say, 'The voters in Congressional District 8, which serves a large portion of our border with Mexico, have decided that a guest-worker program and the immigration-reform package you put out might not be in their best interests,'" Graf says. "Perhaps I could change the debate."
Beyond tapping into rage about the border, Graf has targeted Kolbe on the hot-button social issues of abortion and gay marriage.
Kolbe has been a staunchly pro-choice voter in Congress. The National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League gave him a perfect score in 2003, while the National Right to Life Committee gave him a zero. Kolbe has even voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion, which has left pro-life Republicans outraged.
Kolbe has also been inadvertently battered by his own party's effort to embarrass Democrats with a wedge issue by running legislation to block gay marriages. Last month, he voted against a measure that would have limited the power of the judiciary in recognizing same-sex marriages, leading to complaints from Graf and other conservatives that Kolbe was aiding in the country's headlong tumble into immorality.
"Call me a traditionalist, call me old-fashioned, I just don't feel it's in the best interests of the country," Graf says.
The gay marriage issue serves to remind voters that Kolbe himself is gay. But Graf says he doesn't find Kolbe's homosexuality to be at odds with core Republican values.
"His lifestyle has not been part of this campaign," Graf says. "That's his lifestyle. He's gay; he supports gay marriage; I do not."
Part of the problem with portraying Kolbe as too liberal is that once you subtract abortion and gay marriage, he's reasonably conservative. He supported the Iraq war. He's an unapologetic tax-cutter; Americans for Tax Reform says he voted their way 90 percent of the time in 2003. He earns perfect scores from business-interest groups and has always enjoyed endorsements from the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative organization that earlier this year tried to knock out Sen. Arlen Specter, the moderate Pennsylvania Republican, gave Kolbe a nod of support, contributing $2,000 to his campaign.
The NRA gave him an A-minus in 2002, as well as a campaign contribution this year. Other pro-gun groups have been less generous in their assessment, while some local Republicans remain bitter at Kolbe over the U.S. Forest Service's decision to shut down the Tucson Rod and Gun Club near Sabino Canyon.
Kolbe is weaker among social conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition and John Birch Society, who frequently give him ratings below 50 percent--which can be mostly explained by his pro-choice positions and his support for free trade.
Some of his worst scores come from environmental, labor and liberal special-interest groups, who often rate him all the way down at zero.
Kolbe basically represents the business-friendly face of the Republican Party. He's socially moderate, believes in free trade and deregulation, and supports spending for the arts. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn't make waves for party leadership.
In that sense, the primary campaign represents the cultural divide within the Republican Party. A percentage of the Republican base is made up of staunch social conservatives: pro-life, pro-gun evangelicals who see the country's culture headed down the toilet.
These particular conservatives have a term of contempt for Republicans who stray from core party values: RINO, or Republican In Name Only. While the definition of RINO generally depends on who's tossing the term around, Graf supporters often use it to describe Kolbe, as well as state GOP lawmakers who bucked leadership to pass a $7.3 billion budget for the state last year.
The party split is evident right in Graf's District 30. As a member of leadership, Graf opposed the budget package that eventually passed, while fellow District 30 Rep. Marian McClure supported the plan.
"A minority of our Republican caucus abandoned the majority of the caucus," Graf says. "It was an unmitigated disaster, frankly, for House leadership. Marian was part of the group of Republicans who negotiated a spending package and budget with the Democrats and the governor."
McClure says the mutiny against leadership was triggered when she and other moderate Republicans realized that negotiations with the House leadership "were going nowhere" and the budget that was being crafted by leadership cheated Southern Arizona.
"How in the world could I come back to Tucson and tell the UA alumni that I thought it was quite OK that ASU was getting a million dollars more than they had requested while the UA was (getting) slightly less than half?" McClure asks.
She's felt heat from conservatives who are angry over her vote, but she's confident that she's going to win re-election to the Legislature in the upcoming Republican primary.
"There is a small segment in our Republican Party who, if you don't agree with them 100 percent, they call you a RINO," McClure says. "I know they exist, but I do not believe they exist in the number that they believe they exist."
Jim Coniglio, a Republican who is co-managing the Graf campaign with his wife, says he was disturbed by McClure's decision to team up with Democrats.
"I felt that breach in the core promises made in caucus undermined the ability of the legislators to have negotiation capability with the Senate group," says Coniglio.
A retiree who moved to Tucson five years ago, Coniglio says he used to support Kolbe, but became increasingly distressed the more he learned about him, particularly on border issues and social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. He complains that last month, Kolbe broke from the party by voting against a bill that would have limited the power of federal courts to overturn state bans on same-sex marriage.
"He broke from the president, which is pretty dangerous in a war, and this war is on our culture and the fundamentals that built this nation," Coniglio says.
Despite his frustration with Republicans like McClure and Kolbe, Coniglio says he doesn't see a split in the GOP. Rather, he sees politicians attempting to maintain the status quo to prolong their political careers.
"I don't think they're listening to the constituent base--and that's general for all politicians," says Coniglio. "It's not Republican or Democrat; it's everybody who's elected. Their primary goal in life is to get re-elected."
City Councilman Fred Ronstadt says cultural conservatives like Graf and Coniglio remain on the margin of the party.
"Randy represents the far right wing of the party, which is not the majority of the party," Ronstadt says. "I think most Republicans in Jim's district are moderate, and I think most constituents in Jim's district are moderate, whether they're Democrats, Republicans or Independents. And I think that's why he's so successful as a congressman for so many terms."
Ronstadt says the far-right fringe tries to bend the world to their ideology rather than allowing the realities of the world guide their ideology.
"People who are locked into this notion of being alleged purists are missing the big picture," says Ronstadt. "We live in a very dynamic world that doesn't respond to philosophical ideology. It responds to physical reality. A frustration of mine with the far-right wing of the party is that I don't really believe they represent the doctrine of Lincoln and Goldwater."
Graf counters that Republican Party leaders in general are starting to become disconnected from their base.
"The line between Democrat and Republican is getting blurred," says Graf. "I think it's manifested in the fact that the ranks of independent voters are growing."
If Kolbe were a making his first run for Congress as a gay, pro-choice Republican favoring amnesty for illegal immigrants, a primary victory might be a long shot. But as the senior member of the congressional delegation, the 10-term incumbent has extraordinary name I.D., a war chest of a more than a half-million dollars and lots of friends who owe him favors. As Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll points out, Kolbe has delivered for the district.
"He's worked well with Pima County on both sides of the aisle," Carroll says. "He's very attentive to the board and has worked well with all the jurisdictions. He's a pretty reasonable federal lawmaker."
Knocking out an entrenched incumbent traditionally requires a major scandal or a lot of money--and as of June 30, Graf had raised just $50,097 and had $24,077 left in the bank.
Kolbe's quarterly filing showed that he'd raised $666,700 and still had $569,000 on hand.
Graf is counting on a conservative network to make up for that cash differential.
"This is a grassroots effort," he says. "We'll be using e-mails; we've got the Web site; we're starting to get signs up and talking to as many people as we can."
The Graf campaign has embarrassed Kolbe on a few fronts. After complaints that he was using his free franking services for campaign purposes, Kolbe repaid $5,774.65 to cover the cost of 14,000 constituent mailers.
Earlier this year, Graf outpolled Kolbe at a meeting of precinct committeemen in District 30, grabbing 56 percent of the vote to Kolbe's 44 percent. And he's landed two endorsements from police organizations: the Arizona State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police and the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs.
But whether voters will see him as "the real Republican," as he calls himself, remains to be seen.
"I just want to highlight what the Republican Party is supposed to stand for," says Graf. "It's time to get back to our roots and reinvigorate the Republican Party and its ideals."