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Outgoing Colorado Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hays, left, speaks to a television news reporter on election night, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It took only an hour after the first election results posted for Colorado Republicans to start seeing the disaster ahead.

The party trailed in every statewide race, five-term U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman lost his job and the state Senate majority was rapidly evaporating.

“It’s tough to put lipstick on this pig,” GOP Chairman Jeff Hays told defeated supporters later on election night, after the numbers didn’t change.

The huge 2018 losses led the state Republican Party to conduct an autopsy to determine what went wrong. The chairman sent a survey this month to elected officials, candidates, campaign staffers and top activists asking for feedback “to glean every possible lesson” from the election.

“This isn’t an academic exercise,” Hays told them. “With the next cycle already underway, whether we win or lose in 2020 will depend to large extent on whether we — as a party and as candidates — can draw the correct lessons from 2018.”

For the party, the examination about how to move forward centers on a fundamental question: Was it President Donald Trump or was it us?

At the Colorado GOP’s election night watch party in Lone Tree on Nov. 6, 2018, people watch results stream in. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

So far, Republicans are split on the answer. In two dozen interviews with Republican officials and strategists, The Colorado Sun found wide differences of opinion about what led to the party’s losses and what to do next.

“My opinion is that it’s a temporary symptom and we will bounce back,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Cañon City Republican, in pointing toward Trump.

“That’s nice if you want to to live in la-la land, but I think it’s much deeper than that,” said Amy Stephens, a former state House GOP leader. “If the Republican Party is going to gain ground … they have to change their strategies.”

This is how bad it looks for Republicans

The party’s analysis will start with a look at the numbers.

Before 2016, the conventional political wisdom suggested that the GOP could use its advantage in registered voters to win at the ballot box. That’s not the case now. Democrats overtook Republicans in terms of active voters in September 2016 — for the first time entering an election since 1984 — and their advantage only continued to grow in 2018.

“There are relatively fewer and fewer Republicans one cycle to the next in a state that is growing one cycle to the next,” GOP operative Josh Penry said. “It’s demographics. Colorado is becoming younger and more diverse, and younger voters are significantly more likely to be (unaffiliated) or Democrat.”

A graphic showing the decreasing margin of victory or share of the vote for Republicans in Colorado’s congressional district. (Graphic by Carrie Osgood, Special to The Colorado Sun)

To win, the party must entice even more voters not affiliated with either major political party. Unaffiliated voters are the largest bloc in Colorado and lean toward Democrats, according to a new survey from Magellan Strategies, a Republican firm. And moreover, they don’t like Trump.

The president’s job approval among unaffiliated voters sat at 30 percent with more than 60 percent disapproving after the election. And one-third of all unaffiliated voters in the survey said Trump made them less likely to vote for a GOP candidate.

“You can’t get past the problem of Donald Trump,” said David Flaherty at Magellan Strategies. “He’s one of the top reasons unaffiliateds won’t vote for Republicans on the ballot.”

MORE: Here’s why Colorado’s unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly picked Democrats in 2018. The story starts with Donald Trump.

The numbers from Arapahoe County were a good example of just how badly the party lost and the implications for the future.

The traditionally moderate, suburban county was considered swing territory, and the Republican Party put major resources into the area, in part to help Coffman, an incumbent whose race carried national implications.

But the effort proved too little. Coffman lost the county by 17 percentage points and Republican attorney general candidate George Brauchler — who is the county’s elected district attorney — fell by 13 points.

Some Republicans say the perfect way to encapsulate how bad election night in Colorado went for the party was the race for Arapahoe County sheriff, where incumbent Republican Dave Walcher, a well-respected law enforcement officer, lost to a relatively unknown Democrat — Tyler Brown — by 8 percentage points.

“I’m hoping this becomes a real wake up call,” said Tyler Sandberg, who ran Coffman’s campaign.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, reads an emotional concession speech on Tuesday night, Nov. 6, 2018, at a Marriott Hotel in Lone Tree. “in the end, the waves were too big for this ship of ours,” the five-term incumbent said. Coffman blamed his loss in large part on Trump. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“We are not capturing the hearts and minds”

Alan Philp wants Republicans to know “it’s darkest before the dawn.” He said Democrats learned that lesson after prior GOP wins, “and hopefully in 2018 Republicans will, too.”

The former Republican Party executive director said the GOP needs to focus on reaching out to new communities — including blue areas of the state, such as Denver and Boulder — to find a diverse base of support and candidates. From there, he said, the party’s comeback starts with recruiting good candidates and developing a message that wins voters.

“When you capture the hearts and minds of the voters, they will register with you,” he said. “We are not capturing the hearts and minds of voters right now.”

To do so, he said the party must take two approaches: develop a positive message that energizes voters and capture the discontent when Democrats push too far.

Putting forward a positive vision for Colorado is something we haven’t done sufficiently in quite some time,” said Philp, who now works as a conservative strategist. “We can distinguish Colorado from the national Donald Trump brand in the suburbs if we can put forward a positive vision.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The message is key, echoed Sandberg. “If the party doesn’t very quickly shift their policy focus to get off the social wars and get back to issues where they have public support … we’re in permanent minority status, no matter how far Democrats overreach,” he argued.

On the campaign trail this year, Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik saw the troubles first hand. The Thornton Republican, who lost to Democrat Faith Winter, suggested at least some of the problems are embedded in the party’s brand.

The voters in the middle, she said, “need to know that we’re not mean people. We’re compassionate, we’re trying to do a job representing them to the best of our ability just like everyone else.”

“I don’t think our message was widely lost”

Michael Fortney, who managed Republican Walker Stapleton’s campaign for governor, sees an opportunity to “do better around the edges,” such as concerted and sustained efforts to reach minority communities.

But he called the post-mortem “whiplash hyperventilating.”

One reason Republicans lost, he argued, is the campaign spending deficit. At the top of the ticket, Democrat Jared Polis had $23 million — most of it from his own pocket — to spend on his campaign, compared with the $4 million in Stapleton’s coffers.

Outside Republican organizations helped close the gap, but the law prohibits them from coordinating messaging with the campaign and they pay a higher rate for TV ads.

Other prominent conservatives also suggested the party doesn’t need to make major changes in messaging or tactics.

The stay-the-course contingent says the failure of ballot initiatives that proposed raising taxes and adding more regulations on the oil and gas industry indicates that voters agree with the party’s core principles. (Polis and other prominent Democrats didn’t publicly support a number of the major ballot measures either, but Republicans still see the results as affirmation of their values.)

Republican Walker Stapleton, right, concedes to Democrat Jared Polis on Tuesday night, Nov. 6, 2018. He was flanked by his wife and children. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“When I look at (the results), in a lot of ways I see the the same Colorado as I did a month before,” said Jesse Mallory, the Colorado director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy organization. “I think voters in the state have shifted back and forth in support or opposition to different parties over the years, but we haven’t seen a shift on those issues.”

State Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, made a similar argument, and he believes the real problem is the candidates the party helps pick to represent them.

“I don’t think our message was widely lost,” he said. “If you look at the ballot initiatives, voters voted down tax increases, they voted down increased government, but they went ahead and actually voted for the people who actually support that. It’s not the message, it’s the quality of those candidates.”

Republicans acknowledge the president’s unpopularity in Colorado was one of the main reasons for the ballot backlash — more so than the messages or individual candidates. Laura Carno, a conservative political operative and activist, suggested Trump’s tone alienated voters.

“I think when we looked at what happened with ballot initiatives and see people voted with their wallets, and then look at all the partisan races and people said, ‘Hey Donald Trump, I don’t like how you speak,’” Carno said.

She pointed to Brauchler as an example. The attorney general candidate worked during the campaign to distance himself from Trump and connected with voters. He came the closest of any Republican statewide candidate but still lost to Democrat Phil Weiser by 6.5 percentage points.

“I don’t know that we have a better messenger than George Brauchler,” Carno said. But, she added, it doesn’t matter when voters responding to Trump said “we are going to punish your people.”

Republican George Brauchler at the Colorado GOP watch party on Tuesday night, Nov. 6, 2018. Brauchler came the closest of any Republican to winning statewide office, but still fell by 6.5 percentage points.(Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

How to move forward

Regardless of what the state party’s post-election survey shows, the GOP appears ready to test conflicting approaches in the next two years.

The party’s de facto leader is now U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the only Republican in a statewide office. Ahead of his tough 2020 re-election, he’s working to showcase a positive message and appeal to moderate voters.

MORE: The 2020 election starts today and Cory Gardner is in trouble

But the Republican caucuses at the state Capitol are now more conservative after defeats of more centrist members. State Rep. Patrick Neville, the House GOP leader and one of the most conservative lawmakers, promised to stay the conservative course.

“I think we need bold leadership now more than ever,” said Neville, R-Castle Rock. “We need a clear contrast.”

Overlaying the entire discussion is how Trump performs in the next two years. Even with his name on top of the ballot in 2020, Republicans suggest it won’t doom their prospects. The new Democratic majorities will provide an opportunity for divergent viewpoints and deflect attention from Trump.

“Two years is an eternity in politics,” said Lori Weigel, a pollster at Public Opinion Strategies with Republican clients. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we will be talking about a very different electorate and a very different election.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.