The Colorado Republican Party will meet Saturday to pick a new leader. But before it can look to the future, it must reconcile the past.
More specifically, the party must reckon with its dismal performance in the 2018 election, where Democrats in Colorado made history and took complete control of state government for the first time since 1936.
It’s inevitably the first question asked of the three candidates vying for state party chairperson, and their answers illustrate the divisions in the Republican Party at large and the hurdles the GOP faces ahead of the all-important 2020 election.
President Donald Trump sits at the center of the debate in Colorado, where Republicans are outnumbered by both Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Trump lost the state by 5 percentage points in 2016.
MORE: Colorado Republicans, reeling from 2018 losses, wonder: Is it us or is it Trump?
The candidates tiptoed on the question at a forum Friday in Denver, trying not to criticize the president even as they acknowledged he played a role.
“There is some element of anti-Trump in Colorado, but I think it is smaller than has been reflected in some of the surveys,” said state Rep. Susan Beckman of Littleton, one of the candidates seeking to lead the party.
“The reality is, in an off-year election like this, there is going to be a blue wave. … I don’t think it’s fair to blame Trump for what happened,” said U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the most prominent name in the race.
“I do not blame Trump,” said Sherrie Gibson, the current party vice chairwoman and candidate. But she added, “I do think there is an element of unaffiliateds who were certainly unhappy with the messaging tone and tenor coming out of the White House, so they voted accordingly.”
One more prominent question featured in the race is whether the candidates support Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who also faces re-election in 2020, and whether they think Gardner is a strong supporter of the president.
As with the question about Trump, all the candidates said they support Gardner, but they are careful to recognize that some in the party do not.
“I know that there are some that are frustrated at Sen. Gardner, and they should voice their concern, but he has become a warrior for President Trump,” said Beckman, referencing Gardner’s recent endorsement of the president.
MORE: Why Cory Gardner endorsed Donald Trump — and whether it helps or hurts him
Buck faces questions about juggling two roles
Jeff Hays, the current state Republican Party chairman, announced in January he would not seek another two-year term in what was expected to be a contested race.
The GOP central committee — comprised of 500 elected official, party officers and activists — will vote on the next leader Saturday, and the race is widely seen as a toss up.
Buck, the three-term congressman from Windsor, entered the race as the perceived front-runner, even though he once declared that “the Republican Party is dead” because it lost its values on federal spending.
But his support for eliminating fees for party members to participate in the caucuses drew scorn from local GOP leaders and he is facing questions about keeping his House seat while serving as chairman.
To help assuage concerns, Buck pledged to appoint former state GOP Chairman Steve House as the party’s chief executive officer if he wins.
Beckman said she would resign her state legislative post if elected chairwoman, while Gibson is arguing that keeping both lawmakers in their seats is what’s best for the party.
MORE: Here’s who’s running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s thinking about it
The question of tactics and priorities divides candidates
Looking ahead to 2020, the three candidates outlined different visions at the forum for what the party needs to do to reverse course, all of which align with questions at the national level.
Buck, who touts his deep connections to major donors, said the party must better use data to target voters for registration and turnout efforts to win elections.
“If you want to build a political party back, you need to work on the basics,” he said.
MORE: Three graphics that explain the 2018 election and Colorado’s political future
Beckman argued the party just needs to stay the course, working harder and focusing on local races. She blamed the 2018 election losses on the party misspending.
“We are in big trouble in Colorado,” she said. “And all the money in the world is not what (will save) us.”
Gibson was more blunt. She said the party’s current strategy isn’t working, and the GOP needs “to broaden our tent” and reach new voters, particularly young people, suburban women and minorities.
“We need to win,” she said. “And the win starts with the work we didn’t do in the previous decade.”