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Regina Thomson watches the Republican National Convention online Aug. 24, 2020, at her home in Aurora. Thomson served as a Colorado delegate at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland and is a Trump supporter. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention led a last-minute insurrection designed to prevent Donald Trump from securing the party’s nomination.

They called themselves “Never Trumpers” and staged a walkout on the convention floor in Cleveland.

Now, four years later, many of those anti-Trump delegates are among his fiercest supporters. 

“We didn’t know how things would turn out four years ago,” said Andy Jones, a 2020 delegate for Trump who opposed his nomination in 2016. “This president has not disappointed. … I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

“I had it all wrong,” said Don Olmstead, another delegate from Colorado who vowed not to vote for the Republican nominee in 2016 because Trump didn’t have “any core principles.”

The turnabout in Colorado reflects the shift in national Republican sentiment after Trump’s takeover transformed the party into a one-man show and drew legions of unequivocal supporters. A series of recent polls show about 80% of Colorado Republicans approve of the president, an increase from 2016. And the change is evident at the top of the party. 

U.S. Rep. Ken Buck — who doubles as the Colorado Republican Party chairman — led the opposition in 2016 as a top supporter of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who won all the state’s presidential delegates in the caucus. On the convention floor in Cleveland, Buck shouted “Objection!” in response to party rules that locked in Trump’s delegate support. Two days later, he told delegates to “suck it up” and support the party’s nominee.

At the scaled-back convention Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Colorado sent six delegates, Buck cast the state’s 37 votes for Trump in a full-throated endorsement. “The past four years, President Trump and Vice President Pence have made America great again in the eyes of the world so now our friends respect us and our enemies fear us,” Buck said from the convention hall, reprising the campaign’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Like the state’s delegates from four years prior, Buck cited the president’s record of conservative judicial appointments, his response to the coronavirus pandemic, new trade deals and tax cuts as reasons to support his reelection.

The difference between Colorado’s delegates now and then didn’t register with him. “It didn’t feel weird to me this time because I’ve been supporting the president in Congress as much as I can, and I have been really supporting him as a state party chair as much as I can,” Buck said in an interview afterward.

A Colorado delegate credential from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Colorado’s delegates staged a walk out to protest the rules that helped lock the nomination for Donald Trump. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The activist who led “Never Trump” camp is no longer a registered Republican

The leader of the “Never Trump” movement in Colorado never made the conversion. 

Kendal Unruh, a 2016 delegate from outside Castle Pines, emerged as a national leader behind the effort to change the party rules and unbind delegates to allow them to “vote their conscience” against Trump. 

Her “Free the Delegates” movement drew enough support to force the issue at the convention, but Trump’s allies quickly quelled the rebellion and the delegates didn’t get the roll call vote needed to oust him. The move spurred a shouting match on the floor between Trump supporters and others and the walkout. 

Kendal Unruh poses on her front porch at her Castle Pines area home with the dozens of political buttons she has attached to an American flag on Aug. 24, 2020. She led the “Never Trump” movement in Colorado in 2016 but says she’s no longer involved in politics. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The moment defined the first day of the convention and stirred animosity that persisted throughout the four-day event. The Smithsonian even requested Colorado’s sign from the convention floor for its historical collection.

In the November election, Unruh didn’t vote for Trump and left the Republican Party to register as an unaffiliated voter. “If you’re wondering if I’m glad I challenged Trump at the convention, the more corrupt and evil he reveals himself to be, and the more complicit the GOP is, the more proud I am that I did it,” the 55-year-old former American government teacher said.

Earlier this year, rumors spread on social media that Unruh planned to organize against Trump again in 2020, but she said she’s no longer involved in politics. 

Looking back, she considers the 2016 convention a pivotal shift for the party. And the president’s first four years in office have only served to reinforce Unruh’s stance. “I predicted a lot of what would happen, but I had no idea it could literally get as bad as it did,” she added.

She suggests the party has become a cult and lost its moral high ground by defending him  amid the impeachment and the campaign’s ties to Russia. “Now to find out the Democrats are ones who actually upheld law and order, who actually pushed back against tyranny, who actually held people accountable … that one I still cannot get over,” she said.

“I mourn that most — that Republicans don’t have a platform of morality,” she added. “And I can honestly tell you they will never get it back. I don’t care who they run in the future.”

Colorado’s delegates from 2016 now tout Trump’s record in office

Buck, the party chairman, acknowledged that some people still are Never Trumpers in Colorado, but suggests it is an insignificant number. “When you have a purity test that is so pure that you would rather benefit a Joe Biden than get 80% of what you want with Donald Trump — that’s just not something I waste a lot of time thinking about,” he said.

Other Colorado delegates evolved to support Trump, some more quickly than others.

Regina Thomson, another prominent voice in the effort to challenge Trump in 2016, didn’t hesitate long. The Colorado Tea Party Patriots leader said her support for Trump “was an intellectual decision not an emotional one” because he was the “only one standing between us and socialism.

“I had no qualms about doing it,” she added.

At her home in Aurora, Regina Thomson watched the opening day of the Republican National Convention from Charlotte, N.C., on her computer Aug. 24, 2020. Thomson was a Colorado delegate in 2016 who supported Ted Cruz instead of Donald Trump. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Back then — and even now — she had misgivings about his personality and style, but not about how he would govern. “From the standpoint of what he’s done, I’m over-the-moon happy,” she said, citing his decision to locate an embassy in Jerusalem, his stance on the Second Amendment and his picks for the federal judicial bench.

She still shakes her head from time to time because “we all wish he wouldn’t say and do certain things, but that’s who he is.”

Four years ago, Jones, an alternate delegate for Cruz from Highlands Ranch, took pride in Colorado’s status as objectors to Trump at the convention. 

His daughter helped him design buttons that he distributed to other delegates emblazoned with the tagline “troublemakers.” At the time, he said the delegation represented “the conservative wing of the Republican Party that has come to save the party.”

Still, when he returned home, Jones said he voted for the president in 2016 and worked to get him elected. “There’s no other choice — I’m always a realist,” he said. 

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His initial concerns about Trump involved the then-candidate’s mixed messages on abortion, but his appearance at the March for Life rally — the first sitting president to do so — and his judicial appointments have resolved any doubts. “Of course, President Trump has completely shown that we didn’t need to be concerned about his politics moving forward, but we didn’t know that at the time,” Jones said.

This year, Jones is a delegate for Trump to the mostly-virtual convention. 

“I can’t stand the thought of Democrats gaining power or maintaining more power at the local level,” said Jones, who also is the Douglas County GOP vice chairman. “I don’t think our country can take it if we get our socialists in charge of our country.”

For Olmstead, a Colorado Springs delegate to the prior convention, it took a little longer for him to support Trump. Like Unruh, he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016.

But his perspective began to change as the president came under attack from Democrats. “I watched … most of his first term but finally determined that the Russia stuff was a bunch of nonsense, as well as the impeachment,” Olmstead said. 

Then earlier this year, the opposition from Democrats to the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the violence in Portland and other cities moved him closer to Trump. 

Now, he said, “I’m strongly supporting President Trump.”

John Frank

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