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Politics and Government

Where do Colorado Republicans go from here?

No Republican running statewide has won more than 45% of the vote in the past two election cycles. Conservatives think Donald Trump is a big factor, but there's also broad agreement the party has a messaging problem, too.

Bonnie Vermilion of Colorado Springs cheers as she awaits the arrival of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at a campaign rally at the World Arena in Colorado Springs Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Four years ago, before Donald Trump was president, Colorado Republicans had a place at the table.

They held one of Colorado’s U.S. Senate seats and three statewide offices: attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. The GOP was even in power at the Colorado Capitol, where the state Senate was in the party’s hands, forcing Democrats to compromise on every piece of legislation. 

Shift to 2020 and Colorado conservatives, in the wake of Trump’s presidency, have lost all of that power and are now in the middle of a fierce battle to claw some of it back.

Lori Weigel, a prominent GOP pollster, said when she started working in Colorado it was “an overwhelmingly Republican state and the Broncos never lost.”

“Today, 22 years later,” she said, “it’s a little different.”

Republicans in Colorado are facing a real crisis as the state moves further to the left. The bench of future GOP leaders the party hoped to build now is looking thin, one that could rival the Broncos’ injured list.

Cory Gardner. Mike Coffman. Walker Stapleton. Wayne Williams. Cole Wist. George Brauchler. Polly Lawrence. All of them were solidly beaten in the past two election cycles.

No Republican running statewide has won more than 45% of the vote in the past two election cycles.

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)

University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl will be the GOP’s sole statewide elected official next year, when the party will control just a third of Colorado’s nine-member congressional delegation. Outnumbered, Republicans’ influence at the state Capitol has mostly been relegated to their ability to slow down the lawmaking process

Democratic voter registrations have surpassed Republican ones. The state’s largest voter bloc, unaffiliateds, are trending left.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Windsor Republican who also is chairman of the Colorado GOP, said he didn’t have time to speak to The Colorado Sun. He took the party’s top post in 2019 after the devastating blue wave a the year before, but little changed at the top of the ticket under his tenure and the party is squabbling as much as ever.

MORE: Does Cory Gardner have a future in politics now that he’s lost his U.S. Senate seat?

Conservatives who did speak to The Sun expressed a mix of dismay and hope about the Colorado Republican Party’s future, with many pointing out that there really is nowhere to go now but up.  

“I think this is the dawn of a new day for the Republican Party, rather than an indication of a continued trajectory downward,” said Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican who is one of the last GOP state lawmakers representing the Denver suburbs. “Have we now reached the dead end, or have we reached a fork in the road and were going to take the right fork?”

There’s also broad consensus that something needs to change — whether it’s the messaging or the platform or the candidates. The answer is not entirely agreed upon.

“I think Republicans need to do some soul-searching and figure out if they really want to win in Colorado,” said Lawrence, a Republican former state representative who lost a three-way primary for state treasurer in 2018. “It takes a recognition that Colorado has shifted. We need to change our messaging, not change our core values. We need to listen to the voters of the districts we represent so we understand what’s important to them.”

What does Donald Trump have to do with it?

Colorado Republicans’ losses over the past two election cycles have been attributed in large part to Trump and his unpopularity among unaffiliated voters.

That thinking was backed up this year by the president’s walloping in Colorado. As of Tuesday, Trump was losing to Democrat Joe Biden by 13 percentage points in the state. In 2016, Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton by less than 5 percentage points.

“Most of us weren’t running against our Democrat opponents,” said Larson, who faced a hotly contested election this year. “We were running against Donald Trump.”

Donald Trump exits his plane towards supporters during a rally in Grand Junction on Oct. 18, 2016. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Now the question is whether the Colorado GOP can move on from Trump. The president’s influence on the Republican Party is expected to endure, and support for him will serve as a litmus test for GOP candidates for years to come.

In a recent forum hosted by the University of Denver, Andrew Struttmann, a Republican consultant at Saratoga Strategies, said while Colorado Republicans initially supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president in 2016, they’ve come around in a big way. “Hell hath no fury like a convert,” he said, “and those folks (running the party now) are among the most vocal and ardent Trump supporters in the country.”

He doubts “the Republican Party will switch back to the way things were just as quickly as they switched from being anti-Trump to pro-Trump.”

MORE: How Colorado Republicans transformed from “Never Trump” to Donald Trump loyalists in four years

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

That could spell problems as Republicans look to reclaim voters who left the party’s orbit because of the president. 

“Republicans will need to look in the mirror and figure out if Donald Trump-type politics is what Colorado wants,” said state Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat. “I would argue probably not.”

U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, an Aurora Democrat who was propelled into office in 2018 in large part by the Trump backlash, is watching to see if Republicans continue to embrace Trump or revert to their roots. 

“I hope that they can find their footing again, I really do,” he said, explaining that political diversity is a good thing.

But Struttman and other GOP strategists said Trump doesn’t tell the whole story.  “Republicans had a brand problem that predates Trump but was accelerated by Trump,” he said. 

Trump supporters gathered on all four corners at University Boulevard and Highlands Ranch Parkway on Election Night, Nov. 3, 2020, waving flags and playing music. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dustin Olson, a Republican consultant who has worked in Colorado, said the party needs to get sharper if they want to win. That means meeting voters where they are. 

“I think if they talk about issues that matter to Coloradans — free market, job creation, innovation, a lot more libertarian issues — they are going to speak to a broad base of voters across the state,” he said.

Specifically, Republicans really need to find a way to speak to — and win back — suburban voters, who are increasingly moving away from the GOP, according to an analysis by The Sun.

While the Democratic vote increased in 40 of the state’s 64 counties this year, the largest shifts came in the Denver suburbs of Jefferson and Broomfield counties, which for years were considered more neutral territory, as well as a couple of smaller mountain communities.

MORE: Colorado continues to shift blue: The 2020 election, explained in graphics

A party of Lauren Boebert and Kevin Priola

As Colorado Republicans have lost in swing districts and competitive races, the party’s roster of elected officials has become dominated by candidates from parts of the state that have traditionally been more conservative. 

That has had the effect of moving the party’s image and platform to the right while the electorate heads the other way.

Colorado’s Republican congressional delegation starting next year is a good example. Buck and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in Colorado Springs identify with the most conservative wing of the party. And now Lauren Boebert, an unflinching Republican who won in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, is poised to become one of the most well-known GOP elected leaders in the state next year.

Boebert ousted five-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Trump-endorsed Republican from Cortez, in the 2020 primaries, in part by claiming he wasn’t conservative enough. And then she easily beat Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush on Election Day, vowing to be a sentinel against liberal policies in Washington, D.C.

Lauren Boebert, center, Republican Candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, recites the Pledge of Allegiance with her mother, Shawn Bentz, left, during a get-out-the-vote-rally at the Grand Junction Motor Speedway in Grand Junction on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I actually love Lauren Boebert,” Caylie Stearly, a 25-year-old conservative voter in Pueblo, said just before Election Day. “I’ve seen the horrible commercials against her and them saying that she’s not good for Colorado. But in what way? She stands for everybody having their Second Amendment rights. That’s our legal right as an American. Period.”

MORE: Lauren Boebert beats Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District

But while Boebert may fit her district well because of its strong conservative bent, she’s not the kind of candidate who can win statewide, says Tyler Sandberg, a Republican consultant in Colorado. To balance her out, the GOP needs politicians who can win in purple or blue-leaning congressional and statehouse districts, too. 

Sandberg points to state Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, who won a tough reelection battle in Denver’s northeastern suburbs this year. He’s the most bipartisan legislator at the Capitol. 

Lawmakers like Priola have become a rarity over the past two election cycles. Sandberg says conservatives need more people like him to make gains. Boebert fires up the base. Priola wins you the suburbs

Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, listen as the Senate Health and Human Service Committee hears debate on a bill that would change Colorado’s vaccine exemption rules on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“A good party will find the levers to engage both sides,” Sandberg said. “If the Republicans want to govern and want to be relevant, they’ll have to find a way to find future Boeberts and future Priolas and find a way to operate together.”

He added: “You don’t need sellouts, but you need people who can sell the message.”

But in order to ensure there are more Priolas in the Colorado GOP, the party has to make room for them.

Cole Wist, a Republican former state representative from Centennial, lost his statehouse reelection bid in 2018. Along the way, he faced backlash from within his party for not being conservative enough, including attacks from the far-right Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group because of his work on legislation aiming to ensure people who are a threat to themselves or others don’t have access to a firearm. 

Wist says conservatives have to grow their ranks and be more inclusive if they want to win in Colorado. Those on the right and those who are more in the middle — like him and Priola — have to be able to coexist. 

“I don’t see those two wings of the party uniting,” he said. “A divided Republican Party is almost certain to fail in Colorado, because we have our backs against the wall.”

Colorado lawmakers meet in the state Senate on Thursday, May 28, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

That split is creating friction as it plays out in real time in the Colorado House Republican caucus.  

Rep. Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican who has been a vocal critic of Democrats, recently stepped down as minority leader and was replaced on Monday by Rep. Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican who has vowed to take a different approach. 

Not everyone in McKean’s caucus embraces his vision of being an active part of lawmaking with the Democratic majority at the Capitol. Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican who is allied with Neville, said he’s worried about caving too much to Democrats. 

“Back in July, after the primaries, (McKean) had signaled that he wanted to work with Democrats in a more collaborative, compromising way,” Williams said. “I ultimately think that’s just not the way we should be headed. We should be trying our best to demonstrate to the voters how out of touch and how radical the Democrats are. Part of our failure as a party is we haven’t been able to demonstrate that, for whatever reason.”

To Williams, the problem isn’t what Republicans are selling. It’s the way they are selling it. 

“The Democrats — to give them credit — they are very good at what they do,” Williams said. “They have a well-oiled machine when it comes to politics. They’re good political operators. Republicans are trying to play catch up.”

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Even Democrats admit 2022 could be tough for them

While Republicans may be licking their wounds after two election cycles of defeat in Colorado, they see a rebound on the horizon. And Democrats know they may be vulnerable.

History suggests that 2022 could be a difficult year for Democrats. Midterm elections typically serve as a check on the party in the White House. Republicans used President Barack Obama as an effective foil in the 2014 election, which helped the GOP propel Sen. Gardner to victory.

“Off-year elections tend to be problematic for the party in the White House,” said Eric Sonderman, a Denver political analyst. “I think that could be somewhat muted this time by the fact that, in all likelihood, Democrats will not control the (U.S.) Senate. They will not be able to enact large parts of their agenda. They won’t be able to go all in.”

Still, Democrats aren’t taking any chances.

State Rep. Briana Titone, an Arvada Democrat, says the challenge for her party will be “preventing the pendulum swinging too far right in reaction to progressive bills” as well as “sliding too far left and losing (voter) registrations.”

Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, was grateful Democrats made gains in his chamber to help “weather that (2022) storm.” In remarks to his caucus, Fenberg endorsed an aggressive, yet cautious approach over the next two years.

“We should be brazenly progressive in our values,” he said, “while simultaneously being inclusive in our execution.”

Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg at the Colorado Capitol on January 8, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado House Democrats spent big money aiming to expand their majority this year, including in the Republican stronghold of Douglas County, only to see it maintain the status quo.

“That tells me a lot about the voters in this state,” said McKean, the House Republican leader. “We hear all this talk about how blue Colorado might be getting. I don’t believe it for a second.”

Wayne Williams, the former Republican secretary of state who was swept out of office in the 2018 blue wave, said he thinks conservatives will see that the “odds are a lot better” now that Biden has been elected president. 

“What happens to the Republican Party in the future?” asked Williams, who is now a Colorado Springs city councilman. “Well, I think one of things you see happening at the state level is a shifting to the left of the Democratic Party, and I think ultimately that provides an opening for Republicans to regain that 5 (percentage points) of the vote they need.”

Williams was referencing how no Republican on the statewide ballot has won more than 45% of the vote in the past two election cycles. 

“We’re not talking about an insurmountable hurdle,” he said. “We’re talking about 5%.”

Staff writer John Frank and correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.


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