Kristi Burton Brown, chair of the Colorado GOP, speaks to the Foothills Republicans club in Golden on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Top Colorado Republicans will vote next month on whether to abandon their party’s statewide primaries in 2022, a move that some in the GOP warn could alienate unaffiliated voters, who make up 43% of the electorate, and solidify Democratic control.

Under the proposal, a fraction of registered Republicans would select general election candidates for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor and other statewide offices, as well as general election candidates for state House and Senate. The candidates would be chosen at GOP assembly meetings next spring instead of the June 28, 2022, primary.

Advocates for eliminating the primaries say they don’t want unaffiliated voters to influence the GOP’s selection of candidates. They also are distrustful of the election process, with many of the proponents expressing doubts about the validity of the 2020 presidential election that Democrat Joe Biden won. (There has been no evidence of fraud that could have changed the outcome of the election in Colorado or elsewhere.)

They are also motivated by the sort of outside spending that helped defeat several ultra-conservative candidates in Weld County primary contests in 2020.

“I think it’s time for the party to start standing on its platform and principles and to get candidates who will do the same,” said Peg Cage, former chairwoman of the Boulder County Republicans, who supports forgoing the 2022 GOP primaries. “We can’t do that if we’re constantly going left and trying to placate the unaffiliated voters and the Democrats.”

Other Republicans vehemently disagree and are raising major red flags.

“This idiotic push from a small group of purists ranks as one of the worst ideas amongst the worst of the worst ideas in the entire history of insane ideas,” former Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Cañon City Republican, said on Twitter.

75% of central committee vote required to end primary election

The Colorado Republican Party’s bylaws require its central committee — party activists elected by county organizations — to vote in odd-numbered years on whether the GOP should have statewide primary elections. That meeting will be Sept. 18, with more than 500 people eligible to participate. 

Of those, 75% — or close to 400 members — would have to agree to cancel the party’s 2022 primary. (Cage is a member of the central committee, as are all Republican members of Congress from Colorado and the GOP members of state House and Senate.)

“I have a hard time seeing them pull that off,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative, free-market think tank. He recently wrote a column opposing the change.

“The decision to not have a primary would be devastating,” he told The Sun. “I think it would be just another huge gift from the Republicans to the Democrats.”

The Colorado Times-Recorder, a progressive news site, first reported on the efforts to ditch the primary last month. On Wednesday, the Times-Recorder reported that some top GOP officials think the effort could succeed.

State Rep. Ron Hanks, a Republican from Fremont County, is among those leading the charge to not have Republican primaries next year. In a column on a Republican-affiliated website, he cited concerns about allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in primary elections.

“Having non-members decide who will be the Republican nominee is a golden opportunity for the opposition to infiltrate and to weaken our platform of liberty, justice, personal freedom, and adherence to our constitution,” Hanks wrote.

Fremont County Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks (Handout)

Hanks visited Arizona in June to watch a review of Maricopa County’s 2020 ballots ordered by Senate Republicans in that state, despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud or wrongdoing that would have affected the results. He also participated in the Jan. 6 pro-Donald Trump rally that led to the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol, though he says he did not enter the building. 

Hanks did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week from The Sun.

The Colorado GOP’s leadership, including Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown, is trying to stay above the fray.

“This is an issue that we are required to take a vote on every two years,” said Joseph Jackson, executive director of the state party. “Chairwoman Brown has been clear that she will stay neutral and respect the will of the Colorado GOP State Central Committee.”

However, there’s plenty of internal opposition to skipping primaries next year. 

Daniel Cole, who runs the campaign arms of Republicans in the state House and Senate, said he thinks canceling next year’s primaries is a bad idea. For one, he thinks it would “disenfranchise” rank-and-file Republican voters and thereby “spark backlash” against the party similar to the criticism it received in 2016 from Trump under the now-abandoned presidential caucus system.

Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz won Colorado’s delegates in the 2016 Republican presidential primary by out-organizing Trump in the caucus process.

Cole said “the irony” of it all is that the “very right wing of the party… is pushing to limit the franchise this way, but these are also the people who would’ve been on Trump’s side in 2016.”

Cole also fears that “getting rid of the primary would be sticking the party’s finger in the eye of unaffiliated voters.” Although there’s a debate to be had over whether unaffiliated voters should be able to participate in the nomination process, Cole said, cutting them out would be “an unnecessary insult to voters that we will need with us in the general election.”

Beyond that, canceling primaries would mean “forfeiting the opportunity” for candidates to campaign and boost their name recognition by being on the ballot, not to mention the ability for voters to see if candidates have what it takes to win.

“We’d be losing the important proving ground that the primary provides,” he said. “We don’t need untested candidates in the general election.”

Anger at past outside interference

The discontent over unaffiliated voter participation in partisan primaries stems from the 2016 approval of two ballot measures allowing unaffiliated voters to select one of the two party’s primary elections to cast a ballot in. Before the change, unaffiliated voters had to sit on the sidelines for primaries. 

From 2010 through 2016, Republican primary voter turnout outpaced that of Democrats. But in 2018 and 2020, the first two years unaffiliated voters could participate in primaries without affiliating with one of the two major parties, participation in the Democratic primaries soared.

Meanwhile, more Coloradans are becoming unaffiliated voters, reaching 43% at the end of July, while the Republican Party’s share of voters is decreasing at a faster pace than the Democratic Party.

Colorado candidates can get on the primary ballot by one of two paths. They can be nominated and go through the state caucus and assembly process, where they must get 30% of the vote, or they can gather signatures from voters.

Some GOP candidates have had trouble making the ballot in the past. In 2016 and 2018, scandals over petition signatures foiled one U.S. Senate candidate and led a gubernatorial candidate, Walker Stapleton, to go the assembly route at the 11th hour after initially gathering petition signatures.

In 2020, allegations of fraud arose out of caucuses in Weld and El Paso counties. The state GOP, however, ultimately determined nothing illegal took place in either instance. 

And outside spending in Weld County and other GOP primaries led by national nonprofit Unite America, which advocates for nonpartisanship in elections, is behind some of the angst. “I think it would be a lot more difficult for somebody to buy their seat through the caucus and assembly process,” said Cage, the former chairwoman of the Boulder County Republicans. 

Though Unite America doesn’t have to disclose its donors, its national super PAC’s major donor is Kathryn Murdoch, daughter-in-law of the conservative Fox News owner, Rupert Murdoch.

Unite America funded a group called Coloradans for Constitutional Values, which spent nearly $456,000 supporting and opposing Republican primary candidates in 2020. The GOP candidates the group opposed were backed by allies of then-state House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican, and all of them lost. Neville didn’t run for reelection to his leadership post.

“Our idea was that in the safe seats that are open, we’re trying to influence who the leaders are and influence which (candidates) are voicing the concerns of their constituents,” said Terrance Carroll, a Democrat and former state House speaker who is now the Colorado director for Unite America. “We want folks who are going to think broadly and pragmatically about legislation and about policy solutions.

“I’d also add that we helped some pretty liberal folks as well,” Carroll added.

He didn’t rule out similar activity next year. “We’re considering our options for 2022.”

Additionally, traditional GOP super PACs, including Better Jobs Coalition and Ready Colorado Action Fund, supported and opposed the same Republican primary candidates as Unite Colorado.

Democrats plan to keep their primary strategy

Morgan Carroll, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party and a former state Senate president, said a proposal to forgo primaries would never receive serious consideration among state Democrats.

She called the idea “ridiculous and undemocratic.” 

“If we had a candidate that recommended it, I think they’d be driven out of town,” Morgan Carroll said. 

She sees the push as part of a larger pattern “by Trump and his loyalists to basically move in an authoritarian direction, take away choices from voters, make it harder to vote, make it hard for the people to decide, and make it easier for them to install whoever they want in whatever position they want.”

If the Republican proposal passes, she said it’s hard to know whether more unaffiliated voters would participate in 2022 Democratic primaries because they would be the only primary left they could vote in. 

She thinks the move would backfire for Republicans as they’ve struggled to win elections in Colorado in recent years. “If I were a rank-and-file Republican person, I’d be furious.”

Terrance Carroll of Unite Colorado agreed. “I think if either party did something like this, it wouldn’t help them in the general election, because what these folks were saying is we want to close off our party to any other voices other than the pre-approved voices that we want.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Daniel Ducassi is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...