The news of Colorado state Sen. Kevin Priola’s decision to abandon the Republican Party and join the Democratic caucus in the state legislature is not quite ground-shaking, but that’s not to say it isn’t a big deal.
In fact, it’s a very big deal.
Maybe more important than Priola switching parties — remember Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s dramatic switch in the other direction following testy relations with Colorado Dems? — was the reasoning he offered for his decision, which should be seen as a warning to Republicans everywhere, including Colorado.
When quitting his party, Priola wrote in a two-page letter what many Republican politicians believe, but few have the guts to say or write — that the Trumpist-controlled GOP can’t be trusted to run any government these days, not on the state level, not on the national level and certainly not where any classified documents are stored. And yet, Trump’s MAGA troops are nominating GOP election deniers across the country. And, at this stage, Priola felt he had to take a stand against the Big Lie, even though Colorado Republicans rejected many of the biggest of the big liars in last June’s primary races.
You don’t have to be a political guru to understand that if November’s midterms become a wave election for Republicans, Priola’s defection, giving Democrats a 21-14 lead in the state Senate, might well be the move that saves the Democratic majority.
The politicos who study these things had given Democrats the edge before Priola’s defection. Now, though, it feels less like an edge than it does a chasm.
Priola was already classified among that rare species — moderate Republican, or, as not-so-moderate-Republicans-like-to-say a RINO (Republican in Name Only). One prominent Republican operative, Sean Paige, tweeted in part: “Kevin Priola a Democrat? Who knew, LOL? That’s been an open “secret” at the Statehouse since I worked there. He’s beyond just a big phony; he’s a squirrely and calculating opportunist.”
Now he’s not a Republican at all, although his conservative views on abortion and other topics, he says, won’t change with his change in party. If you’re thinking a Colorado-style Joe Manchin, you might be on the right track. According to one count, he has voted 90% with Republicans over his years in the legislature. He’s strongly anti-abortion and believes life begins at conception. But now that he’s jumped ship, I’d be somewhere between shocked and flabbergasted — leaning toward flabbergasted because who doesn’t enjoy saying the word? — if Republicans don’t try to recall him.
Priola knew that changing parties just before the midterms would be a blow to Republicans. He is not up for reelection this November, and, in fact, will be term-limited when his term expires in two years. In making the move, Priola has not just presented Republicans with a major math problem. For those not yet paying attention, the move strongly emphasizes what the stakes will be in November.
For Priola, this decision was not an epiphany. When thousands of Trumpists are assaulting the Capitol and calling for Mike Pence’s head, all that’s required is simply believing your eyes and ears. It’s the same message that Priola has been mulling for a while, that the Trump-led Republican Party — Priola says he joined the GOP during the Reagan era — is a clear and present danger to the American (small d) democratic project.
Or as Priola put it in his letter: “I cannot continue to be a part of a political party that is OK with a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election. There is too much at stake right now for Republicans to be in charge.”
Yes, it was the January 6 Capitol riot and the GOP’s reaction, or I should say its lack of reaction, that clinched the deal for him. Although still rare for a Republican pol, Priola is hardly alone in this line of thinking. According to a surprising NBC News poll released Sunday, the threat to democracy turned out to be the leading issue facing the American public. It was named by 21% of respondents, beating out the cost of living (16%) and jobs and the economy (14%). It looks like the January 6 committee hearings may be having some effect after all.
Speaking of which, Priola’s move may not quite reach the level of Liz Cheney risking, and eventually sacrificing, her seat in Congress in order to pursue Donald Trump and the Trump wannabes and the Trump enablers. She may now run for president so that there will be at least one person on the debate stage prepared to challenge Trump’s Big Lie.
But Priola’s move is close enough, at least in Colorado’s political world, where Republicans are desperate to regain some of the power they have lost in recent times.
It wasn’t just Trump and January 6 and the Big Lie that caused Priola to act. In his letter, he also cited the dominant anti-science wing of his party that refuses to make any move in admitting to — much less, facing up to — the human-caused climate change crisis. Priola actually got into a shouting match with a then-fellow Republican in the last session over a recycling bill he was promoting.
“Coloradans can’t afford for their leaders to give credence to election conspiracies and climate denialism,” Priola wrote in the letter announcing his party switch. “Simply put, we need Democrats in charge because our planet and our democracy depend on it.”
It’s a brave and bold thing for Priola to say, but he obviously felt he had no choice. The real choice, he knows, belongs to the voters.
Colorado is now a mostly blue state, but one that could still be vulnerable to a red midterm wave, especially given Joe Biden’s slightly improving, but still anemic, poll numbers. Which may explain why Priola was one Republican who felt the need to announce his change of mind and heart.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow