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The podium of the Colorado Republican Party stands bare following a watch party of 2022 candidates at the Doubletree By Hilton in Greenwood Village. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Change is coming for Colorado Democrats and Republicans as they elect new, internal party leadership at the state, county, congressional and legislative levels by April 1.

The leaders are pivotal because they will help their respective parties recruit candidates and volunteers through the 2024 election. State- and county-level chairs are often the local face of the state party, as well, serving as on-the-ground spokespeople for Democrats or Republicans.

This year, both Democrats and the GOP will also elect new leaders at the chair level, with Democratic chairwoman Morgan Carroll, who has held her post for six years, and GOP chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown, who has held her post for two years, stepping aside.

Most of the focus on intraparty leadership elections this year is on those top jobs, which often pay $100,000 or more annually. There are multiple candidates in both parties. Republicans will select a new chair March 11, while Democrats will select their leader April 1, the last day allowed by law.

But the outcome of Democratic and GOP chair elections will depend to some extent on who wins county and district party leadership elections, which began Feb. 1.

That’s because the Republicans and Democratic party central committees are made up of party officers at the county, congressional district and legislative district levels. The state parties’ central committees typically include about 500 people.

“They’re the ones who implement a lot of decisions,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver, where he leads the school’s Center on American Politics. “They can make decisions about who ends up participating in primaries and what those primaries look like and they certainly can be influential.”

Grassroots leaders elected in 2022 will select new party leaders

Precinct organizers elected at caucuses in March 2022 are responsible for choosing new county, congressional district and legislative district party leadership this year.

Many of those grassroots precinct leaders for the Republican Party also nominated candidates through the 2022 caucus and assembly process who proved to be unpopular with Colorado’s unaffiliated voters in the November election.

Republicans lost by larger-than-expected margins in many offices last fall, with little hope of electoral success until 2026.

“The most active people end up running parties at the local level,” Masket said. “That’s been particularly true since (former President Donald) Trump first started running for office, where he’s brought a lot of people into the party and into the party organization who really hadn’t been involved at that level in the past and now they’re kind of running it in a lot of states and a lot of local levels.”

The election for Republican Party state chair is crowded, with several candidates who don’t want unaffiliated voters to participate in Colorado’s GOP primary elections and who have or continue to spread conspiracy theories about election results.

There’s already controversy over the election of a new county chair in El Paso County, where Vickie Tonkins, the current chairwoman, was censured by the state GOP central committee in December for opposing several of the party’s candidates in the general election. 

The state GOP central committee voted Tuesday at Burton Brown’s recommendation to appoint a neutral party to run the El Paso County reorganization meeting. Tonkins and others in El Paso County filed a lawsuit to try to stop that action.

“I do think that there’s an even bigger existential question for Republicans going through reorganization,” said Carroll, the outgoing Colorado Democratic Party chairwoman. “What they think they’re doing to help the party is actually making it irrelevant.”

Burton Brown noted that state law governs party organization, with the structure designed from the ground up.

“We’re very much a local-district-controls (the) party,” she said. “So the state party doesn’t tell county parties, ‘Oh, you have to let this person run.’ Obviously we’ll put people in touch if they reach out to us.”

Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown, left, and Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll. (Handouts)

How it works

Here’s how the process will work:

  • Counties must elect new officers — typically chair, vice-chair, secretary and treasurer — by Feb. 15. Those officers all serve on the state party central committee. Extra central committee delegates are awarded to many counties based on the number of ballots cast for the party’s candidates in the most recent election.
  • Precinct leaders from each congressional, legislative and judicial district will also select new district-wide leaders who will serve on the state parties’ central committees. At the state legislative level, those district officers and precinct organizers also serve on vacancy committees if a lawmaker must be replaced in the middle of their term.
  • Elected officials at the state, legislative and congressional levels, as well as elected district attorneys, also serve on their respective parties’ state central committees.

Burton Brown and Carroll both suggested that those interested in running for party-level positions at the county level on up, or those interested in volunteering, reach out to their county parties. A list for Democratic county parties can be found here, and a list for Republican county parties can be found here. The Democratic Party also has several web pages on the process.

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...