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Dave Williams speaks during a Republican state central meeting on March 11, 2023, in Loveland where elections for a chairman, vice chairman and secretary of the Colorado GOP were conducted. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Dave Williams’ election as Colorado GOP chair has prompted prominent Republicans to announce they are leaving the party and heightened the possibility that unaffiliated Coloradans, who make up nearly half of the state’s electorate, could be shut out of the GOP’s future primaries.

Mandy Connell, a conservative talk radio host, tweeted her exit from the GOP on Saturday just after Williams, a 2020 election denier and former state representative, was chosen to lead Republicans for the next two years.

“I hoped the Republican Party could move beyond (President) Donald Trump and looking backwards at the 2020 election,” Connell told The Colorado Sun. “With the election of Dave Williams for the Colorado chairmanship, it is apparent that they are not ready to do that. And I am.”

The GOP has steadily lost registered voters in Colorado over the past two decades, a slide that accelerated after Trump took office. The share of registered Republicans declined to 24.2% in January from 31.1% in January 2016. There are no statewide elected Republicans, and the party is in a big minority in the legislature and in the congressional delegation following a disappointing 2022 election cycle that only saw the GOP lose more political power.

Some in the party fear Williams, who beat six other chair candidates, may lead to further decline. Dick Wadhams, who was Colorado GOP chair from 2007 to 2011 and now works as a Republican political consultant, worries the “party will have no credibility” if Williams pursues the agenda he campaigned for chair on.

Williams, in an interview with The Sun, says his detractors should “relax.”

“I can understand why some people are concerned, especially because of the fearmongering of Dick Wadhams,” Williams said. “But the truth is I’m only here to go attack Democrats, and if they can’t get behind that then I’m not sure what else is going to unite us.”

Williams, who vowed to be a “wartime” leader of the Colorado GOP, was a divisive figure in the legislature, with Democratic and Republican detractors alike. He had a falling out with Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign in Colorado — Trump’s regional political director called Williams “an asshole’s asshole”— and lost a primary challenge last year to U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs.

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When he was campaigning to be Colorado GOP chair, Williams said he believed Trump was the true winner of the 2020 election. He also dislikes the state’s system of mailing ballots to all voters, though, he said, it’s the system Colorado has and Republicans need to find ways to work with it. (There is no evidence of voter fraud or malfeasance that would have changed the outcome of the 2020 presidential race.) 

Williams told The Sun he has offered the six other candidates who ran for Colorado GOP chair, including indicted former Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, official titles and roles within the party.

He said so far Peters, former state Sen. Kevin Lundberg and Aaron Wood, a conservative activist and Douglas County businessman, have indicated they are interested. 

Williams said the roles wouldn’t be paid unless the people who hold the positions fundraise for them. He said he’s not worried about the criticism the party will face if Peters takes an active party role as she prepares for trial in August. She was indicted last year on charges stemming from a security breach of Mesa County’s election system, which she allegedly orchestrated to try to prove her election conspiracies. 

“We all promised that we would work together,” Williams said. “I’m not gonna go back on my word because the press or the pundits are gonna take shots at the party.”

Williams said it’s unclear what Peters’ role would be. “We’re working on job titles and roles right now,” he said. “She’s obviously laser-focused on election integrity, but we haven’t settled on what that looks like.”

Wadhams said giving Peters a role in party leadership would be a mistake that would “tarnish the state party.”

Finally, Williams said, there will still be room for moderate Republicans even though he pledged to keep his party from straying from its conservative values. 

“Everyone’s welcome in our party,” he said. “We’re not going to shift our party to the left thinking that somehow we’re going to win over folks who don’t prefer to vote for us anyway. We need to figure out what the marketplace wants, and then we’re gonna align ourselves with the voters. But we can do that without compromising who we are. Democrats don’t compromise who they are.”

Williams was elected chair by the Colorado GOP’s state central committee, which is made up of about 400 people. During the event Saturday in Loveland, Williams focused his message on defending Trump and preventing unaffiliated voters from participating in GOP primary elections, something Colorado voters approved in 2016. He said the party would go to court to try to overturn that law. If the legal action is successful, it would also block unaffiliated voters from participating in Democratic primaries. 

Members of the Colorado GOP’s state central committee listen on March 11, 2023, in Loveland where elections for the party’s chair, vice chair and secretary were conducted. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

A federal lawsuit filed last year by some Republicans to block unaffiliated voters from participating in partisan primaries was dismissed because it wasn’t brought by the party. Chris Murray, the Colorado GOP’s attorney, told the central committee Saturday that the party is awaiting a Federal Election Commission decision on a request to allow unlimited fundraising separate from the party’s federal committee to pay for the lawsuit.

If that doesn’t work, the central committee, about half of whom indicated Saturday that they are serving on the committee for the first time, could simply vote in September to opt out of the primary and select candidates only through the caucus and assembly process. A similar effort failed two years ago

If that system had been in place last year, former state Rep. Ron Hanks would have been the U.S. Senate nominee and Peters would have been the nominee for secretary of state. Both were nominated by the state assembly, but lost their primaries to candidates who made the ballot by gathering signatures. Peters and Hanks both denied the results of their 2022 primary losses, as well as the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, which Democratic President Joe Biden won.

Then-state Rep. Dave Williams speaks during the “Election Truth Rally” on April 5, 2022, at the Colorado Capitol. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

To leave or not to leave

Kristi Burton Brown, Williams’ predecessor, said the state GOP needs to be forward looking if it wants to rebound.

“I think whether we’re talking about Trump, whether we’re talking about election integrity or any other issue, we need to stay focused on the future and the present and not the past,” she told The Sun. “I think any time you stay focused in the past, voters kind of drown you out.”

Burton Brown, who is joining Advance Colorado, a conservative political nonprofit, as a senior policy adviser, urged people not to leave the party. 

“I think if you want to see good things happen, if you want to see changes, you need to stay involved in a party, you stay involved in the system,” Burton Brown said.

Some disagree after Williams’ election. 

Ari Armstrong, a columnist for Complete Colorado, tweeted that he is leaving the party. “Colorado GOP leaders have made abundantly clear that theirs is the party of conspiracy mongering and petty bigotry,” he said. “The state party is not serious about winning elections or helping to guide policy. Enough.”

Denver Post columnist Krista Kafer also hinted on Twitter at a switch: “I think I’ll be doing the same (as) Mandy Connell. When I rejoined the party I had hoped it was changing. It is in other states but not here. The lunatic fringe is ascendant.”

Michael Fields, a conservative fiscal activist who leads Advance Colorado, said he thinks who the Colorado GOP chairman isn’t all that important to the party’s prospects.

Yes, the chair has a platform, but the Republican political machine is much bigger, especially when it comes to super PAC and candidate funding, which dwarfs the state party’s spending.

“They do have a platform in some ways,” Fields said. “But the structure of how things work and where money goes is more robust than just what the state party committee is.

“I think the focus has to be on local races, it has to be on ballot measures and trying to build up the party again. I would hope that the party in general would focus on local races over the next two years.”

Wadhams, who doesn’t plan to leave the Republican Party and isn’t on the central committee, said party leadership plays a limited role in agenda setting, which should be left up to candidates and elected officials.

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“The day-to-day work that (state House Minority Leader) Mike Lynch and (state Senate Minority Leader) Paul Lundeen are doing right now is more important than anything the state party is doing,” he said. “Those are the people who give the party credibility.”

Williams said his priority is proving to voters, namely the 47% of Colorado’s electorate who are unaffiliated, that Republicans are can provide better policy solutions than Democrats.

“We’re going to figure out what the voters want and we’re going to address their needs,” he said.

Republicans don’t have a real shot at winning back a majority in the Colorado legislature until the 2026 election, and they’ll also have to wait until then to win any statewide elected office.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette