Colorado GOP seeks new focus after election defeats
Denver, CO Colorado
DENVER, Colorado – Colorado Republicans, sifting through the ashes of three disastrous election cycles, are in the midst of a vigorous debate over how to win again in a state where their future looks bleak.
That struggle is likely to play out over the next few months, key players say, starting with a fight over the party’s leadership.
Insiders say big defeats Tuesday at the presidential, Senate and House levels could play out two ways: an invigorating period of rebuilding and new ideas or a divisive fight over the party’s direction that could debilitate it for years.
Either would be fueled by a sense that, despite an unfavorable national headwind, the 2008 election in Colorado was nonetheless badly mishandled and that the party over the past four years has squandered significant advantages in voter registrations, outmaneuvered by Democrats at nearly every turn.
“Our county parties are no stronger, our voter registration numbers have decreased. We had our most anemic performance in absentee and early voting vis-u-vis the Democrats that we’ve had in 10 years,” said one party strategist, who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely about the state GOP’s problems.
“From just a pure party organizational standpoint, we failed. That’s what’s giving people pause to say, ‘Are we headed in the right direction for 2010?” the strategist said.
Several influential Republicans, who asked not to be named, singled out state party chairman Dick Wadhams for criticism after he devoted much of his time to the U.S. Senate race rather than state legislative or other down-ticket contests.
Wadhams pointed out that he had hired an executive director to work on other races, but his response to the criticism makes clear the depth of the divisions the party is now trying to fix.
“The people who are criticizing me don’t even have the guts to speak publicly. They are cowards,” Wadhams said. “I didn’t see them step up and take on a $580,000 debt, recruit legislative candidates and attend 200 events throughout the state reconnecting with activists and county commissioners.”
Who will be at party helm?
Wadhams said he is “strongly considering” staying on as state chairman. But a battle over informal leadership of the party and its direction is already unfolding, with two key figures emerging early, both with sights on the gubernatorial race two years from now.
Former Western Slope Congressman Scott McInnis fired the first broadside a week before the election, publicly arguing that the party needed to moderate its image and field centrist candidates who could win over the state’s independent voters.
Along with his former chief of staff, Mike Hess, McInnis has been working for months to form a behind-the- scenes coalition that could reshape the party and its image.
Rep. Tom Tancredo of Littleton, who is leaving Congress, is launching his own bid to fill the party’s leadership vacuum.
Among his efforts, Tancredo is pushing hard to modernize the party’s political tactics, including developing a Republican version of progressive attack groups like Progress Now Action that have dogged GOP candidates up and down the state.
“The results of this last election make me want to be involved in any way I can help,” Tancredo said last week, adding that “yes, that includes running for governor.”
The stakes in the next gubernatorial and legislative elections are big: 2010 marks the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts. The presiding party has heavy influence in redistricting, which allows that party in power to solidify or expand its control.
Considerable resources from both national Republican and Democratic organizations are expected to saturate Colorado in two years to defend Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter and boost a GOP challenger.
But at the moment, the Colorado GOP lacks both a leader and a deep bench. Former Gov. Bill Owens, who left office two years ago, is still looked at as the party’s standard-bearer, and while many hope he will take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar in 2010, Owens has repeatedly made clear he’s enjoying life in the private sector. (Owens declined to be interviewed for this story.)
A number of names have emerged as prospective challengers to Ritter or Salazar, among them former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown and state Sen. Josh Penry. But perhaps the biggest new name is former Denver Broncos safety John Lynch. What he lacks in experience, he appears to make up for in presence, wowing crowds when he spoke at events for Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin this fall.
“He’s a superstar. He’s been in the back of my mind,” Wadhams said.
Anyone vying to fill the party’s leadership gap will probably start by rebuilding relationships with mid-level party leaders unhappy with the execution of the 2008 campaign. Several have complained privately over what they believe was an overemphasis on a losing U.S. Senate race and a lack of resources for down-ticket candidates.
“Can we improve communication? We have to. If people are feeling neglected and left out, should we find ways to fix that? Certainly,” said Cory Gardner, a state legislator from Yuma widely considered one of the party’s rising stars.
“We’ve got to improve because we are facing a Democratic Party that controls every single lever of power from the federal government to the state government,” Gardner said.
Republicans concede that tactically, Democrats have simply evolved quicker and more effectively, often running brilliant campaigns that Republicans believe mask the shortcomings of Democratic candidates.
And they’ve been outflanked by deep-pocketed Democratic donors who have funded an impressive network of groups outside the party structure that have organized, e-mailed and blogged the party to electoral success.
Republicans say one problem is they haven’t had donors willing to invest large sums not linked to particular campaigns or in organizational structures that may bring uncertain return.
“To come up with something like that is a major undertaking. We need to organize as well as the Democrats but realize we probably won’t have as much funding or their enormous resources,” said Tancredo, who has developed national notoriety around the issue of illegal immigration and who Republicans say could bring his national fundraising prowess.
The breadth of that gap was especially stunning this year, said some GOP operatives, who cited the tactical savvy of the Obama effort in Colorado compared with their own. They pointed to everything from the use of new technologies like texting and Twittering to the Democrats’ tsunami of voter mobilization.
One clear sign of the party’s current state, GOP veterans said, was the party leadership’s inability to find or finance effective candidates in the 3rd and 7th congressional districts, giving Democrats John Salazar and Ed Perl mutter, who should have been priority targets, an easy path to re-election.
Getting the tactics right will be comparatively easy, many Republican insiders predict, compared with the coming fight over the party’s soul.
A party sometimes divided
There is a major fault line between the state party’s core of social values conservatives ” who for more than a decade have exercised powerful influence over the choice of GOP candidates in Colorado ” and pragmatic leaders who want to emphasize kitchen table issues they believe can win over independent voters.
“There is a group of people who want to have every candidate take a saliva test and be proven the purest of the pure. These are people who thought Bill Owens was insufficiently conservative to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2004,” said Sean Duffy, a former senior aide to Owens.
“When you’re at the point when you’re kicking Gov. Owens out the door because he’s too liberal, then you’ve arrived at the ‘let’s have the next Republican Party convention in the phone booth’ school of politics,” Duffy said.
Gardner, the Yuma state legislator, pointed out that Republicans picked up a net gain of two seats in the state House with a pragmatic agenda that talked about health care and transportation issues.
“We are the only shining spot in the state, and we knocked off the prospective speaker of the (state) House. I’d say the winning formula is here,” Gardner said.
But the party’s social values base, well-organized and long-entrenched, is unlikely to easily yield the field, many party leaders said.
“The Republican Party is a great coalition between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. If you leave either of those out of the equation, the party will not prosper and the country will not prosper,” said former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, an influential leader of the party’s social values base.
Duffy said that what the state party doesn’t need is this “big Kumbaya moment where everybody sits in a room and the elders figure out what went wrong.”
“It has to be more organic,” he said. “Given the continuing challenges, it’s time to just find as many new faces as possible, folks with good ideas who are energetic, and just turn them loose.”