Kristi Burton Brown, the newly elected chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, got right to work on Monday, two days after winning election in a bruising, five-way race that took three rounds of balloting to complete.
Burton Brown, who steps up from the state GOP’s vice chairman position to the top job, inherits the reins of a party on the rocks, reeling from historic setbacks in the last two cycles that left Democrats fully in charge of state government and holding six of Colorado’s nine seats in Washington, along with every statewide office except an at-large seat on the CU board of regents.
While she was one of the two leading contenders, Burton Brown’s election as chairman over former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who boasted dozens of endorsements from elected officials and county party leaders, was something of an upset. It also marks the first time since the emergence of the tea party more than a decade ago that the grassroots hopeful won over the more establishment candidate — settling, at least for the two-year term, which wing of the splintered Colorado GOP has the upper hand.
The three other chair candidates were communications strategist Jonathan Lockwood and former congressional nominees Casper Stockham and Rich Mancuso, who all dropped out and endorsed Burton Brown after the state GOP central committee's second round of voting on March 27.
Burton Brown takes over leadership of the state party from U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the Windsor Republican serving his fourth term in Congress, who declined to seek a second term. Buck’s decision also made certain that his successor would be the fifth Colorado GOP chairman in as many terms.
Speaking from party headquarters in Greenwood Village, the conservative attorney and home-schooling mom said she was busy getting in touch with county chairs, determining staffing and assembling what she calls action committees, groups of Republicans tasked with taking the lead on outreach, firing up the grassroots and other initiatives.
“I think people can expect to see a very different Republican Party going ahead,” she said.
“We’ll make no compromises on our principles; they are the right principles. I'm a constitutional attorney; I understand our rights and why we have to defend them.
"But we are going to be a modern, 21st century Republican Party who communicates to the voters in unique ways, who has great candidates who represent their districts running all around the state, and who opens our arms and welcomes people around the state to join our party and support our candidates. We'll have a lot of creative strategies to get that done over the next few years.”
As she did during her run for state chairman, Burton Brown, who led Colorado’s first personhood ballot initiative when she was a teenager, is emphasizing that the Colorado GOP under her leadership will welcome — and get behind — Republicans of all stripes, perhaps to quell fears that she intends to yank the party even further to the right in a state whose voters have been leaning increasingly to the left.
“I plan on improving our messaging and our outreach to unaffiliated swing voters, the minority community, suburban moms and young voters like myself,” she said.
“We are going to be a party that welcomes all people under our tent. I believe our messaging really needs to center on positive, proactive actions that we can take for the people of Colorado and illustrate to them that leadership under Republicans is better and more successful for their jobs, their kids than under Democrats. We can create an effective umbrella of messaging that our candidates can take and micro-target in their local districts for the issues that really matter for their people.”
Burton Brown is the youngest state GOP chairman in memory — at 34, she’s a year younger than Ryan Call was when the former Denver County chairman won the first of his two terms in 2011 — and she’s only the second woman to win the position, following Marian Carter, a Colorado Springs Republican who ran the party for one term ending in 1979.
And for the first time, all three of the Colorado GOP’s elected statewide officers will be women, including vice chairman Priscilla Rahn, who ran unsuccessfully last year for a CU regent seat in the 6th Congressional District, and secretary Marilyn Harris, the chairman of the Archuleta County Republicans and last year’s Republican nominee in House District 59.
“In the Republican Party we don't play identity politics, we don't believe that's a good basis to make your decision on,” Burton Brown said, quickly pivoting to nonetheless make some hay with the distinction.
“However, that said, you always hear the Democrats say that we are not a diverse party; they try and corner us and say we are only a party of old white men. That's extremely unfair, and I believe that having an officer slate that consists completely of women, including one minority woman, our vice chairman, who is both African American and Korean, I think destroys the narrative that the Democrats have, that we only choose one kind of person in the Republican Party.”
She added: “We are a diverse party that welcomes everyone, and I believe our team will be able to show that around our state.”
Burton Brown’s counterpart, Morgan Carroll, who was elected to a third, two-year term chairing the Colorado Democrats on March 20 without opposition, acknowledged the Republicans' all-female leadership team but still got in a dig, in a statement provided to Colorado Politics.
“I’d like to extend my congratulations to chair Kristi Burton Brown and to her two fellow women officers for their election to Colorado GOP leadership. It is good to see an organization like the Republican Party that typically doesn’t elevate women to positions of power has elected these three women to leadership,” Carroll said.
“We at the Colorado Democratic Party have just re-elected a talented and diverse team, including seven women, whose expertise will be valuable in defending and growing our Democratic majorities in Colorado, along with recruiting and training candidates that reflect the values and priorities of Colorado.”
While the Colorado GOP has just three elected state officers — chairman, vice chairman and secretary — the number of Colorado Democratic officials has mushroomed in recent years, growing from just four a decade ago (including treasurer, an appointed position for the Republicans) to the current slate of 11, including an assistant secretary and seven vice chairs with various portfolios, from rural outreach to communications.
Unlike the state GOP, Colorado Democrats are accustomed to women in charge — Carroll and Pat Waak, who chaired the party for three terms from 2005-2011, will have notched a dozen years helming the party by the time Carroll’s current term ends — but because of a party rule in place for decades haven’t ever had an all-female set of state officers. That’s because Democrats have long required a female chair to be balanced by a male vice chair, and vice versa.
Burton Brown said she expects to be sharing the limelight around the state with the other GOP officers as the party retools and reorients itself ahead of next year’s midterm election.
“The state party is not the chairman, the state party is all of us — it is also the vice chairman, also the secretary, elected officials, our candidates, our 64 county parties and all of the members of the state central committee,” she said. “Being the state chairman is not about building an empire for yourself, it is about amplifying the voices of Republicans around the state and showing how diverse we are.”