Six Colorado Republicans are vying for the chance to lead the party back from the sidelines in a state where GOP candidates have suffered drubbings at the hands of voters in three straight general elections, leaving the party with less power than it's held at any time since at least the 1930s.
With minor variations, all six of the state chair candidates say the answer to the party's predicament is to tack harder to the right, doubling down on issues that differentiate Republicans from Democrats in order to present voters with the clearest possible choices.
They agree the party needs to do a better job of clarifying and communicating its values to voters, with some proposing renewed outreach to various populations and others vowing to go toe-to-toe with the Democrats.
All six say they want to stop the state's unaffiliated voters from being able to vote in the state's semi-open primaries, arguing that only registered Republicans ought to be able to choose the party's nominees.
None will say that President Joe Biden is the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election, with three of the candidates stating flatly that former President Trump won reelection and a fourth saying he believes Trump won but can't be sure.
All but one of the Republican state chair candidates say that losing the last time they ran for office makes them better prepared to turn around the state GOP's fortunes, while the lone exception touts his lack of political experience as essential to reviving the beleaguered party.
The Colorado GOP's state central committee is set to elect a chair and other statewide officers at an all-day meeting on March 11 at a hotel in Loveland, capping the party's biennial leadership election process, which kicked off in early February with county reorganizations.
The county officers elected last month — typically a chair, vice chair and secretary, though some counties mix it up — make up the bulk of the state GOP's central committee's membership, which also includes federal and state-level elected officials, bonus members awarded to larger counties based on top-ticket turnout in the last election, as well as the state party's current officers and Colorado's two elected Republican National Committee members.
Whichever of the declared candidates wins, state Republicans will be led for the next two years by the party's sixth chairman in as many outings, the latest in the past decade's string of single-term chairs.
It's a marked contrast with the party in power, as Colorado Democrats prepare to elect only their third chair since 2011, following back-to-back three-term chairs, at the party's state reorganization meeting on April 1 in Denver.
While the Democrats are also faced with contested party leadership races — three candidates are running for state chair, including the state party's incumbent vice chair, a seasoned operative with a background in campaigns and government and a longtime party volunteer — the more dramatic and higher-stakes contest is taking place across the aisle.
One of the Republicans running for state chair is facing trial later this year on felony charges related to allegations she helped tamper with the election equipment she was entrusted with overseeing in an attempt to prove unfounded claims that Colorado's voting system is rigged.
Another made headlines last year when he sued to appear on a congressional primary ballot along with a phrase some consider code for a vulgar insult aimed at President Joe Biden.
One of them briefly drew the national spotlight during his campaign for a battleground U.S. House seat when it turned out he was telling Republican voters he thought Biden's election was illegitimate but was keeping quite about it for "strategic" reasons.
Yet another was fined by the Federal Election Commission for misdirecting campaign funds, including paying personal expenses from donor dollars, during one of the four failed congressional campaigns he ran.
The field's political novice began organizing fellow Christian conservatives in the wake of the pandemic and popped up late last year when he staged a heated press conference to call for new leadership in the state GOP, where one of the speakers he introduced deriding establishment Republicans as "whores," "liars" and "asswipes."
In that order, the GOP state chair candidates are:
• Former Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who rose to national prominence as a promoter of unsupported theories that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Peters, who lost the secretary of state primary last year, admits she helped others breach her county's secure election equipment in pursuit of the theory but denies she broke the law and insists the charges she's facing are politically motivated.
• Former state Rep. Dave Willams, R-Colorado Springs, who lost a primary challenge last year aimed at denying U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn a ninth term representing the El Paso County-based 5th Congressional District. Known for his incendiary rhetoric in the legislature, Williams also lost a lawsuit that tried to force election officials to print "Let's Go Brandon" along with his name on ballots after arguing that he'd adopted the phrase — code in some circles for "F--- Joe Biden" — as his nickname.
• Erik Aadland, a decorated Army veteran and first-time candidate who lost last year's targeted race for the open seat in the Jefferson County-based 7th Congressional District to Democrat Brittany Pettersen by double digits after switching from the U.S. Senate race. After Aadland won the nomination in an expensive and hard-fought primary, it emerged that he'd been telling partisan audiences that he'd decided to stop publicly discussing his concerns over whether the 2020 presidential election was "rigged" because airing those doubts didn't help win over swing voters.
• Casper Stockham, who has the distinction of losing three times in two different congressional districts since 2012 — twice in the heavily Democratic, Denver-based 1st Congressional District and once in the suburban 7th district before it was redrawn ahead of last year's election. He made an unsuccessful run for state chair two years ago and launched a candidate training program that helped prepare Aadland to run for office.
• Aaron Wood, founder of Douglas County-based Freedom Fathers, proclaims that he's the only one of the aspiring state chairs who's never lost a campaign — because he hasn't ever run for office. Instead, he says, he represents the party's rank and file and can lead the party out from under the sway of the politicians who've landed it in its current straits.
• Former state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, notes that he's won six of the nine races he's run and served four terms in the state House and two terms in the state Senate, where he was a leader of the GOP's most hard-line conservatives. A decade ago, he lost a race challenging then-U.S. Rep. Jared Polis in the Democratic-leaning 2nd Congressional District, and in 2018 Lundberg failed to make the primary ballot when he ran for state treasurer.
Kristi Burton Brown, the state party chair for last two years and a pioneer in the state's anti-abortion movement — she sponsored the first personhood ballot measure when she was a teenager — declared in December that she wasn't seeking a second term, opening the race to a field of potential successors.
Her announcement came just weeks after self-described Republican grassroots activists held a hostile rally in a parking lot across the street from state GOP headquarters in Greenwood Village. Organized by Wood and featuring fiery speeches from Peters and Stockham, the rally's sustained vitriol raised eyebrows across the state when some participants tore into Burton Brown and other GOP stalwarts.
Republicans who considered runs for state chair but ultimately decided against it include Greg Lopez, the two-time gubernatorial candidate who lost in the 2018 and 2022 primaries; Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams; El Paso County GOP chair Vickie Tonkins; and, State Board of Education member Stephen Varela, who was appointed to represent the 3rd Congressional District on the board in January after losing a competitive state Senate race in Pueblo in November.
At the same March 11 central committee meeting, the party is also slated to elect a vice chair and secretary.
Running for vice chair are incumbent Priscilla Rahn, who lost a bid for University of Colorado regent in 2020, and Todd Watkins, the unsuccessful El Paso County sheriff candidate who won election as the county party's vice chair last month.
Secretary candidates include Lori Cutunilli, a leader of multiple unsuccessful attempts to recall Polis from the governor's office; Anna Ferguson of Adams County; and, Robert Armagost of Weld County. The outgoing secretary, Archuleta County GOP chair Marilyn Harris, declined to seek another term.
Colorado used to be roughly evenly balanced between registered Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. In the last decade, however, both major party's ranks have dwindled in Colorado, as more and more voters register as unaffiliated, though Republicans have lost ground at a faster pace.
According to the Colorado Secretary of State's office's most recent voter registration statistics, Colorado's 1,053,588 Democrats make up 28% of the state's 3.8 million active voters, with Republicans trailing at 930,814, or 24%. Unaffiliated voters constitute the lion's share, with 1,748,320, or 46% of the total, with the balance belonging to the state's seven minor political parties.
The Democrats' advantage in voter registration, however, pales in comparison to the party's recent unbroken — and unprecedented — winning streak in Colorado.
In last year's midterms, Democrats swept every statewide office, won Colorado's new congressional seat and increased the party's majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, punctuating a three-cycle run that punished Republicans at every turn.
In a sign of GOP candidates' difficulties in the 2022 election, the state's most prominent Republican, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Silt, found herself barely eking out reelection to a second term in the Republican-leaning, Western Slope-based 3rd Congressional District. Following a mandatory recount because the results were so close, she prevailed over Democrat Adam Frisch by just 546 votes in what turned out to be the closest congressional race in the country.
At a Republican state chair debate on Feb. 25 in Hudson sponsored by the Republican Women of Weld, the six candidates proposed a host of explanations for the party's poor performance at the ballot box last year.
Wood set the tone near the start of the 90-minute event, which took place before a packed crowd in the back room of a pizza restaurant and was streamed online.
"We lost in 2022 because we put unprincipled, weak candidates forward in top, key positions," Wood said. "And we're losing trust with the party, we're losing trust with real conservative voices throughout our state, because of the people that go through our processes and circumvent the caucus and assembly and petition-only onto the ballot and don't actually stand up for key issues that are important to us."
"When I look at issues that are important to me — family, pro-life, pro-freedom, lower taxes and less government — those should resonate with everybody," Wood continued. "But when I stand in the foyer of my church and present a voter guide with candidates that are weak on abortion, that are weak on the family, what do you think happens? People feel discouraged, they feel disenfranchised, they feel the party has walked away from them."
Williams said Republicans "failed to provide a contrast — a true contrast — between the Democrat and the Republican Party," leading to the party's losses in Colorado.
"The Democrats are the ones who are wrong in the issue," he said. "They're also the ones who were morally bankrupt, but instead we had consultant individuals who wanted to move our party in the left."
Referring to Republican nominee Joe O'Dea, who lost in November to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Williams seconded Wood's contention that prominent GOP candidates muddled the party's brand.
"We had a U.S. Senate nominee who said he would vote to codify Roe vs. Wade," he said. "Why in the hell would any swing voter actually want to vote for the Republican Party when they're just getting more of the same with the Democrats? If we're going to win we have to boldly articulate who we are, and we should be unafraid and unashamed of it."
Williams and Lundberg later acknowledged that they didn't vote for O'Dea on the general election ballot, saying they couldn't bring themselves to pull the figurative lever for a candidate who didn't hold a hard line on abortion.
Lundberg said it's a matter of articulating what a united GOP stands for.
"'Where there is no vision, the people perish,'" he said, quoting from Proverbs. "And that's, to me, the biggest issue that needs to be sorted out — and can be worked out through the party — is to identify what are the core values of the Republican Party for the state of Colorado and hold that banner high, as many of my colleagues have, and I plan on that.
Added Lundberg: "Whoever wins here, we need to be a team."
Aadland said he lost because Democrats were able to portray him as a "right-wing extremist" and vastly outspent his campaign.
In addition to fixing the "funding differential," he said, "we've got to restore trust with Coloradans and inspire them to vote Republican because we have the best policies, we have the best candidates and we have the right way forward. But we've got to articulate our message in a way that Coloradans believe in, understand and want to get behind. And that's going to take tremendous work coming together and presenting a unified front that wins us elections."
Stockham attributed the party's losses to "a PMI problem," invoking one of multiple acronyms he dropped throughout the debate. That one stands for Purpose, Message and Image, while OUST stands for Outreach, Unite, Support and Training, the core of his plan.
"We have to do a better job of outreach, a better job uniting, a better job supporting and a better job training," he said, pledging to continue reaching out to young voters and the Black and Hispanic communities. "If we do that, we will start winning elections again."
Peters blamed Colorado's election equipment and vote tabulation devices.
"It's not your fault that we lost this election in 2022. It's not your fault that I lost the election in 2022," she said. "It's because of the machines."
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