The Republican State Board of Education member from Pueblo who used to be a Democrat has notified the Colorado GOP that he is no longer running to chair the state Republican Party, leaving six candidates in the race.
Stephen Varela's withdrawal means every remaining contender for the top party position wants to close Colorado's semi-open primaries to unaffiliated voters, allowing only registered Republicans to participate.
Additionally, without Varela in the field, there isn't a single Republican state chair candidate who hasn't promoted unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
A top Republican strategist and former two-term state GOP chair warns that the positions could put the party sharply at odds with the overwhelming majority of Colorado voters, who reject election conspiracy theories by wide margins, according to polling and election results.
Still in the running for GOP chair are former Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, former state lawmakers Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud and Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, unsuccessful congressional nominees Casper Stockham and Erik Aadland, and Douglas County activist Aaron Wood, founder of a nonprofit that calls itself a defender of conservative Christian values.
State Republicans are scheduled to choose a leadership team for the next two years — a chair, vice chair and secretary — at a party meeting on March 11 in Loveland, part of the biennial reorganization process both of Colorado's major political parties are undergoing this month and next.
While Democrats are conducting a largely cordial contest between a trio of party regulars — their state officer elections are set for April 1 in Denver — Colorado Republicans are determining the GOP's direction on the heels of a string of losses at the ballot box that have left the party with less power statewide than at any time since the 1930s.
It's unclear whether Varela's move changes the dynamics of the state chair election, since he doesn't appear to have campaigned for the position other than throwing his hat in the ring.
He didn't respond to multiple messages from Colorado Politics about his decision to quit the party leadership race, but state GOP chair Kristi Burton Brown confirmed on Tuesday that Varela had formally withdrawn from the race. Over the weekend, Varela also informed organizers of an upcoming state chair debate that he was no longer running.
Varela was appointed last month to the state education board by a Republican vacancy committee in the 3rd Congressional District after losing a targeted state Senate race in November to incumbent Democrat Nick Hinricksen. The Army veteran and former charter school board member mounted earlier unsuccessful campaigns for county commissioner and city council in Pueblo, where Varela was registered as a Democrat as recently as two years ago.
For more than a decade, Varela regularly changed his registration, switching affiliation 17 times since 2011, from Democrat to unaffiliated to Republican in various sequences, The Colorado Sun reported last year. Varela said he often switched parties in order to vote in primaries. The Democratic party left him, he said, adding: “I am and will continue to be a Republican.”
Varela also co-founded Rural Colorado United, an aggressive political action committee that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in 2020, the year the Silt Republican ousted five-term U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in the GOP primary and went on to win election in November.
Republican consultant Dick Wadhams, who chaired the state GOP from 2007 to 2011 and managed winning campaigns for governor and the U.S. Senate back when Republicans ruled the roost in Colorado, told Colorado Politics that the remaining field of state chair candidates doesn't bode well for the party's prospects.
"All six of these candidates are disasters, every one of them," Wadhams said in an interview. "It’s just going to be a wasteland at the Colorado Republican Party for the next two years."
Wadhams said the party he once led is putting itself firmly crosswise with the vast majority of Colorado voters.
"They all believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and they all want to go back to election day balloting, to get rid of mail elections," he said. "It defines the party as crazy right up front, and that’s what a lot of these unaffiliateds think about Republicans anyway."
Add to that the chair candidates' support for "kicking out the unaffiliateds" from Colorado's voter-approved semi-open primaries, and you have a recipe for alienating the Republican Party from all but its most extreme members heading into the 2024 election, Wadhams said.
"There will have to be some independent efforts to support solid Republican candidates for state legislative and county offices," he said. "If Colorado is competitive, the presidential campaign will have to run its own campaign in Colorado, but I’m not sure Colorado will be competitive, especially given where we are right now."
Wadhams added that he's glad he isn't a member of the party's state central committee anymore, because he would have to abstain from voting in this year's state chair race.
"I never thought the party would sink this low. It’s just amazing," he said. "Who would a mainstream Republican vote for in this crowd? I just don’t know."
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