Cole Wist

Then-House Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, during the 2018 legislative session. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Centennial Republican Cole Wist, a former assistant minority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives, says the GOP needs to right itself and move out from under former President Donald Trump's shadow.

"If we’re more concerned about loyalty to a man instead of loyalty to principles and an ideology, then we’re lost as a party, and, unfortunately, that’s kind of where we are right now," said Wist, who spoke with Colorado Politics ahead of Thursday's release of a letter signed by more than 100 prominent Republicans.

The letter, titled "A Call for American Renewal," calls on the Republican Party to embrace a set of core principles or face the prospects of losing members, possibly to a breakaway third party.

Many of the signers of the letter — including Wist, among other former national and state elected officials and party leaders — have been raising the alarm for years over Trump's grip on the GOP.

"[W]hen in our democratic republic, forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism arise, it is the patriotic duty of citizens to act collectively in defense of liberty and justice," reads a draft of the document provided to Colorado Politics. "We, therefore, declare our intent to catalyze an American renewal, and to either reimagine a party dedicated to our founding ideals or else hasten the creation of such an alternative."

"I’ve gotten to the point where I feel the party needs to make a decision one way or the other," Wist said. He added that he saw what looked like daylight in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol when Republican congressional leaders demanded accountability for the attack.

"And I really believed and hoped that the party would pivot from that point to talk about the future and what we wanted to do in terms of policy," he said. "I wasn’t so naïve to think that folks would denounce Donald Trump, but I thought that there would be a logical pivot for the party to move forward. Then after that, weeks later, (House Minority Leader) Kevin McCarthy flies to Florida to meet with Donald Trump and it seem to turn at that point."

The letter was organized in part by Miles Taylor, the former Homeland Security official who was unmasked last year as the pseudonymous "Anonymous" author of a New York Times op-ed and best-selling books that described an active resistance within the Trump Administration. Other signers reportedly include former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, former U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia, and Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and one-time lieutenant governor of Maryland. (Wist said Wednesday he hadn't seen a list of all those who signed.)

Its release comes a day after House Republicans voted to unseat Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from the GOP's No. 3 leadership post following her continued denunciation of Trump's false claims that he was cheated out of a second term by widespread voter fraud and election irregularities.

Wist, an attorney at the Denver offices of global law firm Squire Patton Boggs, said Cheney's recent remarks resonated, including a speech she delivered on the House floor the night before her ouster.

"The key things here really goes to the core of what conservatism is, and that is respect for the institution and respect for the rule of law. We can certainly disagree with the outcomes, we can disagree with judges, but at the end of the day, if we don’t have respect for the system and respect for the rule of law, I’m not sure where we go from there," he said.

"Like Liz Cheney, I don’t want Donald Trump to be the future leader of the Republican Party. And if you hold that view, it seems to me the message coming from Washington today and over the last several weeks is that you’re not in step with the party."

That's the message Trump delivered in a statement Wednesday attacking the letter's signers as Taylor was making the rounds on cable news shows teasing its release.

Saying he didn't know Taylor and "wouldn’t even know what he looks like," Trump rebuked the "group of RINOs and Losers who are coming out to protest President Trump" and went on to list his administration's achievements, including a booming economy, tax cuts and judicial appointments. Trump then denounced the rogue Republicans — including Taylor, Whitman and Steele — who endorsed Joe Biden in last year's presidential election, adding, "What a disaster for our Country it has been!"

Trump spokesman Jason Miller dismissed the letter more succinctly in a statement to Reuters: “These losers left the Republican Party when they voted for Joe Biden."

Wist was among some of the letter's signers who declared their intention last year to vote for Biden and were active in a group called Republicans and Independents for Biden.

"But I also said I was voting for Cory Gardner. People forget about Gardner," Wist said with a chuckle.

"We stayed in the Republican Party for a reason. If we wanted to leave, we would’ve left along time ago. I think we all hope for a strong two-party system, because I think it produces better public policy. That’s the reason we stayed in the party, to try to improve it. But — I’ll speak for myself — I just don’t see it moving in the right direction. We’re over four months since Jan. 6, and the dynamic I was hoping for once we were sort of removed from the emotion of that day and Trump leaving office, is that we’d have an opportunity to reflect where we’re going. The House Republicans seem to be moving very sharply in the other direction."

The letter has been touted as a warning shot preceding formation of a third party made up of disaffected Republicans, though Wist said it wouldn't be accurate to describe it as an ultimatum.

"I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a threat to leave the party," he said. "It’s just a statement of our belief that either the party changes course, or there needs to be another option for those of us who find ourselves without a political home. We don’t want to become Democrats, but the current leadership of the Republican party doesn’t match our values."

Wist said he considered leaving the party after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"I don’t really like the idea of quitting on the party. I still have many friends in the party and folks that I’ve worked with in the past and I hope to work with in the future on various issues, so I have mixed feelings about that. But I don’t feel particularly welcome in the party right now because I don’t support Donald Trump," he said.

"Obviously, Jan. 6 was such a huge event and created such emotion on all sides, so let’s see what happens when things calm down and let’s see where the party goes. And instead of the party pivoting, what I’m now seeing is folks rationalizing what happened on Jan. 6 and explaining it in a way that I think is inaccurate and dishonest. Liz Cheney had enough of that, and I think there are plenty of us that have had enough of that. And once you get to that point, recognizing that there’s no apparent consequence or accountability for what happened on Jan. 6, I think the party has to decide, does it want to continue along the same path or do we want to try to correct course, or is the party a place that’s no longer welcome to those of us who hold views about respect for process and the rule of law?"

Wist said he wants to see how Colorado's Republican Party moves ahead into the 2022 election cycle.

"I would love for us to find an opportunity for dialogue with the party. I think it’s clear that we’re holding out hope of there being opportunity for dialogue, but I also think we’re realistic about what that looks like right now. There may be no short-term conversation, but if we’re not successful in 2022, as a party — notice I’m still seeing ‘we,’ because I still consider myself to be a member of the party — but if we’re not successful in 2022, there has to be a conversation about what’s working and what’s not," he said.

"To narrow that down to Colorado, what may be successful for the Republican Party in deep red states is not working here. So I think the challenge for (state GOP chairman) Kristi Burton Brown and the Colorado Republican Party is to figure out what’s the formula here to reach voters again, and I think it’s to start focusing on issues that we care about and less on personality and divisive politics that relate to Donald Trump. So long as we're talking about Donald Trump, it’s exactly what the Democrats want to talk about in Colorado. And I hope we can pivot from that."

Wist, who ran afoul of some of the state GOP's hardliners when he served in the legislature, said he was used to holding his own to account.

"Part of my journey has been calling out untruths and things where we’re not being straight with people, because that’s doing damage to the party and doing damage to our country," he said. "And if people don’t like me doing that, then it is what it is, I’m not going to change that. But I’m intending it to be constructive so that the party moves in a different direction."

Added Wist: "I’ve always been my own guy, and sometimes that gets me into trouble, but I’m going to be true to what I am, and either people agree with that or they don’t. But the kind of things that are dividing the party now are some pretty huge things. ‘Can we agree that the sky is blue?’ kind of stuff."

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