GOP State Assembly file

In this file photo, delegates to the Colorado Republican Party's state assembly listen to a speech on April 4, 2018, at the CU Events Center in Boulder.

Colorado Republicans behind a plan to cancel the GOP's primary election next year and instead designate nominees at party assemblies say that allowing unaffiliated voters to help pick their candidates is like letting fans of a rival football team choose the Broncos' starting quarterback.

But opponents of the proposal, which will be decided Saturday at a state GOP meeting in Pueblo, warn that abandoning the primary would disenfranchise the vast majority of the state's 1 million Republican voters and alienate every one of the roughly 1.8 million unaffiliated voters both major parties must woo to win statewide elections in Colorado.

According to the Secretary of State Office's most recent voter registration statistics, 43% of Colorado's active voters are unaffiliated, 29% are Democrats and 26% are Republicans.

The 2016 ballot measure that established semi-open primaries — giving unaffiliated voters the chance to cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primary without having to change their affiliation — also contained a provision that allows the major parties to "opt out" from holding a primary if 75% of the parties' central committee members agree. 

The Republican state central committee is made up of party officers from each of Colorado’s 64 counties, along with elected officials and “bonus” members awarded to larger counties based on the number of votes received by the party's top-ticket nominee in the previous general election.

Democrats haven't ever seriously considered the possibility of scrapping their primary, while Republicans have rejected the move twice, in 2017 and 2019.

Supporters of a GOP opt-out are more confident this year, though, after Republicans have suffered consecutive shellackings at the ballot box, resulting in fewer wins at the federal, statewide and legislative levels than at any time since the 1930s.

"Republicans have lost every statewide election since open primaries became a reality," says state Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, one of the leading proponents of the scheme. (Colorado has what are termed semi-open primaries, since truly open primaries, as are conducted in some states, would allow Democrats to vote in a Republican primary, and vice versa, rather than limiting the option to voters who aren't registered with either party.)

"Why would we want Democrats, or leftwing unaffiliated voters, to have a hand in choosing our nominees? If you want to help choose the Republican nominee, then become a Republican."

Williams and his cohorts argue that unaffiliated voters — egged on with campaign spending by meddling leftists — have pushed the party's nominees toward the center, blunting the GOP's message and depriving general election voters of a legitimate choice.

There's more heft behind the proposal this time, with a majority of the state GOP's elected officers in support, though nearly all the Republican candidates for top positions up for election next year are either opposed to canceling the primary or have declined to take a position.

Republican National Committee member Randy Corporon, one of the ringleaders of this year's opt-out plan, has been beating the drum against the semi-open primary for months and has recently suggested that the party should sue to overturn the law establishing the primaries, a move state Republicans have considered but rejected in past years because of the anticipated expense.

State GOP Secretary Marilyn Harris argued in a letter distributed earlier this month to central committee members that skipping a potentially divisive primary will avoid the "circular firing squad" that sometimes leaves Republican nominees damaged heading into the fall campaign, as well as conserving resources that could be better spent campaigning against Democrats.

"Simply put," Harris wrote, "all party organizations will be better positioned to lead our overall election efforts to victory with new participants and new grassroots donors. So, don’t believe the naysayers, or worse, the high-roller political consultants and special interest groups profiting from nasty Republican primary battles and petition gathering."

Priscilla Rahn, the state GOP's vice chair, made a similar argument in a letter sent to fellow Republicans.

"Look, both Democrats and Republicans have the right, as private organizations, to determine who their candidates are to represent them in the general election," she said. "Fundamentally, Republicans should vote for Republicans because that was how our nomination system was designed, and if a private membership organization cannot limit critical decisions to those who are members, then you have no reason to have that organization."

"If we opt out of the broken open primary system that corrupt Democrats currently control, then Republicans will have a real chance to win again with nominees we can trust," she added.

By law, elections in Colorado — including primaries — are run by elected county clerks, a majority of whom are Republicans, and the state uses an election system set up by a series of Republican secretaries of state, though opt-out supporters routinely demonize the current secretary of state, Democrat Jena Griswold.

Leading Republican candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate, however, have made clear that they want to keep the primary and advocate using the election as a chance to win over unaffiliated voters whose support they'll need in the fall.

University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, who launched her campaign to challenge Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last week and is the only Republican left holding statewide office, is a member of the state GOP central committee and plans to vote against the proposal on Saturday, a spokeswoman told Colorado Politics.

“This is the time to reach out to voters across the state," Ganahl said in a statement. "We’re right on the issues — tackling crime, reducing our cost of living and supporting our kids. We need everyone to join us and put Colorado on the right track.

"Let’s also not leave 1 million Republicans — including our military members serving away from home and working parents unable to attend every assembly — out of picking our candidates. Let’s all unite with a clear message separating us from Gov. Polis — that it’s time to turn things around."

Former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez, who finished third in the 2018 gubernatorial primary and is seeking another chance at the nomination, didn't respond to a request for comment.

Senate candidate Eli Bremer, a former chairman of the El Paso County GOP, argued that Republicans are on the verge of a potentially game-changing election, with Democrats facing a midterm with a president in the White House and voters tiring of single-party control in the state.

"Yet self-interested individuals are trying to convince you that disenfranchising all Colorado Republican primary voters and driving independents into the arms of the Democrats is a way to succeed," he wrote in an email sent to Republicans. "The choice is clear."

Added Bremer: "Every indication is that Republican enthusiasm is growing while Democrats’ is shrinking. Independents share many values with Colorado Republicans and are poised to support us in greater numbers than ever before. So we have a choice: we can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and watch as a Republican wave once again passes over our state like it did in 2010, or we can embrace both Republicans and Independents to turn Colorado red again."

The two other Republicans running for the chance to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet told Colorado Politics that they aren't taking sides on the question, preferring to let GOP officials decide.

Peter Yu, a former congressional candidate, said in a text message that he's concentrating on "connecting with all voters in Colorado" regardless of their party affiliation.

"The vote tomorrow is being handled by the state GOP and elected delegates," Yu said. "Right now my focus (is) on the issues affecting the people of Colorado and not on election decisions that I have no control of the outcome."

A campaign spokeswoman for Erik Aadland said the candidate wants to make sure the party unifies after Saturday's meeting but isn't taking a position on the question.

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