The rift within El Paso County's Republican Party surfaced Saturday when the county GOP formally rebuked dozens of fellow party members and demanded they stop using the word "Republican" to describe an enterprise that urges voters to support Republican candidates.
By an overwhelming margin, members of the county party's central committee approved a resolution to "censure and condemn in the strongest possible terms" more than 30 current and former elected officials, GOP nominees and party volunteers associated with Peak Republicans, an effort launched this spring by local Republicans who said they couldn't count on the county party to get behind Republican candidates.
The resolution, spearheaded by El Paso County GOP chairwoman Vickie Tonkins, ordered the Republicans to "cease and desist," claiming the Peak Republicans aren't allowed to call themselves Republicans, and demanded they issue a public apology. If they don't, the resolution added, the county party wants the state GOP to step in and exercise its legal right to prevent any organization from using the word "Republican" in its name without permission.
Peak Republicans organizer Jody Richie, a local party officer and one of the Republicans singled out by Saturday's censure resolution, said the group doesn't plan to change its name and added that she has no intention of apologizing.
"We don’t want to take over their domain. We are here to complement them, not to compete with them," she told Colorado Politics.
Among those censured were state Sen. Larry Liston, state Reps. Mary Bradfield and Andres Pico, County Commissioners Cami Bremer and Holly Williams, Colorado Springs City Councilman Wayne Williams, and former state lawmakers Lois Landgraf and Catherine "Kit" Roupe. Also on the list: county party vice chair Karl Schneider, past U.S. Senate candidate and former county party chair Eli Bremer and his father, former County Commissioner and congressional candidate Duncan Bremer.
Tonkins argued during Saturday's party meeting that the upstart outfit — run out of an office near Interstate 25 and Garden of the Gods Road — was confusing voters and candidates by "presenting itself" as the county party headquarters, though a lead organizer behind the effort said no one appears to be confused about what they're doing.
"It’s just a nickname, that’s all it is," Richie said. The group hasn't set up a formal organization but is instead acting like a vendor for candidates who want to get their messages out to voters, she said. She added that it appears Tonkins and the county party lack legal standing to tell the Peak Republicans whether or not they can use the name "Republicans," according to a state law that grants that authority to the state party.
Richie noted that former President Donald Trump and former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner's campaigns set up their own operations in El Paso County two years ago, bypassing the local county party.
The Peak Republicans formed in April after some local Republicans grew concerned that the county party was putting its thumb on the scale in favor of a group of GOP candidates, leaving their primary rivals out in the cold, Richie said.
"They’re supposed to be neutral, but they had their own candidates," she said. "We felt all the candidates that were running needed a place to call home, coordinate yard signs, run phone banks, organize people to go door to door. That’s what we all want is to get Republicans elected."
Tonkins didn't respond to a request for comment.
State Rep. Dave Williams, a Tonkins ally, told Colorado Politics that Tonkins reached out earlier this year to the state GOP for guidance but didn't get any.
"If a group of people want to get together and get out the vote and help Republican candidates, that wasn’t her objection," he said. "But she had evidence that they were going beyond that, to portray themselves as the new office and new headquarters for Republicans in El Paso County."
Williams, who voted in favor of the censure motion at Saturday's meeting, said the county party has heard from candidates who were confused about which Republicans they should coordinate with in the county, and Tonkins was simply trying to sort that out.
"It’s an unfortunate situation all around," he said. "I would hope that the state party would’ve come in sooner to try and find a resolution that avoided having a special meeting and having to do this. I do think if we're going to stop this civil war, this divisiveness within the party, we have to start holding accountable those who are a part of it."
He said the persistent division between the party's old guard and current county party leadership is behind the dispute.
"If we’re going to succeed long-term, we do have to figure out how to work together when their side doesn’t win," Williams added. "What’s disingenuous is they try to play innocent in all this, and that’s not the truth. It takes two to tango. If we really want peace and we really want unity, they’re going to have to step up and demonstrate some leadership.
"Ultimately, I think they’re not happy they’re not in charge. They’re not used to being in this position, and they’ve pushed things to this point, rather than seeking peace."
A spokesman for the state GOP, executive director Joe Jackson, declined to comment on the censure resolution or the county party's demands.
"We are 100% focused on GOTV and electing our Republican candidates on Tuesday," Jackson said in a text message, using a common acronym for "get out the vote."
With ballots due to county clerks by 7 p.m. Tuesday, candidates and campaigns are criss-crossing the state at a fever pitch to encourage Coloradans to vote.
Jackson, however, refuted Williams' assertion that the state party hadn't given any direction to the county GOP about its gripe with Peak Republicans.
“It’s unfortunate Rep. Williams feels the need to lie," Jackson said in a text message to Colorado Politics. "As he well knows, the county party was given guidance to stop their attacks on fellow Republicans and help get out the vote instead. Just because they don’t like the advice doesn’t mean it wasn’t given.”
Eli Bremer, one of the targets of Saturday's censure motion, told Colorado Politics that he believes the state party needs to resolve things by disbanding the county party.
“I think it’s time for the state GOP to step in and look at all options to revoke the charter of the rogue El Paso GOP," Bremer said. "When you have a local 'Republican Party' that censures nearly every candidate and elected official for the 'offense' of working to get elected, you clearly have a problem."
Richie said she didn't attend Saturday's meeting because she was busy coordinating Peak Republicans activity.
"This is such a sad situation," she said. "I’m flummoxed, to be honest with you. I shrug my shoulders and shake my head. I don’t get it. When we are all supposed to be out working for our candidates, you should be working for your candidates, not fighting each other."