For decades, it’s been generally accepted that Republican candidates can’t win statewide in Colorado without solid GOP turnout in El Paso County, and the same holds true for Republican presidential candidates hoping to carry what has been a perennial swing state.
Long known in national Republican circles as a "marquee county" – one of a handful of counties in battleground states whose electoral performance can help determine the outcome of a national election — El Paso County, with the largest reservoir of GOP votes of any county in Colorado, has enjoyed pivotal standing, and its county party has long been regarded as the proverbial 800-pound gorilla.
Whether it’s been luring Republican luminaries to its annual fundraising dinners or drawing outsized attention and resources from statewide and national campaigns, El Paso County Republicans have grown used to their heavyweight status.
But just over four months before ballots are set to go out for the November election and as the Colorado campaigns of President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner shift into high gear, candidates and party officials confirm that the El Paso County Republican Party is playing virtually no discernible role.
What’s more, the county party hasn’t been much involved with local campaigns for the legislature or county offices, either, after helping organize nominating assemblies that were wracked with uncertainty amid the growing coronavirus pandemic — including a couple that weren’t resolved until after detours through court.
In recent months, the El Paso County GOP — already shaken by an unusually high rate of turnover at the top — has been embroiled in one controversy after another while its embattled chairwoman has become increasingly isolated from most of the county’s Republican elected officials, candidates and their campaigns, county Republicans say.
In a move veteran party officials and activists call unprecedented, the Colorado Trump Victory campaign — the joint field operations of the Trump and Gardner campaigns and the Colorado Republican Party — has been coordinating campaign activity in the county on its own, bypassing the county party office.
“El Paso County is a place where we have to run up the scoreboard,” said Eli Bremer, a district party officer and former county party chairman who has been at the center of some of the recent disputes between El Paso GOP Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins and her allies, and veteran GOP activists and officials.
“The math of Colorado is, El Paso needs to generate north of 60% for Republican candidates to give a Republican any chance whatsoever of carrying the state. If El Paso can offset the Democrats in Denver and Boulder, the rest of the state gets to make the decision. That's the political calculus everyone does.”
Trump, who lost Colorado by about 5% of the vote, got about 55% of the vote in El Paso County in 2016, falling short of the target that could have given him a chance to win statewide. That’s the threshold Gardner just cleared in 2014, when he won 61% of the vote in El Paso County on his way to unseating Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall by slightly under 2 percentage points.
That’s what makes it all the more unusual, Bremer and other party stalwarts said, that the county party has been effectively sidelined heading into this year’s election season.
“The party has statutory requirements through the ballot access process,” he said. “There's really nothing else it has to do. Maybe the thing now is to put the (county party) in mothballs and pull it out after the election and rebuild the thing correctly.”
'Ghost party' or 'corrupt' insiders?
A longtime party insider who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation said the difference between the county party’s customary standing and its current irrelevance is stark.
Instead of the party training volunteers and beginning to put in place its get-out-the-vote plans, the insider said, candidates have been working with the Colorado Trump Victory operation, and some have established what they’re calling a “ghost party.”
“We're going to be in the most important time for these candidates. This is win or lose for them. Everyone else is working together, with each other, and on their own. They are not touching the party at this point,” the insider said.
“They don't have that authority any longer because of that lack of leadership. That doesn't mean people aren't going to vote Republican or stay conservative. It just means the next leader who comes in is going to have to work three times harder to put it back together and earn people's trust.”
Tonkins and her supporters, on the other hand, tell a different story, describing the resistance they’ve met clashing with the party’s old guard as proof that they’re striking nerves and at least beginning to chip away at the rampant corruption they say permeates the party.
State Rep. Dave Williams, a Tonkins ally, charged his fellow elected officials with “falling prey to corrupt party insiders who don’t like Vickie’s proven record of accomplishment on behalf of all El Paso County Republicans.”
In a series of group emails between party officers and elected officials obtained by Colorado Politics, Tonkins — the first African-American woman to chair the county party and the loser of a 2018 primary race for county commissioner against Bremer’s wife, Cami — didn’t hold back.
Calling Eli Bremer a “moral cancer” and an “evil thug,” Tonkins alleged her critics have “unwittingly involved yourselves in a retaliation scheme that, to quote Justice Clarence Thomas, ‘is a high-tech lynching’ that was designed by Eli Bremer to cover-up his corruption and keep me from speaking out against it.”
“We don't like her because she's wrecking the whole system,” Bremer said in response. “It has nothing to do with race; it has to do with competence.”
Confrontations on the rise
El Paso County Republicans have always been an argumentative bunch, political veterans say, stretching back to the days when the Pikes Peak region vied with Arapahoe County as the spawning ground of the state GOP’s brightest stars.
But this year, as the county Republican Party approaches a crucial election under its fourth chair in a span of a little over two years, the disputes have turned more vicious, with one quarrel after another boiling over into public view.
Since the 2016 election, the county GOP has been rocked with controversies – including two chairs who resigned just months into their terms and a social media flub by Tonkins that drew national attention, as well as a steady stream of lawsuits and threatened criminal charges alleging fraud and corruption at party meetings.
Some activists say they fear all the infighting — and expensive legal bills — will drive away the party’s lifeblood, hundreds of volunteers who organize precincts, attend party functions and fill committees. Once those Republicans get tired of all the hullabaloo, one longtime party operative lamented, the only Republicans willing to put in the time will be the zealots.
Tonkins took office to great fanfare in October, on the heels of a fundraising debacle that coincided with the previous chair’s resignation after six months in office.
Following veteran communications maven Tamra Farah's exit as county party chair in late August, the state party stepped in to help cover costs associated with the county party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner, traditionally the party’s chief fundraising event of the year.
"I expected some challenges, but find the level of opposition to my chairmanship within our central committee to be deeply disappointing, particular in a time when the call for unity has been strong and essential," Farah wrote in an Aug. 29 letter.
Farah, who said she "endeavored to take the high road and effect a positive culture" but was blocked by party regulars who refused to work with her, added: "The timing of my resignation is with the sincere hope that those who opposed my changes will now marshal their efforts to take this dinner across the finish line for the sake of the party."
The Sept. 7 dinner’s costs had spiraled out of control after Farah booked Charlie Kirk, the young founder and executive director of conservative campus group Turning Point USA, as the keynote speaker, instead of scheduling a Republican VIP willing to attend if the party paid for travel expenses. Kirk's half-hour speech ultimate cost the county party $10,959, according to campaign finance documents.
On top of that, the county party paid $12,500 to the Doubletree Hotel in southwest Colorado Springs in August for Lincoln Day Dinner expenses, plus $1,000 for valet parking and another $2,610 to the firm Starboard Group for fundraising expenses and consulting services surrounding the dinner.
The state party helped bail out the county fundraising party, paying $10,379 from the party’s federal committee to cover expenses for the dinner, a spokesman for the state party told Colorado Politics, and made a $5,000 contribution to the El Paso GOP. That sum, according to the county party's campaign finance documents, is supposed to be "refunded over time."
Members of the county party’s executive committee say they’ve been ignored when they’ve sought details about the party’s progress in paying back the state party — or any other budget questions, including a rumored $3,600 spent to send the county party secretary to Washington, D.C., to help decorate the White House Christmas tree.
The county party’s financial picture won’t be clear until June 9, when a required report covering the seven-month period since the end of October is due to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
Shortly after she was elected, Tonkins named Dave Williams to a newly created position of "Trump director" for El Paso County, an appointment the state lawmaker said he was “honored” to receive. In January, Colorado GOP Vice Chair Kristi Burton Brown launched the Colorado Women in Action network of Republican women and included Tonkins among the coalition’s initial slate of 20 members.
Soon, however, strife within the party began to surface.
In early April, when El Paso County led the state in deaths associated with COVID-19, nearly every elected Republican in the county signed on to a letter reprimanding Tonkins and asking her to consider resigning after she posted a query to the county party’s official Facebook account asking whether the pandemic was a “psy-op” — a psychological operation meant to control the public.
“To suggest the entire world has somehow been deceived and ‘that the Coronavirus is a PSYOP (Psychological Operation)’ when citizens in high risk categories are dying, and indeed, a young, healthy law enforcement officer has just died in our community, is reprehensible,” wrote the elected officials. The letter's signers included eight state legislators, four county commissioners and five countywide officials, and the next day several other officials, including term-limited District Attorney Dan May, added their names.
Calling the letter a “censure,” the officials wrote: “We demand a formal apology to our Party and to the citizens of our community for your inappropriate comments. Furthermore, to protect the integrity of our Party, we strongly recommend you consider tendering your resignation.”
State Rep. Larry Liston, one of the letter’s signers and a candidate for the open Senate District 10 seat, said he supported Tonkins when in the chair election last fall and “gave her the benefit of the doubt,” but eventually lost confidence in her.
“I can't think of a time where a chair has put herself in a position like that, but she’s earned it,” he told Colorado Politics. “She's her own worst enemy. She's abusive and dismissive of the elected officials. We're the ones putting our name and our faces and reputations on the line. We're thoughtful, loyal Republicans who want to see the party do well and have all actively worked for the well-being of the party, worked with people from the moderate side of the party to the far right of the party and anywhere in between.”
Dave Williams, one of two county Republican legislators who didn’t sign on to the censure letter, blasted Tonkins’ critics, contending she “made what amounts to a mere typo and was not questioning COVID-19 but was questioning the hyper-response to the virus.”
County GOP Treasurer John Pitchford, who was appointed to the post by Tonkins, sounded a similar note in an email, arguing that Republican elected officials who “would like to bring down Vickie Tonkins at any cost” were “enemies of the Republican grassroots.”
"There are far more important things we should be focused on," term-limited state Sen. Owen Hill, who also didn't sign the letter, said in a text message.
Tonkins dug in her heels and fired back in an email, refusing to resign and pledging to “bring all of our county resources to bare (sic)” on a complaint with the state GOP challenging the results of a legislative assembly chaired by Eli Bremer.
Tonkins in early April signed on to a formal complaint filed against Bremer with the Colorado Republican Party by Dave Stiver, who failed to win a spot with Liston on the Senate District 10 primary ballot. Stiver alleged the online assembly, conducted in late March to comply with restrictions due to the pandemic, was so fraught with missteps as to render its results meaningless.
“The whole thing was a comedy of errors,” Stiver said, pointing to what he described as constantly changing rules, a reported hack targeting the email voting system and other irregularities. “This was supposed to be an election, not a coronation.”
That complaint drew national attention when state GOP Chairman Ken Buck, a congressman, ordered Bremer to add Stiver to the ballot in an online teleconference first reported by Colorado Politics, following a state party committee’s finding that Stiver had been unfairly kept from the primary.
Buck’s order was later reversed by a district court judge — in a ruling seconded by the Colorado Supreme Court — but it was Tonkins’ vow to use party resources to prosecute the complaint that drew condemnation from Colorado Springs City Councilman Wayne Williams, a former secretary of state and county GOP chair.
“Not only is this a violation of the bylaws, using the resources of our county party to support your personal vendetta (or aiding in such a use) would be a breach of fiduciary duty and may violate criminal laws prohibiting embezzlement and theft,” Williams wrote in an April 3 email to Tonkins.
Tonkins didn’t respond to the email but canceled an upcoming meeting of the county party’s executive committee and, Williams said, “chose to retaliate and to escalate.”
“Her actions have been the polar opposite of what you need in a chairman, which is to bring people together to elect Republicans,” he said in an email. “Instead, Vickie Tonkins appears to be attempting to sabotage the election of Republican candidates by jeopardizing the party’s ability to fundraise and to organize. It is almost seems as if since she lost to Eli’s wife by more than 2,000 votes that she’s now determined to bring other candidates down with her.”
Fixing a 'corrupt' process
Pitchford, the county party treasurer, responded with a warning to Williams, a lawyer, that he could be hit with a bar association complaint for his “attempt to bully Vickie Tonkins.”
Citing GOP bylaws, Pitchford maintained that Tonkins was challenging “the process,” not any particular candidate, and added that “[f]ixing corrupt processes is exactly” why she had been hired.
Tonkins took that mission to heart before a meeting of the state Republicans’ central committee, broadcasting a scathing email that denounced Bremer’s alleged “misconduct and corruption” ahead of his participation as a candidate in an election for Republican National committeeman.
“The effect of Eli’s actions should shake us to the core and demand reform,” Tonkins wrote. “His kind of behavior is what we would expect from Chicago Democrats… but NOT Colorado Republicans.”
Bremer finished third in the election for the RNC position, behind former Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and the winner, Randy Corporon, a conservative talk radio host and founder of the Arapahoe County Tea Party.
“If this were a private corporation, she'd be getting sued for breach of fiduciary responsibility, using corporate assets to attack members of the governing board” said Bremer, who sits on the county party’s executive committee, after Tonkins went after him on the eve of the state party election.
Members of the El Paso County GOP executive committee — basically the board of directors for the county party, made up of district officers and elected officials — told Colorado Politics that committee members’ efforts to censure Tonkins have been thwarted by pandemic restrictions.
“We have the votes,” one member said. “If we could call a normal meeting, we would shut down the organization. But we have no mechanical way to do that, because we can't hold an in-person meeting, and when we have met online, she just puts everyone on mute.”
El Paso county commissioner candidate Carrie Geitner, wife of state Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Colorado Springs, emerged last week as the sole Republican on the June 30 primary ballot after a district court judge threw out a lawsuit brought by two other candidates — former state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, and Garfield Johnson, a political newcomer — alleging voter fraud at the district assembly that nominated her.
The ruling followed a decision by prosecutors not to pursue criminal charges filed by Klingenschmitt against volunteers who organized the Commissioner District 2 assembly.
Geitner said she hasn’t heard from Tonkins or anyone else at the county party since she got on the ballot — an unusual circumstance for a presumptive Republican nominee.
“There is a little concern surrounding why that may be. I can't say what she is or is not doing,” Geitner said. “I’ve been involved in different campaign work for years, and the county party headquarters has always been a hub for those type of things — campaign materials, literature, volunteers. We all want to cooperate with anyone who's willing to be part of a team effort, but the party has not reached out to me. The folks that have been doing that are the folks at the Victory office — the Trump and Gardner campaigns. They've been the voice to get things organized.”
Even if the county party isn’t fulfilling its usual role, she said, GOP candidates — including Geitner and her husband, who is seeking a second term — should be able to navigate the path to November.
“Republicans helping Republicans isn't necessarily a new thing. The absence of the party being a hub for those things is a little different. We are seeing that, as campaigns, we're just going to reach out. The party as such is not the heart and soul of the Republican movement. That is the people. We are all going to work together and do what needs to be done to make sure that Republicans are elected.”