Man On A Mission

On the road with state GOP chairman Ryan Call as he tries to navigate the most unforgiving job in Colorado politics.

August 2014

—Photo by Bryce Boyer

Ryan Call is playing the blues. It’s just after 7 a.m. on a Saturday in May, and we’re headed to Steamboat Springs for the Routt County Republicans’ Lincoln Day Luncheon. Although I expected the studious-looking Call to be driving something like a luxury sedan, a Pandora playlist featuring Ray Charles and B.B. King fills the roomy cab of his Lincoln Mark LT truck as Call turns to me. “My wife suggested I get a Prius,” he says. “But I can’t be driving into Yuma in a Prius. And the truck bed is good for hauling around campaign signs.” Call, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, flew into Denver just hours earlier from a Republican National Committee meeting in Memphis, where he rubbed elbows with Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and lobbied RNC members on behalf of Denver’s ultimately failed bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention. Now, after being home just long enough to kiss his wife and four sleeping kids and unpack his suitcase, he’s back on the road, headed to yet another campaign-trail gathering on about five hours of sleep.

Call has put more than 35,000 miles on his truck in the past year and drives with the confidence of someone who’s been up and down most of the state’s interstates and highways his whole life. Were someone not occupying the passenger seat, he’d have pages of donor lists spread out and be making calls on his iPhone. Even on little sleep and no caffeine—he turned down my offer of a latte at the Starbucks where we met this morning—Call is full of energy, chattering away as we traverse I-70 into the mountains. It’s not until later, in Silverthorne, that he buys a 16-ounce Monster Energy drink; he doesn’t crack it open until we reach Kremmling, another 45 minutes up CO 9.

Call, 39, is one of the younger state party chairmen in the country, a devout Mormon who brings a missionary’s zeal, humility, and perseverance to what might be the toughest job in Colorado politics. Much of the party’s base, the self-identifying “tea party” and “grassroots” activists, see Call and the Republican establishment he represents as problems to be solved (or more accurately, eliminated) because they’re too willing to compromise on core conservative principles. They do not see Call—a bespectacled guy in a suit who doesn’t drink, swear, or speak in anything but complete sentences and who has earned two graduate degrees—as representative of their Republican Party.

And yet, Call seems to relish the task of trying to end the party’s long losing streak in high-profile statewide races and broaden the Grand Old Party’s appeal to women, Hispanics, and millennials—and to lead a party of splintered factions that, in many instances, simply don’t want to be led.

A day or so earlier, Call had posted a picture on Facebook of himself standing beside Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a tea party favorite and potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016. A Colorado tea party activist and radio host reposted the image on Facebook and added his own caption: “One of these things is not like the other.”

After more than three years on the job, Call is used to slights such as these. In 2012, some of the party’s antiestablishment rabble-rousers, led by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners’ Dudley Brown, formed a coalition at the state convention that helped elect one of its own, Sean Conway, a Weld County commissioner, to chair the Colorado RNC delegation in Tampa later that year. (Conway later led an unsuccessful secession movement in 2013 that saw 11 rural counties vote on whether to form a 51st state.) The RNC position was mostly symbolic, as was the tactic itself: The self-styled “Liberty Movement” was merely poking Call in the eye to show him they could.

It was just one example of how Call often appears caught between competing imperatives: placating the fire-and-brimstone conservatives seeking to purify the GOP of compromising consensus builders, and preventing them from completely taking over the party. Last summer, when he tried to distance the party from Republican state Senator Vicki Marble’s ad-libbed remarks about how she, too, loves fried chicken during an official committee hearing focused on solving poverty issues in minority communities, the far right was steamed—at Call. One GOP contingent proposed censuring him for criticizing Marble, and a short time later, when asked about Marble’s comments, Call, in apparent acquiescence to his Republican critics, blamed Democrats for being overly sensitive.

At April’s GOP state assembly and convention, numerous delegates sported homemade buttons that said “Recall Call” as they milled about the University of Colorado Boulder’s Coors Events Center. “People just don’t trust him, on procedural stuff and on principle,” says Matt Arnold, a self-described “liberty activist” from Denver who claims Call has violated party bylaws by intervening in favor of certain candidates in intraparty elections. (Party chairmen aren’t supposed to take sides in such tilts, and Call denies the allegations.) Arnold also accuses Call of playing by his own set of rules. He cites Call’s 2011 arrest in Clear Creek County for driving with a suspended license, the result of failing to appear in court for one of several previous speeding tickets. “Ryan Call thinks the ‘R’ in Republican stands for Ryan, and he thinks he knows the bylaws better than everyone else because he’s a lawyer,” Arnold says. “There’s a reason no one trusts lawyers.”

Although Call recognizes such criticisms, he’s far more focused on how to make state parties—the Colorado GOP establishment, never mind its overall brand—relevant once again. In May, he filed paperwork to establish an independent expenditure-only committee (IEC), a super PAC that will allow the party to raise unlimited amounts of money.

In many ways, Call’s behavior mirrors that of establishment Republicans nationally, who seem to have finally learned their lesson from a few consecutive cycles of watching tea party candidates oust long-tenured incumbents in primary battles only to lose general election contests. (That scenario unfolded here with U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck’s loss in November 2010.) This year, in Kentucky and South Carolina, incumbent Republicans and well-funded outside groups went to great lengths—and expense—to shore up their right flank, spending millions to pummel potential challengers early on, and both states’ Senate incumbents enjoyed decisive primary victories.

In Colorado, U.S. Representative Cory Gardner’s late entry into the U.S. Senate race was enough to clear the primary field because he’s the rare Republican who appeals to both tea party and establishment conservatives. Buck, who left the Senate race to run for Gardner’s seat, faced a primary challenge from several other Republicans, most of whom were to the right of him philosophically. That Buck went from being a cautionary tea party tale to an establishment candidate—who won the June primary—in just two campaign cycles speaks more to a Republican Party shifting right than a candidate moving to the middle.

Call hatched the idea of bidding for the 2016 Republican National Convention to remind the GOP it shouldn’t go so far rightward that it loses its appeal for Colorado’s increasingly diverse electorate. While some viewed the idea as a fool’s errand and a distraction from the party’s 2014 efforts, Call saw it as an opportunity for the party to reintroduce itself to Colorado voters and to remind the GOP of how it must change to compete in a Western swing state. Although Denver failed to make the final two cities under consideration because of its lack of funding relative to Dallas and Cleveland, Call’s allies viewed the effort as worthwhile. “Most of the folks who give Ryan a hard time locally have no idea of how well respected he is nationally,” says Melissa Kuipers, an attorney and policy adviser who raised money for the Colorado GOP’s host committee at the 2012 RNC in Tampa and was legal counsel for the 2016 effort. “I think the RNC considered Denver largely because Ryan Call is in charge. He’s got [Democratic Governor John] Hickenlooper and [Denver Mayor Michael] Hancock making fund-raising calls for the RNC. Not many people can do that.”

Once Denver was knocked out of the RNC race, Call refocused on the state IEC, which he hopes will bring in $3 million to spend this fall. It’s a pittance compared to the tens of millions outside groups are planning to drop on TV ads, and he knows change won’t come quickly to the entrenched and intractable GOP. But Call maintains that the thankless work of building an infrastructure and relationships, a major part of the IEC’s objective, is critical to his party’s turnaround. “We have to tackle big projects like the Republican convention,” Call says as we cruise through the Eisenhower Tunnel. “We have to be creative and ambitious in a way the party hasn’t always been.”

But after a decade of Democratic dominance, many conservatives are more angry than patient (as evidenced by last year’s secession movement). Call was criticized in 2013 for not being more involved in the recall efforts targeting Democratic state senators who supported new gun control measures. After activists gathered the required signatures, the state party spent $140,000 bolstering its two successor candidates with phone banks and get-out-the-vote operations in Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Although both candidates won, the state party and Call, who was initially reluctant to support the recalls, didn’t get much credit. “It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and say we’re not scoring enough touchdowns,” says Call (who as a kid swam and played tennis, not football). “It’s harder to get on the field and move the ball in the right direction.”

As we pull into Steamboat Springs, passing the yellow signs for F.M. Light & Sons, a Western store and perennial fixture on the town’s main drag, Call continues. “It’s easy to be absolutist about everything, but our party has to find a balance,” he says, with a bit more conviction and a trace of frustration. If anything could rile up Call enough to make him swear, it would probably be this topic. “It may not resonate with the people who idolize Sarah Palin, but I’d rather be viewed in retrospect as someone who grew the party than as a bomb-thrower,” he says. “I think what people really want is someone to lead. I don’t think I’ll ever be loved. And I’m not doing this to be loved.”

Call was born on June 8, 1975, in Denver. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father was a dentist and a professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Call grew up around 104th and Sheridan in Westminster, with the Mormon church at the center of the family’s life. “I’ve always been conservative,” he says, “mostly because of my upbringing and family values.” As a boy, Call watched his father provide free dental services to Hispanic immigrants from their neighborhood. He, too, envisioned a career in medicine and started his postsecondary education at Pennsylvania State University, lured by its strong pre-med program. After his freshman year, the church sent Call on his mission to Santa Ana, California. He spent two years in the requisite white shirt and black slacks, bicycling around some of Orange County’s poorest immigrant communities and sharing the basic tenets of Mormonism with anyone who would listen, aware that many of the people he met were in the country illegally. “We didn’t care about their immigration status when we taught them the gospel,” he says.

When the mission ended, Call transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder and, as a sophomore, attended his first College Republicans meeting, a gathering of about seven people. Before long, he was recruited into the race for the state College Republicans chair. He won. It was 2000, and that fall he drove all over Colorado, set up a card table on campuses from Colorado Springs to Gunnison, and intercepted passing students with information about a young Texas governor promising a new brand of compassionate conservatism.