Lang Sias pulled off to the side of the road. He was less than a mile from the offices of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners in Windsor, and the state senate candidate was conflicted. The RMGO candidate survey, which he intended to deliver in person, sat on his passenger seat. After pausing for almost 20 minutes, Sias chose not to make what felt like a deal with the devil. He turned around and headed home to Arvada.
"I just couldn't do it," Sias says. "For me to [run for state senate], I'll be beholden to the Constitution and to the people of the district, not an outside power broker. At the end of the day, I'd rather lose than be in that guy's pocket."
That guy, of course, is Dudley Brown, RMGO's executive director, who is notorious in Colorado Republican circles for his scorched-earth tactics against GOP candidates who don't fill out his survey, which asks candidates to declare their absolute support for gun rights and their commitment to fighting against or to repeal gun control efforts.
The survey itself comes with an intimidating cover sheet informing the candidate, "we expect legislators to live up to their word" and threatening the familiar brand of retribution should they fail to fill it out: "Failure to respond will mean we have to tell citizens that you do not care enough about their gun rights to fill out the survey, and can't be counted on to defend those rights."
Sias’ decision may be the one that determines whether he is ultimately successful in his upcoming primary against the RMGO-backed Laura Woods. Because the winner will face a vulnerable Democratic incumbent this November, the GOP’s choice about which candidate to nominate may well decide the balance of power in the state senate, where Democrats cling to an 18–17 majority.
After playing an insignificant role in the successful recalls of two Democratic state senators in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, RMGO led a third recall effort against former Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster, who resigned just before Thanksgiving last year, to ensure that Democrats could appoint her successor and hold onto its suddenly tenuous majority. Woods, who found her voice working with Brown's group during the Hudak recall, is now trying to win what had been Hudak’s seat.
This is RMGO’s first foray into the bellwether Jefferson County. As any political strategist will tell you, as Jeffco goes, so goes Colorado. It’s also the new front in Dudley Brown's ongoing war against any and all Republicans unwilling to pledge their allegiance to him in writing.
Beyond that, it's a fascinating microcosm for the conundrum facing the GOP in Colorado and up-ballot races across the country: Is it better to allow the party’s more extreme forces to defeat RINOS (“Republicans in Name Only”) in June, even if that means giving Democrats a better shot at winning the general election in November? Or should the party’s establishment play a bigger role in assisting more moderate, electable Republicans through competitive primaries at the risk of weakening its eventual nominee should the establishment-backed candidate still lose? “It comes down to a very simple question: do Jefferson County Republicans want to ascribe our party to permanent minority status in the Colorado legislature?” says former Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams. “Because if the wrong candidate is nominated, Democrats are going to win these seats. The fight for the senate majority next year would be over in June.”
Wadhams’ successor as state GOP chairman, Ryan Call, told me early in 2012 that Sias, a combat veteran and FedEx pilot, is part of the next generation of Republican leaders, someone who could become a viable candidate for statewide office in a fast-changing, increasingly progressive (yet still independent and libertarian) Colorado. That was before he lost his 2012 race to Hudak by just 337 votes. (Had a Libertarian candidate not been on the ballot, he might have won.) It was a close race that gave Republicans hope for Sias in future elections.
Two years later, the political headwinds again appear to blowing rightward. Colorado Republicans are optimistic about two new opportunities: U.S. Senate candidate Cory Gardner helping the party win its first big statewide race in 12 years, and winning back a majority in the state senate. Without the Obama machine turning out Democrats as it did during the past two presidential election years, the GOP is understandably optimistic. With Democrats expecting to win back at least one of the seats they lost in last year's recall elections, Republicans need to oust at least a couple Democratic incumbents, and two in Jefferson County Democrats may be the most attractive targets: Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, who was appointed to fill Hudak's seat, and Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood.
However, Republicans are being distracted in both races by costly, vitriolic primaries. And Dudley Brown is right in the middle of both. In Lakewood, Mario Nicolais is running against Tony Sanchez, a California transplant who moved to Jefferson County just last October and was recruited to run by Brown simply to be the RMGO alternative. His basic campaign argument? He's filled out RMGO's survey, and Nicolais has not. "MARIO NICOLAIS IS ANTI-GUN" screams the oversized red text on an RMGO mailer sent to voters in Senate District 22 last week."Nicolais refuses to answer the tough questions like: Whether or not he will support legislation to repeal the draconian magazine ban and radical gun registration scheme forced through in 2013," the mailer continues in smaller type. "Nicolais's failure to answer these tough questions on whether or not he will fight for our right to keep and bear arms is historically a sure sign he will vote anti-gun if elected." (Brown would not comment for this story, and neither Woods nor Sanchez returned phone calls.)
Nicolais, an attorney, NRA member—and, he notes, the only candidate in Senate District 22 with a concealed carry permit—laughs off the standard RMGO attack line, that a refusal to fill out the group's survey means he’s "anti-gun." But he knows the group is ruthlessly effective in primaries when it's targeting a smaller pool of more conservative registered Republicans. "RMGO has to be respected for their political operation, at least when it comes to winning primaries," Nicolais told me. "They're as good at winning primaries as they are bad at protecting our gun rights."
In 2013, although RMGO was incredibly successful at raising money from members via an almost daily barrage of emails pleading for donations to help the group "fight back," the group proved to be powerless to actually prevent the new gun laws from passing.
More recently, Nicolais and Sias have been the targets of RMGO's emails. One recent screed from Brown ranted about a $250 check Sias wrote to Democratic Sen. Mark Udall back in 2002, when he was a candidate for Congress. "It should give every Republican primary voter great pause that Lang supported a radical Democrat who voted for a magazine ban, voted to fund the U.N. Small Arms Treaty, and voted for the Toomey-Manchin universal firearms REGISTRATION bill," Brown writes. "After knowing he supported one of the worst gun-grabbers in Congress (now, in the United States Senate), it's not surprising that Lang Sias refused to fill out the RMGO Candidate Survey, or that he refused to help the recall. In my experience, when a politician behaves like this, it's often a sign that they're hiding anti-gun views."
Sias, a former Top Gun pilot, is an NRA member with an "A" rating from the group and an endorsement from the Colorado Second Amendment Foundation (a group formed by some of the organizers of last year's recalls). Brown has long viewed the NRA as too soft on gun issues, even defining RMGO as a "no compromises" outfit in contrast to it. "It comes up when I'm talking to people, and sometimes I have to spend some time making them comfortable with me on the Second Amendment," says Sias about RMGO’s attacks. "One guy even asked me if I stole Dudley Brown's girlfriend in high school. The truth is, when people see these mailers, they sense that something's not quite right even though they're not always sure what it is."
It's not just RMGO that's hammering Sias and Nicolais. A number of Christian groups have also pounded the pair with mailers hitting them for not filling out its own survey. "Lang Sias claims he supports our conservative values, but refuses to provide answers about where he really stands...even on basic issues like no taxpayer funding of abortion and parental notification for minors seeking an abortion," states one such mailer, paid for by the Christian Coalition of Colorado (CCC). It goes on to celebrate Laura Woods as "the only candidate taking a stand for our Conservative Family Values," and lists her survey responses—including her support for personhood and opposition to gay marriage.
(Nicolais, as the spokesman for a group of Republicans who supported civil unions legislation in 2013, received similar treatment in a mailer informing primary voters of how he “proudly joined with the liberal left in advancing the radical agenda of gay marriage.”)
By signing the RMGO and CCC surveys, Woods and Sanchez have received contributions from RMGO's political action committee and benefited from the group's in-house attack machine and direct mail operation, as well as both groups' extensive donor lists. Sanchez, despite being a total unknown in Jefferson County and Colorado, has out-raised Nicolais by roughly $10,000.
The Republican-on-Republican rancor that’s become so typical of GOP primaries is in play here as well. Many of Nicolais’s lawn signs have been stolen; one was simply vandalized with the word “RINO” scrawled in black ink over his name. But as more people recognize the RMGO influence, some are fighting back. Last week, someone found and tweeted Dudley Brown’s 1988 mug shot—Brown was arrested in college on substance abuse charges—with the caption, “Nothing says conservative quite like cocaine possession, right Dudley?”
Brown isn't the only one rooting for the two newcomers to upend the establishment Republicans in the June 24 primary. Democrats are silently cheering them on as well, suspecting that a Brown-backed candidate will be far easier to defeat in November. And in a primary where turnout is low and limited mostly to the most ardent conservatives, a victory by Sanchez or Woods is no more far-fetched than that of Dave Brat, the unknown Virginia professor who shockingly unseated House majority leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday night.
Woods, who was active in the Hudak recall and often went on the Peter Boyles Show under the alias, "Laura Waters," is an untested political newcomer who supports personhood and school vouchers, positions that make her a tough sell in a politically moderate district. Earlier this week, former Senate President John Andrews slammed Woods after she shared a post on Facebook likening Sias to Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of murder for performing late-term abortions last year.
Sanchez was registered as a member of the Green Party two decades ago (a fact RMGO seems to have overlooked), and his current resume includes at least one apparent falsehood: Sanchez lists his work last year as “strategic consultant—Hispanic outreach” for the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, which has no record of him ever working there. “We met with him, but he was never on the payroll,” says Rich Coolidge, the spokesman for the office.
Some Republican observers are beginning to wonder if Dudley Brown isn’t the best thing to happen to Colorado Democrats since Tim Gill and Pat Stryker. Rob Witwer, a former Republican state lawmaker and the co-author of the The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care, has seen the RMGO effect before, when the organization's success in GOP primaries has left Republicans with unelectable general election candidates. "When I was researching the book,” Witwer says, “liberal strategists told me that they love these kinds of primaries because they divide the GOP and ease the way for Democrats in close districts."
Political analyst Eric Sondermann isn’t alone in thinking that the Republican effort to re-take control of the state senate could be all but over by the end of this month if Woods and Sanchez prevail. “Republicans have a choice to make in these primaries: Do they want a candidate who makes their hearts flutter in June, or do they want to go to a victory party in November?” Sondermann says. “Because I think those two are probably incompatible.”
Brown reportedly told one prospective candidate that his organization brought in $15 million in 2013. If Republicans had controlled the legislature and no gun control legislation had been introduced, that number would undoubtedly have been much lower. That fact leaves many Republicans scratching their heads about Brown’s true motivations. "He's told me, 'I'll take money from anybody,'" one GOP officeholder says. "He claims it's about guns, and that all Republicans are right on the guns issue because of him, and that's probably true. But for him, this is a business. He uses the gun issue to raise money, and business is booming."
Brown has recently expanded his focus to impacting national races through RMGO's companion organization, the National Association for Gun Rights, and he’s reportedly left his Colorado political shop in the hands of Joe Neville and State Representative Justin Everett, who's pulling down a taxpayer-funded salary while moonlighting for his political benefactor. With the Brown playbook firmly established, RMGO is almost on autopilot.
When Brown flexed his muscle in past GOP statehouse primaries for safe Republican seats, the stakes were often smaller: It would either be a Republican loyal to RMGO heading off to the Capitol or one who isn't. In the more moderate Jefferson County, that's not necessarily the case. Nicolais, who hasn't received much financial help in his race, isn't sure all his fellow Republicans understand those stakes. "People on our side always talk about wanting better candidates, candidates who can win tough races, but when they don't get involved and help, it creates this vacuum," he says. "And within that vacuum, RMGO can be very effective. Nationally, establishment groups are fighting the Tea Party this year. But in Colorado, those groups haven't."
Wadhams agrees, noting that the business organizations that generally support Republicans over Democrats are upping the odds of tipping races toward “anti-business Democrats” by not supporting the GOP’s more electable candidates in primaries. And Call, as party chairman, can’t take sides in primary fights. “It’s the obligation of Republican leadership to remain neutral in contested primaries,” he told me this week. “But it’s also my sincere hope that voters in Jefferson County recognize that if you don’t win, you can’t govern.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this article contained several errors. The story reported Dudley Brown was arrested twice in college. It reported the Christian Coalition Colorado is run by Brown ally Jon Hotaling; Jon's brother, Mark, was the former executive director of the organization. It misattributed a political mailer on Mario Nicolais to the Christian Coalition Colorado. It misattributed Tony Sanchez's fundraising lead over Nicolais to, in part, the Christian Coalition Colorado. And the article originally stated that Sanchez was a defendant in a paternity suit in San Diego County, CA, based on court documents obtained by the author. Sanchez later provided evidence that he was not living in San Diego County at the time of the suit and that the actual defendant is another person with the same name. 5280 regrets the errors.
—Image courtesy of Dudley Brown
—Eli Stokols is a 5280 contributor and political reporter, anchor, and host for KDVR, Fox31 in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @EliStokols.