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.
Just over a decade later, Call says he realized that the “compassion” component had gone missing from his party’s politics. When an early Republican presidential primary debate in 2011 turned into a contest to see which candidate could talk toughest about illegal immigration, Call voiced his concerns to the country’s newspaper of record and conservative scourge. “The discussion of creating electrified fences from sea to sea is neither prudent nor helpful,” Call told the New York Times, which noted in the story that Hispanics then comprised 13 percent of the electorate in Colorado. The article likely didn’t help Call’s statewide reputation among anti-immigration conservatives.
Despite persistent pressure from the right, Call hasn’t wavered from his desire to rediscover conservatism’s compassion. In early 2012, Call organized a Colorado Hispanic Republican Day at the Capitol—several months before his party defeated a Democratic proposal to provide in-state college tuition to undocumented students (as it had also done the previous year). When I asked Call about this apparent irony, he didn’t spin the situation. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in those votes,” he told me. “I am. It does make it more difficult for Republicans to talk about issues that are important to the Hispanic community when a bill like that can’t get through the Legislature.”
Call grabs his ipad as we pull up to the Haymaker Golf Course on the outskirts of Steamboat Springs. “I have at least six stump speeches on here that I give depending on the nature of the audience,” he says. During the drive, he’d prepared me for some of the address’ standard lines attacking Democratic Senator Mark Udall, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “You gotta do those things,” he says, with a smile and a shrug.
Inside the clubhouse, he greets a handful of local party stalwarts, retired lawmakers and activists, most of them north of 70 years old; anyone who views the GOP as a party of aging white males would not have had their perceptions challenged here. Laid out on a table are a few silent auction items: a ceramic gray elephant (requested opening bid: $150) and a black baseball cap with “GOD, Guns and Guts Made America Free” embroidered above a stars-and-stripes-patterned brim ($25). At a table across from me sits a young woman, a single mother of two, and a gentleman in his 70s who volunteers to me that he’d like to see Ben Carson—the African-American doctor who has likened Obamacare to slavery—run for president in 2016. Call speaks to the 75 or so guests between the Pledge of Allegiance and the salad course. After a few platitudes about the GOP being the party “of opportunity,” he reminds the crowd of the importance of Colorado’s U.S. Senate race and of supporting Cory Gardner. There’s only one line in his 10 minutes of remarks that triggers serious applause: “This is a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. It’s our chance to send Harry Reid home as minority leader, not majority leader.” He closes by imploring Republicans to come together this fall. “Here in Routt County and across the state, we have some great choices,” he says. “My hope is that we as a party commit to support that choice. We have to be unified in support of advancing the cause. The goal is to come together in unity so we can see victory in November.” As the reaction to Call’s speech makes clear, the reality of 2014 for Colorado Republicans is that a Gardner victory is paramount.
After Call, state Senator Randy Baumgardner, who’d watched his quixotic U.S. Senate bid fall short a month earlier, takes the stage. The normally combative Baumgardner, another tea party darling, makes an uncharacteristic plea for unity that echoes Call’s. “We need to support these candidates, no matter who they are,” he says. But he also encourages any other candidates to “be who you are. Stick to your principles. Don’t change.”
Baumgardner’s conflicting instructions encapsulate the Republican Party’s catch-22, in Colorado and nationally. “Edmund Burke’s brand of conservatism embraced change,” Call tells me as we’re leaving Steamboat Springs amid a light afternoon rain. “The question is, how do you hold on to conservative principles while finding new ways to reapply them to the new challenges we all face?” Republicans are excited about Gardner’s candidacy because they think he could actually beat Udall and end the GOP’s longtime statewide impotence. And Call, above all, wants to win. “You can hold fast to your principles and never budge. But you can’t apply our conservative principles unless you get elected, unless you grow majorities,” he says. “That should be our goal.”
Eight hours into our day together, I’ve yet to hear Call curse or speak in anything but a clear, complete sentence, even though he’s been talking almost the entire time. Peppering his chatter with quotes from Burke, William F. Buckley Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, Call is an intellectual leading a party that at times seems to resent thoughtful deliberations of any sort. “There are Sarah Palin types who talk about ‘real’ America, who just want to blow stuff up,” Call says. “But I think a lot of conservatives want slow, thoughtful reform.”
He’s a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Dick Wadhams, a veteran of several hard-fought U.S. Senate campaigns who regularly fired off rhetorical bombs that would almost always wind up in the newspaper. (These days, Wadhams is far more outspoken than even Call on the GOP’s need to broaden its appeal.) A few days before our road trip, as state lawmakers debated possible local-control legislation for fracking that might appease U.S. Representative Jared Polis enough that the Democrat wouldn’t finance a ballot measure on the issue this fall, Call tweeted: “We shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists.” He quickly deleted the unusually brash one-liner. “It was just out of character for me,” he says. “I’ve tried hard not to devolve into partisan name-calling.”
Call’s measured speech and style, often mistaken for a lack of passion, seem to stem from his religious, family, and educational background. After being wait-listed for medical school, Call got an MBA instead at CU Boulder before going on to law school at the University of Denver. By the time he passed the bar in 2005, he was 30 years old, married with two children, and volunteering with the Denver County GOP. “[My wife] thought she was marrying a doctor,” Call says. “I turned out to be a lawyer and a politician.”
He’d met his wife, Brittany, in Israel during the summer of 1998, when they were both undergraduates studying at the BYU Jerusalem Center, which prohibited them from dating. (“We kissed once in Egypt, while we were on a study abroad program,” Call admits.) One year after returning to college, the two were married in July 1999 in Salt Lake City. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has remained a constant in the couple’s life, and its abstemious teachings help explain Call’s stoic, understated demeanor. More than political pragmatism, the church is at the core of his personal beliefs on a number of issues, from immigration matters to abortion.
“Brittany is a saint,” Call says, describing how his wife wakes up during the school year at 4:30 a.m. to teach seminary, and how she’s usually home with him and their four children in time for breakfast and their daily prayer. Then he tells me about something he rarely mentions: It’s been almost four years since the Calls lost a child, Samuel Anson, who arrived stillborn a week before his October due date. He’s buried in the Calls’ family plot in Broomfield. When the family gathers to pray each morning, they sometimes pray about Samuel. “We may talk about having four kids, but we know we have five,” Call says. “In the Mormon doctrine, we believe that life is eternal. My kids talk about how we have another brother who’s not with us right now, who’s in heaven with Jesus.”
Although the heartrending ordeal seems tailor-made for pro-life policy appeals on the campaign trail, Call has generally preferred to protect and honor it as a private, personal matter. “You can talk about it in a political context, but it’s different when it touches your life, your family,” he says. “When you’ve carried your stillborn son from the ICU to the morgue wrapped in a blanket your wife made for him, that’s going to give you a different understanding of what is a life.”
As we leave the high country beneath a starry sky, the truck cabin is momentarily quiet. It strikes me that the GOP chairman, whom many conservatives believe to be too much of a moderate, is really a religious conservative, but in the more traditional sense. Call’s belief that his party must clarify its position on immigration, for example, is borne as much from personal compassion and conviction as from clear-eyed political pragmatism. He supports civil unions but not gay marriage, having struggled to square the principle of individual freedom with his religious belief in traditional matrimony. In contrast to some fellow party members who are absolutely convinced about right and wrong, Call sounds humble as he talks about his own uncertainty: “The competition between these principles will never be settled,” he says, “which is what makes America great.”
It’s the absolute certainty within factions of the GOP base, the refusal to rethink certain positions or to accept Republican candidates who don’t pass every conservative litmus test, that he says frustrates him more than anything. Call’s own words oscillate between modesty and grandiosity. As night falls on a valley cut by a dusky river, he quotes Lincoln from memory: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”
Wadhams, whom Call replaced as chairman, supports his successor. “Criticisms of him are unfair, unfounded, and not based at all on what really ails the Republican Party of Colorado,” Wadhams says. But he also questions the ability of any party chairman to engineer the kind of turnaround Colorado Republicans desperately need. “Candidates and elected officials define a political party,” Wadhams says. “People don’t look at outreach efforts or platforms. If we continue to have candidates who repel voters by saying stupid things, all the national conventions we host and independent expenditure committees we form won’t change a thing.”
On one level, Call agrees. “This is the ultimate thankless job,” he says, as the lights of Denver first appear on the horizon just past the Buffalo Herd Overlook on the west side of Lookout Mountain. “There are so many variables, and I don’t have control over any of them.” He laughs about his detractors, people “for whom taking shots at me seems to consume all their time.” He mentions only one by name: Matt Arnold, the “liberty activist” who ran against Call for the chairman’s job in 2011 (and received just 10.5 votes out of 279.66 cast). “He’s irrelevant,” says Call of one of his more outspoken critics. “He’s just mad because I kicked his ass.” I can feel him looking over to see me scribbling down the quote, the first curse word out of his mouth in the 15 hours we’ve spent together. “Don’t use that,” he says. “My wife will be mad at me.”
Ryan Call deeply believes that all the hours away from his wife and children are well spent—that every phone call he returns, every meeting he attends, every extra dollar he raises makes some difference. We part ways in the same Starbucks parking lot where he picked me up. It’s been a long day, but for him, it’s not over. He’s been invited to a party in Aurora by some recent Russian immigrants who have formed a Republican Club. “We’re trying to cultivate those kinds of relationships,” Call says. It’s 10:15 p.m., and the party likely won’t get going for at least another hour. But there’s still gas in the tank, and the mission is far from complete.