Compared to its national counterpart, the Colorado GOP is relatively stable. Our state legislators have a long track record of fairly consistent bipartisanship, and with a few notable exceptions, this year’s Trump phenomenon hasn’t yet threatened to rip the party to shreds.
Colorado’s core Republicans remain a staunchly conservative lot, having awarded the March caucuses to Ted Cruz and the party’s Senate nomination to Darryl Glenn. Barring a radical upheaval in the next three weeks, the result of these choices likely mean losses for both Trump and Glenn on November 8th. GOPers nationwide also fear that Trump’s influence—should he lose big and cost the party Congressional seats—could force the party into another post-election round of soul-searching.
This also unfolded in 2012, when President Obama’s surprisingly comfortable win over Mitt Romney caused Republicans to consider how they were appealing (or not) to formerly marginalized groups such as minorities and women. That post-mortem resulted in something close to zero lessons learned or electoral approaches adjusted, and now we have Trump. If he and his inflammatory campaign implode on Election Day and take down wide swaths of the GOP with it, the party’s leaders will have to decide the best way to revive its badly damaged brand.
But Colorado’s voters may already be deciding for them. The state’s Libertarian party announced this week that the number of registered Libertarians here has grown by 26 percent since January, compared to increases of 7 percent for Democrats and 4 percent for Republicans.
It makes sense. The party itself was founded in Colorado Springs in 1971, and mountain state Republicans have always maintained a tinge of Libertarianism around issues such as personal freedom and property rights. Although there still are plenty of pro-life and anti-marriage equality believers, the Libertarians offer an alternative to those who prefer the GOP’s small-government fiscal conservatism but don’t support its more conservative social policies. It’s not difficult to imagine a reeling GOP becoming more marginalized as an outlet for more right-leaning voters while a broader base of Libertarians take up the center-right mantle as a foil to progressive Democrats.
But this will only happen if the Libertarians start to show that they’re ready to lead. The party’s gatherings often can look as much like a Comic Con event as a serious policy conference, and its presidential nominee, Gary Johnson, hasn’t helped this perception with his flaky campaign trail antics.
As the GOP gropes around for its true identity, it’s leaving moderate conservatives with no place to go. But if Libertarians can realize their opportunity and find ways to mature into a legitimate political force, those people who could never imagine voting Democrat might find they have a new home.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.