A younger electorate—and a backlash against Donald Trump’s presidency—pushed our purple state firmly into the blue in 2018. With one year to go until the 2020 election, here’s how the GOP plans to resurrect Colorado’s moribund Republican Party.
In The Red
After a historic drubbing a year ago, the Republican Party is fighting for its political survival in the Centennial State.
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One by one, they approached the podium and stood before a glittering blue curtain at the Denver Marriott South at Park Meadows in Lone Tree. Failed gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton announced it was “time for us to come together as Coloradans.” Mike Coffman concluded that his loss to Democrat Jason Crow in the 6th congressional district had been “a referendum on the president.” Wayne Williams proclaimed that his opponent, Jena Griswold, was inheriting “the finest secretary of state’s office in the country.” No matter the specifics of the message, each speech made during the Colorado GOP’s 2018 Election Day party was a concession: Every single Republican running for statewide office lost to a Democrat.
The news from the rest of Colorado wasn’t much better: Republicans dropped five seats in the state House and two in the state Senate, losing control of both the Colorado General Assembly and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 2012. NBC News concluded that election night 2018 had been so devastating for the GOP that the nation could no longer count on Colorado to swing. Observers struggled to find a comparison. “This kind of ass-whipping is historic,” says David Flaherty, the CEO of Louisville-based Magellan Strategies, a conservative political research firm.
1978:The last time Republicans held such a small share of seats in the Colorado House of Representatives.
Two primary factors delivered the Centennial State to Democrats. First, the influx of transplants into Colorado over the past nine years has skewed the state younger, more diverse, and more educated, traits that typically color a voter blue. Second? “Donald Trump,” says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster and political analyst. “He wasn’t particularly popular here in 2016. He was even less popular in 2018.” Even though the president didn’t top the ticket in the 2018 midterms, his brand of politics sent previously uninspired sectors—independents and young people—to the polls. “To be honest,” Flaherty says, “we think the challenges are nearly insurmountable for the Republican Party at this time.”
But has the elephant really gone extinct in Colorado? “They’re absolutely wrong,” says Kristi Burton Brown, vice chair of the Colorado Republican Party. “They couldn’t be more wrong.” She does acknowledge that the GOP needs to adapt. “No one, including myself, is suggesting we change our principles as Republicans. Those are right,” Burton Brown says. “But I do think the way we communicated our message needs to be improved.”
The days of party machines dictating political messaging, however, are done. “Political parties in general have been neutered by campaign finance laws, both federal and state,” says Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant and former head of the Colorado GOP. “It’s reduced the abilities of parties to raise money, so parties don’t have near the power and influence they used to.” No longer beholden, candidates and campaigns decide their own tactics.
So, a year before the November 2020 election, we canvassed the state to discover how Republicans at the local level are attempting to regain significance in Colorado. Although a year in politics these days may as well be a century, we discovered that even at this early date, the GOP in the state’s most politically important counties, Arapahoe and Jefferson, is already in the midst of a desperate fight to make key neighborhoods competitive again. We followed Republican U.S. Senator Cory Gardner as he attempts to tiptoe the Trump line. And we examined how the future looks for a political party that is facing unprecedented challenges heading into a pivotal election year.
The Starting Line
Many believe the road to a Republican renaissance begins this month with Proposition CC.
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Before becoming a conservative pundit, Michael Fields played college baseball. It’s no wonder, then, that the former athlete conjures a sports analogy to explain how Republicans can curtail the Democrats’ current domination of Centennial State politics. “We need to string together a few wins,” says Fields, the executive director of Colorado Rising Action, a conservative advocacy group. “I think this year, that one is the TABOR ballot issue Prop CC. We have to win that one.”
During the 2019 legislative session, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature decided to try to weaken the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). A 1992 amendment that mandates voter approval of new taxes, TABOR also limits the amount of tax revenue Colorado can collect: If the state accumulates more than a predetermined ceiling, it must return the excess to taxpayers. This month, the Proposition CC referendum will ask voters to permanently end refunds so the Colorado General Assembly can direct the extra dollars toward transportation and education.
According to Magellan Strategies, 54 percent of likely voters plan to vote yes on Prop CC. Still, Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver pollster and political analyst, views the referendum as a blunder by Democrats because it provides Republicans an opportunity to rally around issues (low taxes and small government) that brought the party success in the 1990s.
Almost as soon as it was announced that Prop CC would be on the ballot, groups mobilized to fight it. Most prominently, Americans for Prosperity-Colorado (AFP-CO) has spent $419,000 on a grassroots campaign. But AFP-CO is just one piece of a larger coalition working to defeat Prop CC, with each marshaling its particular strengths to the cause.
Democrats have long boasted this kind of network. In 2004, a quartet of rich liberals poured money into building infrastructure throughout the state. The so-called “Gang of Four,” including current Governor Jared Polis, spent millions to fund liberal groups. Today, that coalition is usually led by ProgressNow Colorado, which trumpets progressive messages. Colorado Rising Action, founded in July 2018, intends to be ProgressNow’s counterpoint. “I think a lot of times our [party] has been splintered,” Fields says, “and finding those issues that unite our side is important.”
Like protecting TABOR. Should this conservative alliance vanquish Prop CC this month; then, in November 2020, repeal the National Popular Vote compact, a bill that promises Colorado’s nine electoral college votes to the presidential candidate who claims the popular vote; and flip a few state legislative seats, Colorado Republicans still wouldn’t be where they want to be in the state. It might mark the beginning of a resurgence, though. “When you start winning,” Fields says, “it leads to more winning.”
A look at the major groups working to defeat Prop CC—and revive the GOP in 2020.
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Americans for Prosperity-Colorado
The Colorado outpost of this national organization is amassing a well-funded grassroots army based out of seven field offices throughout the state.
Colorado Rising Action
Colorado Rising Action is essentially a bullhorn: Executive director Michael Fields, an AFP-CO alum, appeared on radio and TV shows to praise TABOR refunds and condemn Prop CC.
Founded in 1985, this Denver libertarian think tank leads the No on CC committee as well as behind-the-scenes communications work, such as editorial meetings and debates.
With And Without Him
Cory Gardner’s re-election depends on finding a way to embrace Donald Trump—and to distance himself from the president at the same time.
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Knowing it’s a touchy subject, I left the president of the United States out of my initial inquiries for U.S. Senator Cory Gardner. Nevertheless, Donald Trump loomed large in his first response, regarding Colorado’s history of being politically competitive. “It’s a state that elected George W. Bush president and then sent Ken Salazar to the United States Senate,” Gardner says. “It’s a state that has split the ticket for the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race—in my seat, in 2014.” In other words, Even if Trump loses Colorado again, I can still win.
Many Republicans believe November 2020 rests on the shoulders of Gardner. Not only is he the lone member of the GOP to hold statewide office, but if the Democrats want to take control of the U.S. Senate, Gardner’s seat is also often cited as the first one they need to flip. “Just put the whole election in the Cory Gardner basket,” says Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant. “And frankly, Democrats are acting so cocky about this race.” That’s because Gardner has to run for re-election in the shadow of Trump and, likely, against former Governor John Hickenlooper.
Despite losing Colorado by nearly five points in 2016, the Trump machine still plans to come to the state next year. The Trump Victory Committee—a partnership between the president’s campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC)—is raising loads of money and flaunting a $200 million big-data machine the RNC has been developing since 2012. That support is bound to benefit Gardner. “I think Cory is going to have the most sophisticated senate campaign in the country,” says Michael Fields of Colorado Rising Action.
But only 39 percent of all Coloradans approve of how Trump is running the country, according to a July survey conducted by Magellan Strategies. Trump’s unpopularity here is part of the reason why, in July, the Washington Post named Gardner the Republican senator most likely to lose his seat in 2020. Gardner has a tricky task, then: distancing himself from Trump without alienating MAGA voters.
Gardner plans to circumvent the Trump balance beam by selling himself as Colorado’s pork-barrel legislator. “He’s trying very hard to establish one of the basic predicates of why a lot of influential people went for him in 2014,” says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster and political analyst. That premise was that it made sense to have a Colorado representative in the ruling party. Now, after almost five years there, Gardner says, “I get to talk about what we’ve accomplished for the state as a whole.”
But even if Gardner fixes every pothole, solves health care, and somehow leads the Broncos back to the Super Bowl, he stands little hope of keeping his job should the last two cycles’ trends continue. When Gardner defeated Democrat Mark Udall in 2014, 37 percent of those who voted were Republican—the highest share of any bloc. “Without that advantage,” says David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies, “Gardner would never have won in 2014.” Four years later, fewer Republicans showed up to the polls than both unaffiliateds and Democrats.
Gardner says the RNC has identified about 175,000 residents who voted for Trump in 2016 but who stayed home the following midterm. The senator believes he can re-energize those residents by touting what he’s done for Colorado and by reminding them of what his campaign will characterize as the liberal agenda his opponent will support.
Though he dismisses any characterization of himself as the Colorado GOP’s last, best hope, Gardner understands his campaign will be a referendum on conservatism here. Considering all Gardner believes he’s accomplished, will Colorado voters still renounce him in favor of a Democratic party that, the senator contends, is leaning further and further left? “That’s why, in 2020, this will be a big choice for them,” Gardner says. And why a Gardner victory would lend Colorado Republicans the proof they need to refute reports of their party’s demise.
Although Cory Gardner often criticizes Donald Trump’s behavior, the senator supports the president’s position almost 90 percent of the time.
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August 2016: Gardner endorses Trump for president—but only after his first two picks, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, drop out.
October 2016: The senator quickly rescinds his endorsement after audio of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women emerges.
July 2017: Gardner backs the so-called skinny repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which fails to pass the Senate.
August 2017: “Mr. President—we must call evil by its name,” Gardner tweets after white nationalists attack counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
December 2017: Gardner votes for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
November 2018: After the midterms, Gardner credits Trump for doing “more than I think any other president has done for elections.”
January 2019: Becoming one of the first senators to do so, Gardner endorses Trump’s re-election.
March 2019: Initially stating Congress ought to approve funding for border security, Gardner votes against a resolution to block Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border.
July 2019: Following Trump implying in a tweet that four minority congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Gardner says, “I disagree with the president. I wouldn’t have sent those tweets. I think he shouldn’t have done it.”
Victory for any Republican seeking statewide office in Colorado runs through these counties. Here’s how Gardner could attack the Fateful Five.
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Objective: Don’t get massacred.
Gardner (2014): 24.6 percent
Plan of attack: Gardner stands a better chance of winning gold in the 200-meter butterfly at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 than he does of taking 50 percent of the vote in this bastion of liberalism. Still, it’s the most populous county in Colorado, so he needs to make a decent showing. And everyone likes money—even left-leaning independent voters, who are sure to hear about how Gardner was a fervent supporter of Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties
Objective: Almost half of all votes would be awesome.
Gardner (2014): 47.2 percent in Jeffco; 46.5 percent in Arapahoe
Plan of attack: These were once considered toss-up counties with close-to-equitable shares of Democrats and Republicans. Today, with registrations in both counties listing left, the GOP needs to appeal to suburban moms turned off by Trump’s attitude toward women. Gardner’s best avenue might be touting the $300 million in Colorado transportation projects his campaign says he’s responsible for.
Objective: Complete the conversion to red.
Gardner (2014): 46.3 percent
Plan of attack: Gardner didn’t win this longtime Democratic stronghold in 2014. But Trump did (it’s the first time Pueblo went for a GOP president since 1972). The former steel town identifies with the oil and gas industry’s roughneck, blue-collar ethos (62.4 percent of the county voted “no” on 2018’s failed Proposition 112, which sought mandatory setbacks for oil and gas projects)—and might reward Gardner’s advocacy for the sector.
Gardner (2014): 60.4 percent
Plan of attack: To ensure Gardner crosses the magical 60 percent threshold again, the candidate will be sure to mention how, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, he helped bolster relationships with countries like Japan, which opened its borders to U.S. beef in 2019. Weld sold $1.1 billion worth of cattle and calves in 2017—more than any other county in the United States except one.
Unaffiliateds comprise the largest voting bloc in the state—and the GOP can’t agree on how to woo them.
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Susan Beckman knew something was amiss during the 2018 Western Welcome Week Grand Parade. A Republican in a historically red district, the representative from Colorado’s House District 38 figured she’d receive a warm reception during the annual August procession through downtown Littleton. Yet there she was, riding on her float—her young nieces and nephews in deer costumes around her—and some in the crowd greeted her with downturned thumbs. Recently recalling the scene during a local GOP meeting, Beckman wondered, “What is going on?”
The answer to that question became clear following the November 2018 election. In November 2010, unaffiliated voters made up a quarter of active registered voters in the Centennial State, with Republicans at almost 40 percent and Democrats at 34 percent. Eight years later, independents had jumped to 38 percent, with Democrats and Republicans falling to 31 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
That reversal is due, in large part, to an influx of educated millennials. The generation might lean left, but unaffiliated voters of all ages don’t fall hard for either party—especially during a midterm election. In 2010, only 27 percent of independent voters turned out. The GOP, meanwhile, can almost always count on its members to fill out ballots at a higher rate than its opponents. Which is why Republicans largely disregarded unaffiliated Coloradans. “They didn’t vote,” Beckman says. “I didn’t even mail to them.”
Instead, she relied on the GOP’s “gold star voters.” That had worked in the past in District 38, where on Election Day 2018 Republicans vastly outnumbered Democrats. In 2014, the Republican candidate won by 22.6 percentage points. Beckman carried her first race, in 2016, by 15.7 points. “The election history is,” Beckman says, “if you’re in this district and you’re a Republican, you win.”
But in 2018, 22,216 independents flooded the polls in District 38, compared with 20,753 Republicans and 16,621 Democrats. In the end, Beckman kept her seat by a mere 374 votes. (She’d won by nearly 8,000 in 2016.) The same phenomenon occurred throughout the state. For the first time ever in a midterm election, more unaffiliateds voted in Colorado (879,496) than either Democrats (847,338) or Republicans (810,531).
Most believe independent Coloradans turned out in such large numbers because they wanted to punish the president, and since Trump wasn’t running, they lashed out at down-ballot Republicans instead. Beckman doesn’t agree. After all, Trump lost her district by five points in 2016, yet her constituents sent her to the Capitol by a more-than-15-point margin. Rather, she believes she’s identified a “sophisticated” Democrat machine: “I realized they were doing things very differently than they were in the past.” Those stratagems, Beckman claims, included well-funded community activists working with moveon.org and Planned Parenthood to harvest ballots from first-time, independent voters.
When told of Beckman’s remarks, her 2018 opponent laughs. Chris Kolker, a financial planner who had never run for office, entered the District 38 race because he was upset by the 2016 election. Early on, Democratic Party leaders informed Kolker they would be pouring their resources into competitive districts (i.e., not his). So he paid his own way into a seminar at Wellstone Action (now Re:Power), a progressive organization that trains liberals to run for office, and attended classes taught by Arapahoe County commissioner Nancy Jackson and Aurora Public Defender Commission member Tom Tobiassen about the minutiae of local government, such as fire districts and water issues. His campaign manager was a 25-year-old who had never managed a race before. “Being inexperienced, I put ‘Chris Kolker, Democrat, 2018,’ on the yard sign,” Kolker says. “Well, you can’t use them again. So you tell me how organized that was.”
But Kolker says he targeted independents: “When I did the numbers ahead of time, I knew the only way to win based on previous voter turnout was to get the unaffiliated and some Republicans.… I went to a Republican door; I was actually there to see their daughter, who’s an unaffiliated 23-year-old listed at the house. [The mother] said, ‘Well, I’m Republican, and I’ve never had anyone come to our door. Ever.’ ”
While the Colorado GOP now realizes it has an independent problem, it’s clear the party isn’t united in how to best address the issue. Beckman, for her part, acknowledges she didn’t anticipate the incoming wave of unaffiliateds. Yet Kristi Burton Brown, vice chair of the Colorado Republican Party, says Beckman’s 2018 run should be a textbook for future candidates—despite the fact that the Arapahoe County Republican running in a GOP stronghold defeated a political novice by only 374 votes. “She really ran a model campaign as far as getting down on the ground, talking to people,” Burton Brown says. Magellan Strategies founder David Flaherty says both Colorado Senate minority leader Chris Holbert and House minority leader Patrick Neville have told him there’s no reason to reach out to independent voters. They don’t want to hear from the GOP.
At least Beckman won’t have to worry about Kolker in 2020. The Democrat plans to run for Arapahoe County’s Senate District 27 in an attempt to extend his party’s control of the chamber. Already campaigning in August 2019, Kolker rode on Democratic U.S. Representative Jason Crow’s float during the Western Welcome Week parade—where he saw his fair share of downcast thumbs. “I saw one lady and said, ‘Well, you can’t please everybody,’ ” Kolker says. “She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.”
In 2014, 18 of Colorado’s 65 state House districts were considered competitive, meaning the candidates’ shares of votes were within 10 percent of each other. Four years later, only two remained competitive—and all were in Democratic hands.
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The Kids Are All Left
The future has arrived, and it’s largely liberal. Jefferson County Republicans intends to change that.
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In early 2018, Douglas County commissioner Lora Thomas attended a Republican event in Castle Rock. While there, she snapped a photo of two young women and posted the image to Facebook with an accompanying caption: “They have laughed and smirked throughout the breakfast, texting furiously. Especially when President Trump’s name was mentioned. A tracker is someone from the opposition who comes to public events to see what’s cooking. Wonder if these two are trackers?”
They were not. In fact, one of the “suspects” was Alyssa Khamma, the two-term chairperson of the Colorado Federation of College Republicans. “I think it’s hard because some older people are cautious, especially when the election year is pretty contentious,” says Khamma, now a senior political science and philosophy major at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “They don’t really trust a lot of new people.”
To be fair to Thomas, young voters have been Republicans’ nemeses for decades. In November 2012, when the Colorado electorate was pretty much split into thirds between the two main parties and unaffiliateds, most voters ages 18 to 40 registered as Democrats (442,571) or stayed independent (674,665) rather than identify as Republican (362,851). But between then and Election Day 2018, the number of 18 to 40 unaffiliateds and Democrats grew 17 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively, while the number of Republicans in that demographic fell 6.7 percent.
More worrying for Republicans than the fact that young people are registering is that these days, they’re voting. In 2010, only about 15 percent of Coloradans who voted were in the ages 18 to 34 demographic. Eight years later, that figure skyrocketed to 22 percent. “You cannot win elections without the younger votes,” says Alex Inscoe.
A past aide to state Senator John Cooke, Inscoe, 24, became the field director of Jefferson County Republicans in May 2019. The state GOP had never dispatched a local field director 18 months ahead of an election before, but Jeffco needs saving. In 2014, the county was solidly purple, Republicans holding five of its 12 Colorado General Assembly seats. Four years later, Jeffco tipped nearly as blue as possible: Republicans held on to a single seat, House District 22.
“You cannot win elections without the younger votes.”
Inscoe says he’s bringing a new set of ideas to Jeffco, one that’s sure to attract younger voters. Although he’s not willing to share his strategies with outsiders, Inscoe will confirm that the group will use data-driven campaigns in 2020. And Inscoe says he’s stealing a page from Democrats during his door-to-door canvasing: “We know they’re good at listening and regurgitating back what was said.”
Jefferson County Republicans is also hosting events, such as an August seminar titled “Speaking With Millennials” where Khamma led the discussion. At the Jeffco GOP’s headquarters in Lakewood, Khamma fielded questions about Facebook, memes, and Turning Point USA, the student organization led by conservative star Charlie Kirk. She reminded the two dozen or so Republicans in the room to avoid social issues with young people—they turn them off. This prompted Inscoe, seated in the crowd, to ask a question: Was Khamma saying that Republicans should be more liberal on those topics in order to win millennials with fiscal policies, such as tax cuts? (No, she said. She’d just avoid the topic.)
Later, Inscoe tells me, “Like the gay marriage thing. We have to be accepting of that. Do we have to agree with it? No. But we have to be accepting.… That could be the only issue they disagree with us on.” The Republican Party, he continues, needs to rebrand itself as the party of tolerance by reminding young voters that the GOP is responsible for the abolition of slavery. And if millennials bring up President Donald Trump’s racist comments, such as allegedly labeling some African nations “shithole countries”? “I address it,” Inscoe says. “That’s not who we are in Jeffco, and that’s not the Republican Party.”
Convincing young voters of that might prove difficult, especially in Colorado, where the president’s disapproval rating stands at nearly 60 percent. Nevertheless, doing so will be essential to the future of conservatism in the state. “Millennials—we have to listen to them,” Inscoe says. “Otherwise, we’re going to be the old party that dies.”
A new group of conservative politicians believes the path back to power runs through a more moderate approach to governance.
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According to Dan Thurlow, a former conservative state representative from Grand Junction, if the Republican Party stands any chance of survival in Colorado, it needs to stop fixating on social issues and embrace the power of positive thinking. Until the mid-2000s, the GOP enjoyed success by trumpeting the virtues of small government and free markets. (Think: TABOR.) Then, in 2010, the Tea Party began pushing conservatives toward an agenda focused on protecting guns, abolishing abortion, and fighting gay rights. Trump’s ascendancy reinforced that shift. While that platform might prevail in more conservative parts of the country, Thurlow thinks it’s too narrow for Colorado’s diversifying electorate and its younger, more independent voters. He’s not alone in that belief. A month after the 2018 election, Thurlow and four other experienced political figures—including Lois Landgraf and Larry Liston, current state representatives—formed Friends for the Future (F3). An independent expenditure committee, F3 will raise money from donors to support Colorado House candidates who advocate for the group’s values: small government and free markets. That may also sound narrow, but Thurlow points to a major difference between F3 and the Tea Party/Trump set: Should an issue fall outside of those principles, F3-backed legislators will be open to working with Democrats to craft bipartisan policies or—instead of rejecting something such as the Affordable Care Act wholesale—will come up with their own alternative ideas. “It’s time for the Republican Party to be about more than no, no, no, no,” Thurlow says. While currently focused on raising money (as of press time, F3 had amassed nearly $30,000), Thurlow admits that recruiting candidates who align with the committee’s values will be a great challenge. To that end, F3 is hoping to enlist new politicians, people who “have actually accomplished something in their lives,” Thurlow says, citing teachers, lawyers, businesspeople, and homemakers. “It’s easier said than done.”
Aging in Place
The ages and parties of registered voters in Colorado.
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