El Paso County is home to Colorado Springs, the Air Force Academy, and the Fort Carson Army base, all of which contribute to the county’s large contingent of State Representatives. Because El Paso has long been reliably right-wing in its politics, the county can usually count on all six of its State Representatives representing the Republican Party.
This will likely be the case again in 2023, but the makeup of the El Paso legislative delegation will be entirely new the next time the state legislature convenes for a full session. All six members of the State House of Representatives from El Paso County will be new faces.
State Reps. Shane Sandridge (HD-14); Tim Geitner (HD-19); and Andres Pico (HD-16) made it known in recent weeks that they have decided not to seek re-election in 2022. State Rep. Dave Williams (HD-15) is trying to unseat fellow Republican Doug Lamborn in Congress (CO-05), so he won’t be returning in 2023, either. State Rep. Terri Carver (HD-20) is term-limited in 2022.
First-term Rep. Mary Bradfield (HD-21) was looking at taking the leap from freshman lawmaker to “dean of the delegation” in January…but then she went and got booted from the picture over the weekend. Bradfield captured 29.2% of the vote at the county assembly on Saturday, leaving her just shy of the 30% threshold necessary to make it onto the June Primary ballot (Bradfield did not attempt to collect petition signatures, which is the other way to get onto the ballot, so her campaign is effectively over).
El Paso County Republicans will talk a lot about how the 2022 election offers up a “new generation” of lawmakers, but losing so much experience at the State Capitol is definitely going to sting (well, maybe not Bradfield). Sandridge and Williams could have run for a fourth and final term in 2022, while Geitner and Pico were eligible for a third two-year stint. Even State Senator Paul Lundeen, a Colorado Springs resident who is in line to be the next GOP leader in the upper chamber, finished in second place at the county assembly to a previously-unknown challenger named Lynda Wilson.
If you’re looking for a common denominator here, you won’t have to strain your eyes. A big part of the problem lies with the El Paso County Republican Party. The county party has long faced a crisis of lunacy that was reconfirmed last year when controversial Chair Vicki Tonkins managed to win a disputed re-election effort that included public allegations of voting improprieties and regular appearances by cosplaying militia members.
The Colorado Springs Independent has been dutifully tracking the bizarre happenings at El Paso County Republican Party meetings, which recently included an effort led by Tonkins to “exile” Republicans whom she and her militia friends at FEC United deem to be insufficiently conservative. As Heidi Beedle wrote for the Independent in December 2021:
According to a Dec. 9 email obtained by the Indy, from HD16 Rep. Andy Pico to fellow members of the El Paso County GOP, Tonkins has been using FEC United meetings in an effort to oust establishment Republicans. “At a recent [meeting] of Faith, Education and Commerce (FEC) there were some astonishing accusations made against elected Republicans at various levels,” wrote Pico. “The meeting was initially introduced by the Pastor [Graupner] who stated that he was on a ‘RINO [Republican in name only] Hunt.’ The featured speaker was our County Republican Party Chair, Vickie Tonkins. During her talk she spoke of challenging all of the elected Republican representatives at the City Council, County Commission, and State Legislature. She never mentioned our political opposition on the other side.”
El Paso County GOP meetings have also featured openly-racist discussions, campaign finance complaints, and regular calls to law enforcement officials. In 2021 alone, the Colorado Springs Police Department was called on multiple occasions to help settle disputes at GOP headquarters. The Colorado Attorney General’s office recently alleged that the El Paso County Republican Central Committee failed to accurately account for money raised last August when Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene was the featured speaker at a fundraising event.
Earlier this month there were a lot of grumblings about bias toward certain candidates ahead of the caucuses; Tonkins has not been shy about going out of her way to promote her favored political hopefuls, even organizing “forums” that didn’t include candidates who weren’t favored by the El Paso County Chairwoman. When El Paso GOP Vice Chair Karl Schneider complained about Tonkins’ tactics, he was nearly booted out of his leadership position.
This dysfunction in El Paso County is also the inevitable result of the Colorado Republican Party’s embrace of Trumpism and its fierce hatred of anyone who is not a loyal adherent to the “Big Lie” of 2020. There is no room for reasoned dissent on any issue within the El Paso County GOP; you are either a dedicated member of the anti-everything movement, or you are a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only). These are the only two options.
Things have gotten so ridiculous in El Paso County that even candidates for COUNTY CORONER must now pass a right-wing litmus test. As Mary Shinn reports for The Colorado Springs Gazette:
Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly will face a challenger in the June Republican primary following Saturday’s El Paso County Assembly.
Kelly received 31% of the vote — a percentage higher than the minimum needed to make the ballot.
His competitor, Dr. Rae Ann Weber, was a write-in candidate who received the majority of the vote after promising the crowd that she would be a “freedom doctor” who would never support COVID-19 mandates or improperly sign a COVID-19 death certificate.
Weber is presenting herself as a “constitutional coroner,” which is as absurd as it sounds. A county coroner has NOTHING to do with health policies (or constitutions, for that matter). Coroners are not included on discussions about COVID-19 mask or vaccine requirements. But none of these “facts” much matter to a rabid GOP base that really just wants to hear its candidates yelling about all of the things they oppose.
The exodus is nearly complete in El Paso County, where extreme rhetoric “trumps” experience, ideas, and rational thought. Most of these legislative seats aren’t competitive for Democrats, so it won’t likely change the partisan outcome in November, but it’s definitely not good for Colorado Republicans when crazy is the only thing emerging from the state’s conservative epicenter.