As we’ve discussed at length in this space, Colorado Republicans have a long road ahead of them following the 2022 “Bluenami” that wiped out GOP candidates up and down the ballot. We keep looking for examples that the Colorado GOP understands its predicament and is willing to make the type of changes necessary to become competitive again, but we haven’t seen many signs of life thus far.
In a column published today in National Review, Republican Sage Naumann tried to explain how things got so bad in Colorado and what needs to be done to make them better for Republicans. Naumann is a former communications staffer for state legislative Republicans who transitioned to working for the GOP consulting firm called the “76 Group” in 2022 (the “76 Group” is run by longtime Republican consultant Josh Penry). We’ll give Naumann credit for trying to address the Republican problems in Colorado, but what makes his column for National Review truly insightful is what gets glossed over or swept under the rug entirely. This isn’t a Sage Naumann problem so much as it is a reflection of a larger issue for Colorado Republicans as a whole.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
It wasn’t for lack of trying to appeal to the middle. For the U.S. Senate, Republicans put forth pro-choice candidate Joe O’Dea, who made waves when he said he would “actively campaign against” Donald Trump should the former president run again.
“Pro-choice candidate Joe O’Dea” is a silly statement. It’s strange that Naumann is still trying to spin this in the same failed direction.
O’Dea CALLED HIMSELF “pro-life.” That’s really all we should need to say, but O’Dea also signed the petition to get an abortion ban on the ballot in 2021, and he admitted to voting for that measure (Prop. 115).
Here’s the simple truth: “Pro-choice” candidates don’t regularly make anti-abortion comments and policy proposals. In fact, we can’t recall Joe O’Dea ever calling himself pro-choice. His campaign sure tried to label O’Dea in both directions — and they were certainly happy to let media figures allude to O’Dea’s pro-choice facade — but from the outside, the campaign’s continued insistence on anything related to abortion came across like a bunch of pro-life Republicans doing an imitation of what a pro-choice person would sound like.
O’Dea said so many different things about both abortion rights and Donald Trump that no voter could have truly understood where he was trying to position himself. After O’Dea told Jesse Paul of The Colorado Sun that he voted for Prop. 115, his campaign then sent out several statements that contradicted each other over the course of a few hours.
It is true that O’Dea said that he would campaign against Trump. It’s also true that O’Dea said that Trump was not at all responsible for the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. O’Dea said a lot of things about a lot of things.
Our candidate for secretary of state, Pam Anderson, landed on the cover of Time magazine as a “Defender of Democracy,” in part for her efforts to defend Colorado’s election system against members of her own party. Up and down the ballot, voters rejected extremist candidates on the GOP primary ballot, giving hope for a competitive general election.
But once the dust settled, no statewide Republican candidate had taken more than 43.03 percent of the vote.
We can explain everything you need to know about how truly committed Anderson was to standing up to Republicans with one quick story: When gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl selected noted election-denier Danny Moore as her running mate in July 2022, Anderson spoke up and said that she was disappointed in the decision. A week or so later, Anderson was posing in pictures with Danny Moore.
Anderson stood up to Republican election deniers only when she was not standing next to them.
This begs the question: What happened to Colorado?
Donald Trump happened. Joe Biden isn’t particularly popular in Colorado, but what many on the right overlooked was that his ascension to the presidency had less to do with who he was and more to do with who he wasn’t. Biden was elected because he wasn’t the other guy. So while his approval rating barely hovered over 40 percent leading into Election Night, Donald Trump’s popularity remained even lower.
That is not to say that Trump was the only factor in Colorado Republicans’ implosion. Trump got more votes in the state during the 2016 election than Al Gore did in 2000. The key difference is that Gore decided to pursue other hobbies once he left public office, while Trump has done everything he can to maintain his control of the GOP.
Donald Trump was absolutely a problem for Colorado Republicans in 2022…the problem, however, was that Colorado Republicans didn’t really reject him or MAGA Republicans – even though they had 7 years to work on it and had nothing less than an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to give them an excuse.
Look no further than this graphic that Ganahl was using in her campaign communications the day of the June 28th Primary Election:
Let’s move on…
Dobbs happened. Since 1973, conservatives have worked for the overturning (or overriding by constitutional amendment) of Roe v. Wade. In 2022, they got their wish.
Even with the advance notice afforded by an unprecedented leak, the pro-life movement still had no plan in place for such a monumental reversal from the Supreme Court. Other states’ hastily enacting legislation to limit and ban abortion — or allowing previously enacted “trigger” laws to take effect — led to unintended consequences and tragic anecdotes (many which were exaggerated and sometimes completely false) that stirred concern among those who were perhaps never before motivated by the issue.
Even in a state such as Colorado, where most Republican lawmakers would exhibit hesitancy in pushing forth stronger restrictions or bans, those voters became wary of trusting our candidates, no matter their expressed sentiments on the issue.
The pro-life movement DID have a plan in place: Celebrate the Supreme Court taking away a fundamental right for Americans. Colorado voters didn’t trust Republicans on abortion rights because Republicans kept talking about how great it was that Roe v. Wade was overturned. This isn’t complicated.
Naumann’s last line here – “no matter their expressed sentiments on the issue” – seems to be another allusion to O’Dea’s rambling responses on abortion rights. A key moment in a debate in the Colorado Attorney General’s race illustrates this dynamic perfectly:
QUESTION: Do you support a woman’s right to choose over her reproductive rights?
WEISER: Yes. The Dobbs decision was wrongly decided.
KELLNER: I don’t think I can give you a bumper sticker answer for this. It is just simply, I think like most Americans, too nuanced of a position to be able to tell you a yes or no answer to that. [Pols emphasis]
[Audience murmurs. One unidentified woman groans, ‘Oh, come on.’]
MODERATOR: As it’s a lightning round, let’s move forward. We have an answer.
If you are truly “pro-choice,” you answer this question the way Democratic AG Phil Weiser answered the question. If you are not actually “pro-choice,” your answer is similar to Republican John Kellner’s word salad.
Republican candidates such as O’Dea and Ganahl also regularly attacked RHEA, the Reproductive Health Equity Act passed by the Colorado legislature in the spring of 2022. Ganahl literally tore up a piece of paper during a debate in order to hammer home her opposition to the legislation. Ganahl often said that RHEA would legalize abortion up to the point of birth, which was both untrue and dumb.
Heidi Ganahl and Jared Polis happened. Jared Polis remains a popular governor. His quirky persona, relatively light-handed approach to Covid-19, and lack of notable scandals have all provided him with a healthy popularity rating. It also didn’t hurt that he invested nearly $50 million into both of his races.
“Jared Polis remains a popular governor.” Ganahl’s campaign was mostly about how much she disliked Polis. See why this didn’t work?
Heidi Ganahl’s uninspiring campaign didn’t help matters. Her attempts to win over any non-GOP voters were all for naught. In one exit poll, only 42 percent of voters said they were willing to even consider voting for her.
Few objective observers believed that Polis’s popularity (and financial advantage) could be bested, but almost nobody predicted that he would nearly double his margin of victory from 2018. Ganahl managed to muster a mere 39.2 percent of the vote, the worst of any Republican running for statewide office.
Ganahl didn’t just “happen.” She has lived in good company among the conservative donor class for years. Republicans encouraged her to run – including Josh Penry, Naumann’s boss at the “76 Group.” It was obvious from day one of Ganahl’s campaign that she was going to be a disaster, but Colorado Republicans did NOTHING to offer up another candidate or to moderate Ganahl’s silly rhetoric.
Ganahl was the worst statewide candidate in modern Colorado history. Colorado Republicans own this failure as much as the candidate herself.
Disorganization and outspending happened. Yours truly was asked by the Denver Post about the impending election of a new state party chair come March. I bluntly responded that only the “insane, incompetent, or incapacitated” would consider pursuing the position. While I maintain that an individual would probably have to fall into at least one of those categories to desire that role, I also secretly hope that an individual with competence steps forward, if for no other reason than to show the unaffiliated and disaffected Republican voters that a strain of rational thought still exists within the DNA of the GOP.
This is a particularly telling paragraph that proves once again that there are no adults left in the room where the Colorado Republican Party is concerned. Naumann brags about his quote that only the “insane, incompetent, or incapacitated” would want to run for the position of State Party Chair. He then says that he “secretly hopes” a competent candidate will step forward.
A competent person would be crazy to even want the job, but I sure hope there is a competent person who wants the job regardless!
Would some Colorado Republicans prefer a non-lunatic as their next State Party Chairperson? Definitely.
Are any of these Colorado Republicans going to do a damn thing about it? Nope.
Most candidates who have announced their intention to seek the role deny the validity of the 2020 election, have lost multiple races for office, and continuously flirt with the most radical factions of the party.
Right. So, maybe find some other candidates? If radical factions are becoming the majority in your party, the solution is not to just sit back and watch it happen.
Colorado’s Left is, at this point, a well-oiled machine. The apparatus first contrived by a group of liberal multimillionaires (Polis, Pat Stryker, Tim Gill, and Rutt Bridges) in the early 2000s has paid dividends. One of them is governor, another’s son is a state senator, and their party’s political power is at its peak. Voter-registration efforts, grassroots mobilization, unification of the Left, and gobs of money have made a state that was won by Barack Obama by just over four points into one that went for Joe Biden by over 13.
Colorado Republicans love to talk about how Democrats put together “The Blueprint” – which is also a book that anyone could read themselves – to wrest control from Republicans in this state in the early aughts. Nothing is preventing Republicans from putting together their own version of “The Blueprint,”of course, but here’s the thing that often goes unmentioned: Democrats have learned, adjusted, and adapted from “The Blueprint.” Democrats aren’t just following the same paint-by-numbers approach 20 years later.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Republican Party sits in shambles. There are worthwhile organizations working to fill the gaps, but the party itself is consumed by infighting, disorganization, and anemia. The GOP’s share of voter registration has declined by over six percentage points in the last eight years. Our current chair has generally been an effective leader, working to focus the party on issues that concern those “in the middle” such as inflation, education reform, and crime, but consistent efforts to undermine her leadership and turn media attention toward the fringe have voided that good work.
This is where we reach peak denial. The outgoing State Republican Party Chairperson, Kristi Burton Brown (KBB), may well be a very likable and pleasant person to hang out with at a cocktail party. But saying that KBB did a good job is like calling former Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett a football genius. The ultimate responsibility for both KBB and Hackett was to win, and they did not. There is no objective measure by which you can argue that KBB was “an effective leader” when Colorado Republicans suffered historic and embarrassing losses in 2022.
It is especially mystifying that Republicans talk about KBB as a good messenger when she spent a good portion of her time in 2022 talking about how great it was that Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Democrats clobbered Republicans in the money game. Setting aside Polis’s self-funding, Democrats also outraised Republicans by a two-to-one margin in the Senate race, a twelve-to-one margin in the attorney-general race, a 14-to-one margin in the secretary-of-state race, and a two-to-one margin in the state-treasurer race.
This is also a cop-out. Money doesn’t raise itself. Weiser had more money than Kellner because Weiser worked at it. Republican Secretary of State candidate Pam Anderson and State Treasurer candidate Lang Sias raised peanuts in comparison to their Democrats opponents, but it wasn’t because there was no money to be had for Republican candidates. Republicans raised more than $13 million as part of an effort to win control of the State Senate, and they ended up LOSING two more seats in total.
Both Ganahl and O’Dea put millions of dollars of their own money into their respective campaigns.
Shouldn’t the “76 Group” have been helping to raise money for Anderson and Sias? Or was it too busy trying to convince O’Dea to write another check from his own bank account?
A frequent refrain heard from conservatives in the state is that those pesky Californians are moving into the state in droves and bringing their politics with them. This theory is unsubstantiated, and based on exit polls that we’ve seen in other states, such as Texas, it isn’t happening. In the 2018 U.S. Senate race there, exit polling indicated that Beto O’Rourke won those born in the state, while Ted Cruz won those born elsewhere. One can assume that migration to Colorado could play a role, but to rest on that assumption while evidence points elsewhere is irresponsible.
Republicans definitely need more of this: Pointing out the fallacy of their own excuses. It doesn’t make any difference where Colorado voters came from; both Democrats and Republicans have the same problem of appealing to the voters who are here now.
So what can Republicans do to regain ground?
Polling shows that charter schools remain extremely popular, as is the concept of expanding school choice. In the aftermath of Covid-19, which gave parents a glimpse of the failures of the status quo, Republicans should seize the opportunity to provide an alternative path forward. With most Colorado students not reading, writing, or doing math at grade level, we should be bold with our policy proposals, taking on the public-school-employee unions with gusto.
In theory charter schools are great. In practice they don’t always work out.
The “concept” of expanding school choice might sound good in a polling memo, but voters in Colorado aren’t interested in proposed voucher programs. Ganahl made this a big part of her gubernatorial campaign, and the idea went nowhere.
Also, maybe don’t talk about “furries” in schools and pick public fights about it with school administrators.
Republicans must propose policies that ease our housing crisis by decreasing regulation and allowing for development. We should fight for nuclear power as a clean, reliable energy source. We have an electorate that cares about the environment. We should ensure that violent criminals remain behind bars while those who are a threat to nobody but themselves have options for rehabilitation. We should fix our damn roads while not asking Coloradans for another dime of their hard-earned money.
“Fix our damn roads” is literally a word-for-word repeat of what Ganahl said in 2022. Ganahl also promised to fix our roads without raising taxes, which was as ridiculous an idea then as it is now. In fact, you could point to Ganahl’s rollout of her transportation plan as the moment when the last of the institutional business interests realized her candidacy was beyond hope.
The insinuation here is that Colorado has plenty of money to fix its roads but just chooses not to make repairs. Colorado voters aren’t stupid – of course they don’t believe this.
California, Colorado is not. During his State of the State address this year, Governor Polis reiterated his support for eliminating the income tax. Coloradans want a Republican Party that is a party of ideas, not infantile delusions of conspiracy. They want conservatives with a willingness to govern that rises above the urge to produce fundraising-focused, hyper-partisan drivel. They want a conservative movement that places individuals above institutions, students above schools, and good governance above the slapdash legislating that comes from Democrats.
Colorado Republicans don’t seem to be interested in any of these suggestions. Just look at what Republicans have focused on in the first few weeks of the new legislative session: Pointless partisan bickering; refusing to co-sponsor a resolution praising Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; worrying about how many times Gov. Polis uses a particular word in a speech; and talking more about abortion rights and election denialism than any other issues.
It’s nice that someone in the GOP is trying to point out where the boat is leaking, but is anybody going to do any repairs? This goes back to the paragraph earlier about candidates for State Party Chair being lunatics but nobody doing anything to offer up something else.
The Colorado Republican Party isn’t going to fix itself.