MONDAY UPDATE: Republicans in Jefferson County are having their own set of problems, as this Facebook post explains:
UPDATE: Going great!
The battle for control of the El Paso County GOP in Colorado was back in court Friday, as state Republicans and the county party filed dueling motions over who gets to run next week’s leadership elections. #copoliticshttps://t.co/iJIEiI9IYJ
— Ernest Lee Luning (@eluning) February 4, 2023
[Pols Note: This is Part Two of a three-part series]
In part one of “The Circle of Strife,” we covered the ongoing feud between the El Paso County Republican Party and the State Republican Party. On Tuesday evening, the State GOP voted by a 139-123.8 margin (yes, 123.8) to allow a neutral group of observers to oversee the Feb. 11 election for new officers in El Paso County. The reason for this unprecedented vote is because of concerns that two-term El Paso Chair Vickie Tonkins (who is also seeking re-election) is trying to rig the election in her favor.
This is not a new accusation – similar charges were made when Tonkins was re-elected in 2021 – but the El Paso GOP is so mad about being bigfooted by its statewide siblings that it filed a lawsuit against the State Party to stop the influence of a “neutral group of observers.” Meanwhile, accusations of election interference are also being made in Adams County regarding Chairperson JoAnn Windholz.
While these battles are fascinating on their own, they are also part of a longer trend for Colorado Republicans that goes back more than a decade. It isn’t the GOP’s neverending circular firing squad that is solely responsible for recent election losses; but when you understand the history of these conflicts, it’s easy to wonder how Republicans even have the time or energy to worry about Democrats.
The timeline we reconstructed below begins in January 2019, but Republican leadership problems go much further back. For instance, the “Coffmangate” scandal of 2015 was as wild and ridiculous as anything Colorado Republicans have done since. The short version of “Coffmangate” is that a handful of powerful Republicans – including then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman – attempted to overthrow State Republican Party Chair Steve House just three months after his election to the post. The scandal included some pretty believable stories of blackmail, which made it national news throughout the summer of 2015.
January 2019 was a pivotal time for the State Republican Party. The 2018 election had been devastating to Republicans both because of the results and because of the shattering of expectations that had grown after Donald Trump’s Presidential election in 2016. Democrat Jared Polis trounced Republican Walker Stapleton in the race for Governor by nearly 11 points; Democrats won all four statewide constitutional offices for the first time in modern history; Republicans lost six seats in the state legislature; and Democratic newcomer Jason Crow ousted longtime Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in CO-06 by an 11-point margin.
Then-State GOP Chair Jeff Hays was wrapping up a disappointing two-year term by promising not to seek re-election. Colorado Republicans SHOULD have been introspective about their 2018 performance and looking to chart a different path forward ahead of the 2020 election cycle, where they would be trying to re-elect the last remaining well-known Republican in Colorado (Sen. Cory Gardner). Instead, the GOP went with a new leader who only worked at the job of Chair when he had time away from his regular job of serving in Congress. Naturally, a part-time effort generated half-assed results.
In May 2020, we chronicled Rep. Ken Buck’s disastrous first year as State Chair. In that same spirit, here’s a broader timeline of the many, many, many Republican missteps that brought them to their current “Circle of Strife.”
As you’ll see below, there is one consistent commonality among all of the personalities involved with the Colorado Republican Party: Regret, rinse, and repeat. Republican leaders keep making the same mistakes by appealing to the right-wing for short-term gains and then finding themselves flummoxed when that same group creates a whole new batch of problems.
January – February 2019
In retrospect, Republicans should have been more concerned in January 2019 when Anil Mathai, then the Chairperson of the Adams County Republican Party – publicly attacked Sen. Cory Gardner and other Republican elected officials for trying to prevent what would have been an economically-devastating government shutdown. This was a clear signal that the Republican base in Colorado (and everywhere) had gone full MAGA.
(As we’ll detail later, Mathai is the same guy who would call Republican leaders “whores” and “asswipes” at the infamous November 2022 “Boot Barn” rally)
A few weeks later, Vickie Tonkins was elected Chairperson of the El Paso County GOP. Meanwhile, Ken Buck was promoting his candidacy for State Party Chairman by using extremist rhetoric in order to appeal to the growing MAGA base.
Buck is elected as State Party Chair after delivering a ridiculous speech promising to teach Democrats how to spell “R-E-C-A-L-L.” Republicans like Gardner, who endorsed Buck, found this to be very entertaining.
As you’ll see later, Buck’s pledge to recall Democrats who were just elected a few months earlier aged about as well as Donald Trump, Jr. Curiously, Republicans voted for Buck even though he didn’t promise much of a change in strategy other than the ill-fated recall attempts. Buck pledged to appoint Steve House to oversee the day-to-day work of the State Party in a newly-created “CEO” position, nevermind that House had failed miserably at the job of State Chair during the 2016 election cycle and was once one of Colorado’s foremost “Never Trumpers.”
The House as “CEO” idea was not popular with more rational Republicans. As former State Party Chair Dick Wadhams said at the time:
“If Steve House wants to be state chairman, he ought to run for it, and if Ken Buck doesn’t want to be state chairman, he ought to get out of the race.”
Wadhams added that he was “baffled” by Buck’s suggestion that he could effectively oversee the State Republican Party from his office in Washington D.C.
April – June 2019
It didn’t take long for Buck’s job in Congress to reflect poorly on his job as State Party Chair. It’s one thing to compare the LGBTQ community to Nazis when you are a Congressman representing a bright red district; it’s another thing entirely when your comments reflect negatively on every Republican in Colorado.
Buck followed through on his promise to name House as the “CEO” of the State Republican Party, then went to work blaming others – including House Minority Leader Pat Neville – for stoking a recall fever among Republicans. The recall rhetoric was already getting out of hand by the time House said the quiet part out loud and admitted that the State GOP saw recalls as a way to subvert the regular election process to their advantage.
Three months after he was elected Party Chair by promising to support recalls of Democratic candidates, Buck was speaking out in opposition to the practice – initially trying to do it quietly. This is typical Buck tactic, which he employed again this week, wherein he takes both sides of an issue sometimes within a matter of days. Buck’s recall reluctance was probably in part a reaction to a comically-bad attempt at recalling Democratic State Rep. Tom Sullivan. The failed Sullivan recall was overseen by…wait for it…then GOP Vice-Chair Kristi Burton Brown.
August – December 2019
Less than six months after being named State Party “CEO,” Steve House announces that he is stepping down from the job in order to focus on running for Congress in CO-06 (House would eventually lose to incumbent Democratic Rep. Jason Crow by 17 points). The State Republican Party is now effectively rudderless at this point, and the GOP base is not happy. As The Colorado Sun reports in September, “A GOP Coup is Building Against New Chairman Ken Buck.” Said Peg Cage, a former Chairperson of the Boulder County Republican Party:
“He’s demonstrated no leadership toward that objective goal of taking back the state. He’s not doing the job.”
The Buck coup never materialized, but the knives were out at this point; one prominent Republican publicly opined that Buck had been tricked by Gardner into running for State Party Chair instead of potentially considering a Senate Primary challenge in 2020.
While critics are attacking Buck for floundering as Party Chair, Buck the Congressman just sort of stops showing up for work in Washington D.C. For reasons that he never bothers to explain, Buck is largely absent for impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member. When he does manage to show up, Buck tries arguing that everybody does impeachable things.
March – June 2020
Republicans cooped up by the COVID pandemic start acting even weirder than normal. Buck completes a legislative trifecta, becoming one of the only Members of Congress to vote “NO” on all three coronavirus relief packages. Vickie Tonkins posts a question on the El Paso GOP Facebook page asking if COVID is a “psyop,” which prompts El Paso County officials to demand her resignation. Tonkins responds by digging in deeper.
In April, Tonkins picks sides in a controversial Senate District assembly on behalf of a losing candidate who failed to make the ballot, prompting the State Party to intervene and overrule the county assembly. Buck is accused by El Paso County Party activist (and 2022 Republican Senate candidate) Eli Bremer of coercing him into perjury by requesting that Bremer certify a candidate for the ballot that did not meet threshold via the Republican caucus process. Buck later promises to investigate himself.
Perhaps distracted by all of this infighting, Ernest Luning reports for the publication formerly known as the Colorado Statesman that the El Paso County Republican Party is playing “virtually no discernable role” in the 2020 election.
July – October 2020
Tonkins is (theoretically) stripped of her powers to oversee the party budget and speak on behalf of the party following what is described as a “nasty” and “brutal” executive committee meeting (the concerns about Tonkins date back to her April COVID comments). Tonkins promises to ignore the executive committee ruling, and El Paso GOP Treasurer John Pitchford says that Tonkins (who is Black) is the victim of racism. Eli Bremer doesn’t hold back in criticizing Tonkins in comments to Colorado Public Radio:
“It’s not that she’s the worst county chair we’ve ever had. She’s by far the worst.”
Remember, this is all happening at the same time that El Paso County Republicans should be focused on the November 2020 election. But there’s no room for anything other than silliness. Tonkins publicly calls on the Trump campaign to cut ties with its Colorado director Jefferson Thomas for allegedly undermining Trump’s standing in Colorado; and Tonkins and El Paso GOP Treasurer John Pitchford file a police report with the Colorado Springs PD alleging “multiple thefts of thousands of dollars’ worth of financial records, ID badges, and a laptop computer.” When a CSPD investigator followed up about the allegations in October, the investigator was told by an El Paso GOP official that they were “too busy” to answer questions about the police report that THEY FILED THEMSELVES.
November – December 2020
Colorado Republicans are again trounced by Democrats. Gardner is barely competitive in a 9-point loss to Democrat John Hickenlooper that leaves CU Regent Heidi Ganahl as the sole remaining statewide elected Republican in Colorado. Republicans lose another seat in the state legislature, and Democrat Joe Biden carries Colorado in the Presidential Election by 14 points.
Buck announces in December that he will not seek re-election as State Party Chair.
January – March 2021
Buck continues his Buckpedaling tradition by waffling on comments regarding the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and Trump’s responsibility for the conflict. He angers the Republican base in Colorado by publicly acknowledging that Biden is in fact now the President of the United States. Buck’s comments help fuel the rhetoric of a new batch of State Party Chairperson contenders – including Kristi Burton Brown and former Secretary of State Scott Gessler – all of whom make election denialism a central theme of their campaigns.
Six months after the El Paso County Republican Executive Committee stripped Vickie Tonkins of her ability to manage finances and speak out publicly, she is re-elected to a second term as Chair of the El Paso GOP. Tonkins defeats Peggy Littleton by a vote of 147-140, but Littleton and others immediately ask the State GOP to investigate claims of tampering. Littleton alleges that some members of the party’s central committee were wrongly denied credentials while others who shouldn’t have been able to vote were allowed to cast ballots; she also claims that there were problems with the remote voting system.
The State Republican Party declines to get involved.
In March, Kristi Burton Brown (KBB) leaves her job as PRESIDENT OF A MILITIA GROUP and is elected Chairperson of the Colorado Republican Party. KBB’s brand of election denialism wins the day; she boldly claims:
“The Republican Party will never go back to the pre-Trump era.”
June – July 2021
While the “Big Lie” remains the only truth for most Colorado Republicans, KBB is already second-guessing herself. KBB gives a talk to the Foothills Republican club that is a clear rejection of Trump’s influence on the GOP:
“We cannot let ourselves solely become the party of personalities. We have to become the party of ideas.”
In that same speech, KBB also says that Colorado Republicans need to stop obsessing about election denialism related to the 2020 Presidential Election.
September – December 2021
The Republican base in Colorado begins to obsess over trying to opt out of the 2022 Primary Election over misguided fears that Unaffiliated voters are making it harder for the craziest of the right-wing Republicans to get their names onto the ballot.
Meanwhile, the Vice Chair of the El Paso County GOP calls on Tonkins to resign as Chairperson after she insists that Republican candidates for school board provide written responses about their positions on “election integrity” (which obviously has NOTHING to do with a school board race). This call for Tonkins to resign comes 14 months after the previous resignation demand and eight months after Tonkins was re-elected as El Paso GOP Chairperson.
In December, The Colorado Springs Independent reports that El Paso County GOP meetings are often so heated and divisive that the El Paso Sheriff and Colorado Springs Police Department are regularly called to keep the peace and prevent violent interactions.
February – April 2022
Tonkins generates new controversies after giving a speech to FEC United, the same militia group of which KBB was formerly president. Tonkins is also accused of conspiring to help her favored slate of Republican candidates ahead of the county assembly by, in part, hoarding delegate lists. Even Congressman Doug Lamborn pops his head up and attacks Tonkins; she responds with a nasty email denigrating the Congressman who represents her district.
When the dust finally settles on the El Paso County Convention, Republicans come face to face with almost complete turnover; all six members of the state House of Representatives from El Paso County will be new faces in 2023. Elsewhere, Republican activists across the state call on KBB to resign as State Party Chairperson for her unwillingness to forcefully defend Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters – who will ultimately be indicted on a number of fraud-related charges.
April brings the single most batshit crazy state party assembly that Colorado has ever seen, including the successful (and ultimately denied) nomination of Stanley Thorne for Attorney General despite the fact that Thorne is neither a Republican nor a licensed attorney in the State of Colorado. KBB’s 2021 State Chair campaign that empowered election deniers has circled back to bite her in the butt; the inmates are now in full control of this asylum. Ken Buck expresses exasperation at the state of the Colorado GOP after nearly failing to make the Primary Ballot via the assembly process.
Colorado Republicans lurch further to the right in order to secure a victory in the Primary Election, which will become a significant problem in the General Election. There’s no better example than that of gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl, whose campaign distributes fliers proclaiming her as the true “MAGA candidate” in 2022. The only good news for Republicans is that Tina Peters is defeated in a three-way Republican Primary when [checks notes] Mike O’Donnell earns enough votes to give Pam Anderson the victory. Peters will later spend $250k on a hopeless recount that results in a net change of 13 more votes for the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder.
July – August 2022
In a move both petty and revealing, a group of angry El Paso Republicans organize their own fundraising dinner for the same evening as the annual El Paso County “Lincoln Day Dinner.” Meanwhile, a group calling itself the “Fremont Republicans” creates its own grassroots organizing office separate from the El Paso GOP. Most of the top tier GOP campaigns – including those of Ganahl and Senate candidate Joe O’Dea – run their local ground game out of this office.
In late August, State Sen. Kevin Priola announces that he is leaving the GOP and becoming a member of the Democratic Party because he can no longer tolerate the ridiculous circus that is the Colorado GOP. Priola’s party switch changes the math for Republican hopes of gaining majority control in the State Senate (though it will end up not making much of a difference in November). Colorado Republicans react predictably poorly to Priola’s decision and immediately attempt an expensive recall campaign that crashes and burns about six weeks later.
October – November 2022
Tensions rise among Republicans as their top-of-ticket candidates start to crater. Gubernatorial nominee Heidi Ganahl spends most of October accusing school districts of catering to students in furry costumes, while Senate hopeful Joe O’Dea flails about in a desperate attempt to find some sort of traction against incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. In El Paso County, a top Republican candidate (Dennis Hisey) faces serious questions about residency requirements in a race (SD-11) that the GOP can’t afford to lose if they hope to gain majority control in the State Senate. Tonkins takes no action.
On the Saturday before Election Day, Tonkins and the El Paso GOP waste precious hours convening a vote to censure Republican leaders and candidates who worked out of the “Peak Republicans” grassroots organizing office. They also demanded that Peak Republicans stop calling themselves “Republican.”
On Election Day 2022, Colorado Republicans get slaughtered at the polls in what is arguably the GOP’s single worst showing in state history. Ganahl cements her status as the worst statewide candidate Colorado has ever seen with a 20-point loss to Polis, while O’Dea falls to Bennet by 13. Outgoing State Rep. Colin Larsen describes the 2022 drubbing as an “extinction-level event” for Colorado Republicans. Inexplicably, GOP leaders such as KBB and Dick Wadhams declare in interviews that Republicans ran their best slate of candidates in years.
El Paso County provides no buffer whatsoever for Republican candidates. Ganahl had kicked off her gubernatorial campaign in her hometown of Monument yet carries El Paso County by less than 4 points. Hisey loses SD-11 to Democrat Tony Exum. All told, Colorado Republicans spend tens of millions of dollars to get their collective butts kicked by Democrats; at least $13 million alone is spent in State Senate races that result in a net LOSS of two seats.
While Republicans make half-hearted attempts at self-reflection in the wake of devastating losses, another group forms (“Save Colorado Project”) to promote the idea that Republican losses are because of poor leadership at the top. Tina Peters parks her truck outside of a “Boot Barn” in Greenwood Village – near the State GOP headquarters – and promptly blames the “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) KBB for Republican losses in 2022. Former Adams County GOP Chair Anil Mathai ups the ante by calling GOP leaders and political consultants “whores” and “asswipes.”
Demonstrating her complete lack of understanding of how elections work, KBB demands that Democrat Adam Frisch withdraw from his still-undecided race in CO-03 with Republican Lauren Boebert. Frisch has stated publicly that he is not likely to overtake Boebert but is waiting on a STATE MANDATED RECOUNT that he couldn’t cancel if he tried.
Elsewhere, longtime Republican Bob Rankin (Carbondale area) abruptly announces that he is resigning from the State Senate for reasons that he doesn’t even really need to explain anymore. One day later, the State Republican Party votes to censure Vickie Tonkins in retaliation for the El Paso GOP censuring other Republicans a few days before the November election. It’s all very silly.
In late December, KBB officially announces that she will not seek re-election in 2023. Approximately zero people in Colorado are surprised by the news considering the depths of the GOP failures during her term in office.
January – February 2023
Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams declines to run for State Party Chair just a few days after sounding like the frontrunner. This leaves Republicans to choose from a sad list of candidates that includes Casper Stockham (who has lost at least a half-dozen races in recent years); Aaron Wood of “Save Colorado Project”; and Erik Aadland, the 2022 Congressional candidate in CO-07 who lost to Democrat Brittany Pettersen by 15 points.
As Colorado Newsline neatly summarizes:
And in an ominous sign that the party is destined for more misery, the pool of candidates to replace [KBB], even this late in the process, comprises some of the party’s most dishonest and unserious figures, and it has emboldened a conspiracy theorist-friendly effort called the Save Colorado Project to agitate for an uncompromising extremism in party leadership.
That last line is particularly important. While candidates in the 2021 race for State GOP Chair largely focused on attracting votes from election fraud truthers, the 2023 candidates seem to be espousing a belief that the best way for Republicans to return to prominence in Colorado is to put forward the most right-wing candidates possible. This is a terrible idea that completely ignores the reality of what happened in November 2022.
With new elections for county and state GOP officers around the corner, the “Circle of Strife” grows hotter still. A group of well-known El Paso County Republicans send a letter to the State GOP asking for the party to prevent Tonkins from rigging another county officer election. The letter includes some striking language over concerns about threats of violence from El Paso County leaders:
“Most recently, at the special central committee meeting, we were told we should be put in front of a firing squad and shot. We are no longer safe at her meetings,” they write about Tonkins.
— Quentin Young (@qpyoungnews) January 24, 2023
Similar accusations (minus the violence) are made in Adams County against GOP Chair JoAnn Windholz.
In mid-January, the State GOP announces an unprecedented meeting to determine whether it makes sense to appoint a neutral arbiter to oversee El Paso County GOP elections on Feb. 11. On Jan. 30, Tonkins and the El Paso GOP file a lawsuit in an attempt to prevent the State Party from bigfooting its elections. One day later, the State GOP formally votes to place a neutral observer in charge of overseeing the Feb. 11 El Paso County elections.
A few days later, Tonkins announces that she is going to ignore any decree from the State GOP. As Ernest Luning reports for the publication formerly known as the Colorado Statesman:
As it stands, county Republicans will be faced with choosing between two competing party meetings on opposite sides of Colorado Springs on the morning of Feb. 11, with organizers of each claiming the other is illegitimate and will have no legal standing.
County GOP chair Vickie Tonkins, who is seeking a third term running the local organization, said the only real election will be held at Sand Creek High School, east of the Citadel, while state Republicans assert that the only election that will count is set to take place at the same time across town at Discovery Canyon Campus in Northgate. [Pols emphasis]
The dueling party meetings are the latest fallout in an ongoing feud between rival Republican factions in the county, with Tonkins and her supporters claiming the state GOP is illegally hijacking a local party election, while her critics contend Tonkins has demonstrated she can’t run an impartial party election and has been openly hostile toward some Republicans.
At stake is who gets to control the Republican organization in the state’s most populous county, which has long been considered the GOP’s heavyweight in Colorado.
What happens when two different groups of El Paso County Republicans elect two different slates of party officers? Who casts official ballots for the next State Party Chair, and what happens if the eventual winner of that race is someone who is a Tonkins ally?
Faced with uncharted waters, it almost makes sense that Colorado Republicans would set sail in separate leaky boats rather than try to figure out a way to come together to prevent at least one of them from sinking. We’ll find out which of these rafts are still afloat when Republicans select their next State Party Chairperson on March 11.sOxsAL aAKzfhSP ImrcUGi
Man! Looks like the outgoing Jeffco Republican Chair was taking cues from TFG.
Funny that. I didn't even know the name of the outgoing chair. May be better that I not know as her incompetency probably was a big contributor to last November's wipeout.
Thanks, I think. Never heard of her. I think I voted for Don Rosier, the vice-chair, once.
Now boarding all Colorado Republicans on the S.S. Minnow for an extended stay on Gilligan’s Island. What a comedy of corruption and mistrust. Dems will probably handle their reorganizations with a lot less drama.
There are a lot of amusing games available online; one of my favorites is called stumble guys, and it's a great way to see how smart some of the guys in your life really are.