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February 13, 2024 11:36 AM UTC

Four Candidates Hope to Break the "Republican Caucus Curse" in 2024

  • 2 Comments
  • by: Colorado Pols

UPDATE: We updated this story to include former State Rep. Amy Stephens and former State Sen. Randy Baumgardner, both of whom failed to win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2014. We also added former State Rep. Lang Sias, who was the GOP’s Lieutenant Governor nominee in 2018.

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Scott Tipton and Cory Gardner share an interesting political timeline.

State Rep. Gabe-ish Evans

Both Republicans were booted from elected office in 2020: Tipton lost a GOP Primary in CO-03 to Lauren Boebert, while Gardner lost his Senate re-election bid to Democrat John Hickenlooper. Tipton has since all but vanished from public life. Gardner still pops up here and there as a congressional lobbyist; he was also recently the head of a Super PAC supporting the since-failed Presidential campaign for South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

Exactly one decade earlier, Tipton and Gardner each won a seat in Congress while campaigning as sitting state legislators. This serves as a curious distinction: The 2010 election was the last time that a Republican state legislator was elected to higher office in Colorado.

This year, four sitting state lawmakers are hoping to break the “Republican Caucus Curse” that has existed for nearly 14 years in Colorado. State Reps. Richard Holtorf and Mike Lynch are running for an open seat in CO-04 that will likely be settled in a Republican Primary, and fellow State Rep. Gabe-ish Evans is hoping to be the GOP nominee in CO-08 for the right to challenge incumbent Democratic Rep. Yadira Caraveo in a General Election. State Sen. Bob Gardner, meanwhile, is running for an open seat in CO-05 (one that will also likely be all but decided in a Republican Primary).

Since Tipton and Gardner were elected to Congress in 2010, there have been 14 attempts by sitting Republican legislators to win election to higher office. All 14 campaigns failed. Only one sitting legislator — State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer in 2022 — even managed to make it to a General Election.

The same problem does not exist for sitting Democratic lawmakers. In 2022, State Sen. Brittany Pettersen and State Rep. Yadira Caraveo were elected to Congress in CO-07 and CO-08, respectively.

So why has this been such a problem for Republicans? It has a lot to do with the fact that Colorado Republicans have gotten significantly crazier since 2010. In 2009, America saw the rise of the “Tea Party” Republican, a new form of staunch right-wing conservatives organized by big money groups like “Americans for Prosperity” — primarily as a means of opposition to the Affordable Care Act. While Tipton and Gardner were able to win races for Congress in 2010, that was also the year that an unknown grifter named Dan Maes somehow ended up as the Republican nominee for Governor — a sign that the GOP base in Colorado was beginning to wander off in a different direction when it came to state government leadership. Republican officials were so concerned about Maes that they ended up recruiting Tom Tancredo to run for Governor under the banner of the American Constitution Party; Maes captured only 11% of the vote in the General Election, nearly relegating the Colorado Republican Party to “minor party” status as a result (which would have happened if Maes had received less than 10% of the statewide vote).

Hole-diggin’ Richard Holtorf

The rise of Donald Trump and the “MAGA” movement accelerated the fracturing of Colorado Republicans, creating a situation where the most hardcore right-wing candidate would often succeed in a Republican Primary to the detriment of their chances in a General Election. Democrats were the real winners in this divorce, sweeping statewide races in both 2018 and 2022 and building such strong numbers in both chambers of the state legislature that the Republican caucus was relegated to “micro minority” status. The only Republicans left in the state legislature, therefore, are the more extreme candidates who win in overwhelmingly-Republican districts in which moderating themselves for a General Election is unnecessary. That’s how weirdos like Reps. Scott “There is No” Bottoms and Ken “Skin” DeGraaf end up dominating the GOP discussion.

In other words, breaking the “Republican Caucus Curse” has only gotten more difficult.

Today, the GOP caucus in each legislative chamber — more notably in the House than the Senate — is completely devoid of any semblance of centrist opinions, which forces sitting lawmakers running for higher office to dance around tough policy choices. In last month’s CO-04 debate in Weld County, for example, Rep. Gabe Evans earned his “-ish” nickname by responding to this “yes or no” question with a third type of response:

Q: Do you think the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump

EVANS: No…ish 

Evans didn’t want to answer “NO” because it would hurt him with a Republican Primary electorate. But he didn’t want to say “YES” because that would be a killer in a General Election against Caraveo. Instead, Evans did the only thing that was worse: he waffled. 

Mike Lynch

Evans did something similar on the issue of abortion; he is on the record as a staunch opponent of abortion rights, though he tried to thread a needle at the Weld County debate by saying that he opposed a federal abortion ban.

You can see this friction playing out in the state legislature for other candidates. Bottoms is sponsoring a new “Personhood” bill (HB24-1224) in the state legislature that would define life as occurring at the time of conception. Evans is not on the list of sponsors, nor is Holtorf (who apparently learned something from his own recent mistake on the issue of abortion rights). But Lynch does appear as a co-sponsor. Don’t think for a minute that this won’t come up in future debates and/or advertisements ahead of the June Primary Election. And in the end, having to choose at all probably hurts everybody equally. 

Will 2024 be the year that the GOP finally breaks the “Republican Caucus Curse”? We wouldn’t bet on it. Being a Republican in the state legislature today means that you are part of numerous idiotic discussions and asinine legislative proposals; no matter how hard you try to extract yourself from this lunacy, the stench sticks with you wherever else you campaign for votes.

There’s no way to “-ish” this away.

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