The Colorado GOP’s Slow-Rolling MAGA Suicide
It was the early hours of November 5, 1998, well past my bedtime on a school night. Sister Sledge blared over the house speakers in a nondescript ballroom in a south Denver suburb. I was dancing giddily on stage looking out at a pack of my fellow awkward whites: donor types in their formal wear for the occasion, campaign hacks in our garish purple tees, inspired by our candidate’s love for the town’s new baseball team.
All of us were anxiously awaiting the arrival of Bill Owens, the man who had just been declared the winner in the gubernatorial election reversing a nearly three-decade streak of Democratic victories in Colorado.
From that stage, my barely postpubescent expectation was that there were only greens ahead for the Grand Ole Party in my home state. Republicans won up and down the ballot that night. When the counting was through, the state’s senior senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, would celebrate his first victory as a member of the GOP, his party switch in 1995 having presaged the state’s political shift. Republicans would control all the statewide constitutional offices except attorney general and four of the six congressional seats, most notably first term Representative Tom Tancredo, a racist gadfly who won easily in the suburban 6th Congressional District where I grew up. Two years later, the state, which Clinton had won in 1992 by a comfortable margin, went to George W. Bush by 8 points. Two years after that, Owens would go on to a landslide re-elect, be named the “Best Governor in America” by National Review, and be whispered about as a possible presidential hopeful. His top strategist, Dick Wadhams, was seen as a potential national star, set to run a top-tier 2008 presidential campaign before it got all macacaed up.
The political world was at our fingertips; the growing, dynamic Mountain West was primed to be the engine for a free-market, libertarian-streaked party that was perfectly suited to lead in the twenty-first century. Colorado could be the center of it all. It seemed as if I was timing my entrance into Republican political life perfectly to be along for the ride.
That was then.
Not even a quarter century on, Colorado can’t even be described as a swing state anymore. The last gasp of that status came in last year’s midterm, when the GOP nominees for governor and the Senate got crushed by umpteen points in what should have been a good year for the party. In that midterm, Democrats did better in Colorado than even in such liberal strongholds as New York and Illinois, according to analysis of the statewide popular vote by Split Ticket. Today, Dems control every major statewide office and five of the eight congressional seats—and they came just 500 votes short of taking out Lauren Boebert on the Western Slope and making it six. 2023 marks the party’s highest level of dominance in state politics since 1936.
You would think that such a dramatic fall might lead the Republican party poobahs to do some self-reflection on how it all went wrong. Maybe brainstorm on what they can do to reinvigorate the GOP’s heyday or come up with new strategies to bring back the voters who have swung so hard against them.
Nah. Instead, the GOP’s most wild-eyed members are determined to run things even further into the ground. This weekend they handed the keys to the party to a tiny cloister of extremists more interested in owning the libs than fixing their losing brand.
When it comes to leading the GOP back to victory, this MAGA cohort is set to take a page from Trump, as well as Denver’s $296 million dud.
In other words: Colorado GOP, Let’s Ride (Brandon).
On Saturday, a group of around 400 Republican party leaders and grassroots activists met to choose their new chair.
The race kicked off last December with an event that is already legendary in local political lore: a Shooters shoutfest outside Boot Barn Total Landscaping in Greenwood Village, a suburban enclave home to family-friendly neighborhood parks, chain restaurants, and the Denver Tech Center—not exactly a hotbed of nationalist extremism.
In a parking lot outside the downmarket cowboy boot retailer, a group of radicalized grayhairs dubbing themselves the “Save Colorado Project” held a press conference declaring they would overthrow the current GOP leadership in the state because they are a “bunch of whores” and “asswipes” and were not enthusiastic enough about chasing down their hallucinations about the stolen election and the deep state.
Among the group’s demands was further cloistering the party by ensuring only Republicans can participate in primary elections and opposing mail-in balloting—as well as any “electronic voting” (modern!).
This weekend, the Boot Barn Mafia got their first scalp, successfully replacing the old (Trump-friendly) leadership with a new chair so ensconced in the MAGA cult that he went to court to have “Let’s Go Brandon” formally added to his name.
State Rep. Dave “LGB” Williams won on the third ballot over a buffet of other election-denying freaks, most notably Tina Peters, whose collaboration with QAnon leaders to tamper with voting machines in order to “prove” the Democrats did the fraud (brilliant!) I reported on back in 2021.
Peters went on to a failed bid for the secretary of state nomination and ran her chair’s race while simultaneously being a defendant in an ongoing criminal trial. She was charged with six election-related felonies, and found guilty on the count of “obstruction of government operations.” She is set to be sentenced on April 10.
For a sense of who wields the power in the Colorado GOP, it was this felonious conspiracy theorist’s decision to buck party bylaws and give a pro-Williams endorsement speech between the second and third ballot that gave the new chair the votes he needed to win.
For his part, Williams might not have the criminal rap sheet of Peters, but he is no less whacked out. His court-rejected attempt to formally don a moniker calling for the sitting president to get fucked was part of a failed primary campaign against sitting far-right congressman Doug Lamborn last summer. This faceplant wasn’t Williams’s first foray into the realm of epic failure. As student body president at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Williams was impeached for a series of actions targeting gay students, including a McCarthyite campaign to out college Republicans and block funds for national coming-out day. In the state legislature, his most notable “accomplishment” is sponsoring a slate of anti-LGBTQ legislation that had no chance of passing.
He is also an anti-vaxxer. Of course.
In his speech accepting the new role Williams said, “We are the party that elected Donald J. Trump, and we are not going to apologize for that anymore.” (Minor fact check: Donald Trump lost Colorado twice, most recently by 13 points).
Pro-Trump, anti-gay, anti-vax. Determined to change the party rules to prevent independents from participating. This doesn’t seem like a path to success in a blue state. But maybe Mr. Let’s Go Brandon sees something I don’t.
With all hope of electoral victory in the near term dashed, the big question facing the Colorado GOP is an introspective one. How did the party go from rising stars to red dwarfs so fast?
I called some of the people who got me into politics and engineered the 1998 victory to see what they thought.
The top-line explanations provided are uncomplicated and maybe a tad too convenient: the state’s changing demographics, the takeover by Mr. Trump, and the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
These excuses seem so obvious that rather than engage in a back and forth on the party’s downward trajectory, one strategist just replied cheekily to my query with an answer provided by ChatGPT. Our robot overlords cited a “combination of demographic and political factors,” specifically Colorado’s population becoming more diverse, “with an influx of younger and more highly educated residents who tend to lean left” as the reason the state has gone blue.
The humans who offered explanations from their own frontal cortex put a finer point on it.
In a lengthy chat late last year during halftime of a Broncos clunker, former Governor Owens reminded me that this trajectory was a long time coming. “We have long had an immigration into Colorado, from California . . . it started way back when. Remember joking about Gail Schoettler [his 1998 opponent] being from California?”
On top of the gradual population shift Owens cited, there was Donald Trump. “Over the last eight years, Trump has been a disaster for the Colorado Republican party. No bright side to what Trump has done here. Highly educated, suburban voters were turned off from the party. . . . Until we change the GOP brand away from Donald Trump, we’ll never be competitive in Colorado,” he said, pointing out that Colorado is the second most-educated state in the country.
I agree on all counts. But in some ways, pegging the entire problem to Trump seems like a bit of a cop-out. The Colorado GOP was already meandering down the road of decline when Donald was still determining whether he should fire David Cassidy (Rest in Power) or José Canseco for failing to sell the requisite amount of pizzas on Trump’s game show.
When I spoke this week to Dick Wadhams, Owens’s former strategist, he pointed to the 2009 Tea Party revolution as the origin of the morass. “I liked a lot of the activists frankly, but many of them were just out of their minds,” he said.
It was during the 2010 midterm that emboldened Tea Party activists reversed a decade of mainstream nominees for statewide office by vaulting one of their own, Dan Maes, to the gubernatorial nomination over Rep. Scott McInnis who became embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. (Macabre aside: McInnis, who at the time was seen as a moderate, environmentally friendly Western Slope Republican, reemerged in recent years as a MAGA county commissioner who endorsed Lauren Boebert.)
Maes’s primary triumph was short lived. The Tea Party favorite turned out to be a charlatan whose general election campaign was so weak that the Republican grassroots dumped him in favor of someone they thought was more electable and was running on a third-party ticket. Who was Mr. Electability, you might ask? Tom Tancredo. You won’t be shocked to find out how this story ended. Democrat John Hickenlooper won 51 to 36 to 11 in a GOP wave year before going on to one more term in the governor’s mansion and then a victory in the Senate. Ouch.
The response to this shellacking was not to assess how Republicans might offer a broader appeal in a diversifying state. Instead, the party became even more beholden to radical power brokers who wanted to push things further to the cultural right. For instance: In spring 2012, in the final days of the state legislative session, House Speaker Frank McNulty, a classic establishment Republican, reneged on an apparent deal with then Gov. Hickenlooper and refused to bring up a civil unions bill for a vote that was likely to pass. The result was hundreds of devastated gay couples protesting at the state capitol, weeks of withering media scrutiny, and then personal recriminations from within his own caucus. That fall, Republicans were swamped at the ballot box and McNulty was replaced as speaker by Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat and the first openly gay man in the history of the Colorado legislature.
In the years that followed, the beatings continued and morale did not improve. In 2013 and 2014, Eli Stokols wrote a series of profiles about Dudley Brown, the grassroots kingmaker behind the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a group that was “aiming to remake Colorado politics using hyper-aggressive and confrontational political strategies.” (Congrats on your success, Dudley. Colorado has indeed been remade!)
[Brown] built RMGO and the National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR) into a double-barreled fund-raising machine that bullies anyone who compromises Brown’s pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda. (A favorite showy tactic is driving around in a Pinzgauer, a boxy, big-wheeled Cold War–era Austrian troop truck that Brown calls his “political pain delivery vehicle.”)
Dudley used that pain to “take out moderates” in primaries, eviscerating what might’ve been a bench of electable Republicans in favor of a bunch of conspiracist gun nuts all across Colorado’s Front Range, where the electorate wanted the opposite: government action to address a string of high–profile mass shootings that had terrorized their once-safe suburban communities. Wadhams said he could cite a litany of races in the Denver burbs where more moderate or mainstream candidates were defeated in primaries handing over winnable seats to the Democrats.
The strategy put forth on the other side was different. While the Republicans tacked hard to the right, Democrats in the state put forward a literal blueprint for winning elections and advancing progressive causes: fund campaigns, campaign on popular issues, and elevate statewide politicians who have independent political brands that appeal to Colorado as it is, not as they wish it were. The fruit of their spoils has been two decades of nearly uninterrupted rule.
This past midterm was the first time it seemed as if the state GOP might be learning a lesson from all this losing. In primaries that featured both Republicans who presented as somewhat normal and Trump-endorsed, election-denying loons, Colorado was a rare place where the former triumphed.
In the Senate race, Joe O’Dea, a pro-choice business guy who has been on the receiving end of a few Trump bleats for his lack of subservience to the cult, emerged from the primary victorious. And in the governor’s race, a seemingly sane member of the Colorado Board of Regents, Heidi Ganahl, defeated a homophobic election-denier who wanted to eliminate “one vote, one person” and create a Colorado electoral college.
But, as it turns out, one good primary does not a healthy party make.
O’Dea and Ganahl both faced a decade’s worth of headwinds from the GOP’s toxic brand allegiance with Trump, but on the practical level, they got sucked into the crazy themselves.
One Colorado Republican strategist who has since left the party highlighted the pitfalls of running normie candidates amidst all the madness:
“How do you win Republican voters and be in the crazy rooms without dealing with the fallout of being in the crazy rooms?” she asked. “You remember, Owens ran on education and transportation.” You can’t do that now.
It’s not just the physical Republican events that become problematic for nominees, but the financial incentives, too. “Unfortunately the rhetoric from the left and the right is what raises money. Running on nonpartisan messaging doesn’t . . . so you basically have to have a self-funder.”
The result of swimming in this contaminated pool means you end up with even the more electable candidates sabotaging themselves through the process.
O’Dea felt compelled to oppose the compromise gun reform legislation that passed last year as being too liberal, despite it having the support of such known commies as Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn. And Ganahl ended up so deep in the Facebook fever swamps that she found herself not just believing, but vowing to address the imaginary scourge of classroom litterboxes she thought were being provided to address the needs of children identifying as felines.
So if O’Dea and Ganahl couldn’t make it a race, what might be the path forward for a party that is now led by a walking Pepe meme?
Wadhams is hoping demographic trends might start to work in Republicans’ favor, but he wasn’t exactly counting on it.
“Huge influx of new people has come to a grinding halt. Colorado is growing at a glacial pace right now. Millennials moved here and they are getting sour. Cost of living, crime, homelessness. . . . Maybe if that continues you can start seeing improvement at the margins. . . . But no, I don’t really have a lot of optimism. We’re going to take another hit when an election denier is elected chairman. Anyone who sees this is going to say it’s a nut house.”
Owens had on some rosier shades, leaning into the optimism that got him elected in the first place.
“The way to change that brand is to defeat Trump in the primary. It’s up to my party to stop being the Trump party by defeating Trump. It’s up to us,” he said.
If the party could do that and signal to Coloradans that they were able to clean their own house, then maybe, come 2026, voters might be willing to listen.
I was, naturally, suspicious. But Owens reminded me of his baseball fandom: “Hope springs eternal.”
Wadhams’s kicker seemed a little more likely.
“Think of it this way,” he told me. “You might’ve worked for the only Republican Colorado governor in your lifetime.”