When movers and shakers of the Colorado Republican Party meet in March to decide who will lead them into the 2020 election, the stakes will be high.
Their standard-bearer, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Yuma, will be up for re-election, and he has been considered vulnerable since the day after the 2018 election, in which Republicans suffered their most devastating defeat in modern state history.
And there will be an effort to regain ground in the state Senate to provide some sort of check on Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and the near super-majority that Democrats hold in the state House.
“I’m tired of losing,” said Marla Spinuzzi Reichert, chairwoman of the Pueblo County Republicans. “More of the same is not the answer. We have to go in a bold new direction.”
What that “bold new direction” is may depend on who the next state party chair is. While there’s debate about how much influence the chair has in shaping the party’s platform and image, the selection will offer a window into the thinking of the brain trust of the state GOP and how they will go about recuperating from their 2018 losses.
Political observers and Republican insiders suggest there are two distinct paths forward for the GOP. One is to begin outreach to the independent voters who rejected Republican candidates due in large part to their displeasure with President Donald Trump. The other is to focus on the party’s base, which has not kept up in size with the growing number of Democrats and unaffiliated voters in the state.
“One is mathematically sound — the other is not,” said Kelly Maher, executive director of the conservative political nonprofit Compass Colorado.
As of Friday, at least three high-profile Republicans have announced their candidacy: U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who represents most of eastern Colorado; Sherrie Gibson, the party’s current vice chair; and state Rep. Susan Beckman, who represents Littleton.
Many more are likely to announce, Republicans interviewed for this article said. Closer to the March 30 meeting, the party will set a nonbinding deadline for candidates to submit their names.
On paper, the chair and other elected leaders of the state party are responsible for hiring the executive director, recruiting candidates, fundraising and speaking on behalf of their members. However, each past chair has made the role bigger or smaller depending on their style.
Beckman said she views the role as that of a “workhorse, not a show horse.”
She decided to run before Jeff Hayes, the current state chair, announced his plans not to seek another two-year term.
She said in an interview with The Denver Post that she wants to focus on the party’s infrastructure and recruiting new Coloradans into the party.
“We were out-strategized, outworked,” she said. “It’s been a wake-up call for all of us. We need to unite and work together as a team to support our candidates. We had the best candidates. Infrastructure is what let them down.”
Buck said he would focus on fundraising, ensuring the party runs smoothly, and messaging both to the media and to the base. If he is elected as party chair, he has no plans to give up his seat in Congress.
In fact, he said, being in Washington would be a benefit for fundraising, opening new streams of revenue for the party.
“Democrats just don’t fundraise in Colorado, they do it around the country,” he said. “We need to make sure people on our side understand that.”
Gibson, who formally announced her candidacy on Friday, said outreach to women and young people would be at the top of her to-do list, along with raising money and rebuilding the bench of candidates.
“If we have conversations with issues that matter to them then they’ll begin to see we’re a party for all Coloradans,” she said.
Whoever wins the contest won’t be starting from scratch. After the election, Hayes, the current chair, surveyed the party faithful on what went wrong. There have been additional surveys and polls conducted by outside groups. And another by the Republican polling firm Magellan Strategies is expected later this winter.
In an email to supporters, Hayes said the party must focus on recruiting and training candidates and campaign staff, building partnerships with groups outside the traditional party, and voter registration.
Unaddressed is Trump. There is an open question how Republicans can win in Colorado while he is so unpopular with the state’s largest voting bloc, unaffiliated voters.
Each of the current candidates for chair said they support Trump. And each said in varying degrees that the party needs to find ways to discuss the president with party loyalists who support the president, disaffected Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
The ultimate test of the party chair could be building some sort of coalition among those three groups of voters to deliver victories.
State Rep. Colin Larson, the only Jefferson County Republican with a Democratic challenger to win a seat in the state House this year, said he hopes the next party chair helps candidates localize the issues and prioritize unaffiliated voters.
“It’d be a huge mistake to not pay attention to them,” he said, adding that the party should focus on individual candidates rather than the national platform. “The average voter doesn’t ask for a party platform at the door. They ask me, the candidate, what I stand for.”
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