Thirty-six hours after Republicans suffered historic election losses in Colorado, and as elected members were regrouping, state Rep. Richard Holtorf, of Akron, framed the party’s position in heroic terms.
“I think of the Spartans and Leonidas, as the Persian army comes down to take over and destroy Greece and Sparta,” Holtorf said, referring to the legend of a vastly outnumbered – and doomed – group of Spartans who fought to hold off their opponents.
It was the first public regrouping of elected Colorado Republicans after an election that one described as a shellacking. The Republican candidates for the state’s top offices had just been swept, some by double-digits, by Democratic incumbents. Hopes on Tuesday that the GOP would narrow the Democrats’ majority in the state House of Representatives and maybe even flip the state Senate materialized Wednesday as losses.
The party, several officials said, must now undertake a full rebuild of its brand and approach in Colorado. While elected Republicans like Holtorf will face the immediate effect of this electoral failure, the losses were so historic that many of the party’s members are confronting an existential question: What’s next for Colorado’s Republican Party? If it can’t win now — in a midterm in which the dominant topics are bread-and-butter Republican issues like crime and the economy — when can they?
“Just about every Republican strategist, consultant, elected official and leader is asking right now: What’s the path forward?” Sage Naumann, a Republican consultant who’s recently worked in the state Senate and for U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea.
He characterized the election as one of “the most historic losses our party has ever endured,” one with few, if any, silver linings.
What went wrong
Depending on the Republican, the cause of or the solution to the party’s woes run through former President Donald Trump.
Naumann noted that unaffiliated voters make up a plurality of the Colorado electorate and that they’ve been trending decisively away from his party. And several members he described as more policy-oriented — not “bomb throwers” — lost or were losing races.
“Their losses are not contributed to their records, I can guarantee that,” Naumann said. “Their losses are because unaffiliateds said the party and anyone associated with it are not viable candidates.”
He attributed that to the “lingering effect” of Trump over the party and a focus on divisive issues, like banning abortion, that Colorado voters consistently reject.
“(There’s a) consistent focus on conspiracy theories and witch hunts, like that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and a lack of realization in the state of Colorado that on social issues, the people in the middle don’t agree with our party platform,” Naumann said.
Lang Sias, who lost his bid to unseat state treasurer Dave Young on Tuesday night, said the Republican brand has become “toxic” in Colorado. Part of that’s because of Trump, he said. Sias has been on the wrong side of two Democratic waves, having lost as Walker Stapleton’s running mate in 2018, and he acutely knows the consequences of being associated with the former president. The party needed to focus on solutions, he said, a stance echoed by Democratic insiders who blasted some Republicans’ embrace of conspiracies and election denialism.
But Sias, like Naumann, maintained that the party’s core values aren’t the problem.
“The Republican brand — whatever the Republican brand is — it’s not something that Colorado voters like that much,” Sias said. “Because I don’t think we were wrong … to focus on those kitchen table issues of the economy and crime and education.”
Meanwhile, Naumann said, bombastic Colorado Republicans, “who are in elected office because it’s fun to throw bombs and to quote-unquote own the libs” suck all the oxygen out of the room that could otherwise be used to help Colorado. And much of that is simply out of local and state Republican’s control, he said. It’s a monumental task to carve out a local identity when faced with those who have national microphones, and more interest in social media engagement and TV hits than the future of Colorado’s party.
Departing state Rep. Dave Williams, who’s been castigated by House leadership for being one of those bomb-throwers, called Tuesday night a “bloodbath.” He agreed that there was a problem with the Republican brand in Colorado, but he laid blame squarely on the party’s leaders.
“Those people, they were responsible for the image and the branding of the party this election cycle and probably before that as well,” he said. “In other words, they got everything they wanted – the establishment generally in this state got everything they wanted. They got the candidates they wanted, they got the messaging they wanted. … And they got these results. And I think we certainly have to place blame at their feet.”
A sign of that internal division flared among House Republicans on Thursday, just before Holtorf’s speech. State Rep. Stephanie Luck, of Penrose, was making the case that the caucus should elect her as their leader — and in her speech, apologized to members for “threats” some of them received the day before related to her candidacy.
Still, she told her fellow representatives, those messages came from “communication streams and networks that I have access to in order to rally the troops, to speak into bills that you are advancing, to speak into bills that we are opposing as a caucus.” Her apology-turned-enticement didn’t work, and Rep. Mike Lynch was elected minority leader instead.
Increased infighting won’t help the party’s brand, Republican officials said. But others questioned whether the state’s electorate had shifted fundamentally, thanks to liberal-minded out-of-staters moving in. That was the assessment of Kristi Burton Brown, the chairwoman of the Colorado Republican Party, on Tuesday night. Her candidates had run on the correct issues, she said, and would focus on them going forward.
“It’s just not what voters chose tonight,” she said.
‘A rebuilding time’
State Sen. Paul Lundeen, of Monument, emphasized Thursday that a handful of races still hadn’t been called, so the official shape of his caucus wasn’t yet known. But it will have a big responsibility in rebuilding the Republican brand.
“It falls on us, this caucus, to strike forward and establish a new perspective on the Republican brand,” Lundeen said shortly after being named Senate minority leader. “An expansion if you will, on the Republican brand. What it means to make life more affordable, what it means to make our community safer, what it means to give parents more authority.”
Lynch, Lundeen’s equivalent in the House, struck a similar tone. He was beat Luck for House minority leader Thursday morning, in the wake of Rep. Hugh McKean’s death and Rep. Colin Larson’s surprising re-election loss. Lynch pledged to the remaining House Republicans to not “ever veer from our Republican principles. That is not what we do in the face of the defeat we had this week.”
He told the Post in an interview that he and other Republicans didn’t understand why the messaging on crime and economics hadn’t worked. Coloradans must not have reached a “pain point” yet, he said, adding that Democrats had been effective in their messaging on abortion. He thought voters “misinterpreted” the status of abortion access in Colorado and that Republicans “assumed voters knew stuff they didn’t.”
While he and others defended the party’s messaging and said it didn’t need to change, Lynch acknowledged that something has to.
“We look at this as a rebuilding time,” he said. “No doubt, the voters spoke very loudly that they want to see something different out of us, so we’re going to do some soul-searching and figure out what that looks like. I’d be an idiot to ignore that we just got shellacked.”
Several other party officials used the term “rebuild” to describe what Colorado Republicans must do next. Williams, the departing state representative, likened the party to a flailing sports team that would need years of work before it could hope for a title shot. His fellow House Republican, Delta Rep. Matt Soper, said the party needed to embrace more libertarianism and capitalize on what he perceived as voters’ fiscal conservatism.
“From what I can tell by the way that voters behaved is we are a socially liberal state but a fiscally conservative state,” he said, “and as Republicans, that’s something we outta embrace just a little bit more.”
Sandra Hagen Solin, a longtime lobbyist with Capitol Solutions who represents business and law enforcement interests, said there needs to be a national rebranding. She, like most every political observer, had predicted more parity in the legislature.
The core of the Republican platform — a strong economy, an education system “that works for everyone” and public safety — is still strong and still resonates with most Coloradans, she said. But not as strongly as voters’ rejection of Trump-style politics.
“There needs to be a rebranding,” she said. “It’s not just a Colorado rebranding, but it’s a national conversation. But a rebranding can only be successful if there’s a receptivity to how Republicans are perceived.”
Naumann encouraged Republicans to focus on school choice and fiscal responsibility while working to find solutions. In the meantime, Republicans can still have a voice at the Capitol.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for Republicans to still play a role, even in the minority,” Naumann said. “There’s going to be a lot of legislators who want to say their bills are bipartisan.”
And while both the senate race and governor’s race were big losses, he noted that O’Dea ran about 5 percentage points ahead of the Republican nominee for governor, Heidi Ganahl. O’Dea distanced himself from the Trump movement, didn’t want to ban all abortion and supported codifying same-sex marriage. It wasn’t enough to overcome the perception of the party overall, but it shows “a beginning of a pathway to legitimacy again.”
Naumann declined to call Colorado purple — unaffiliated voters are neither red nor blue, after all — preferring to describe it as a state where people value its institutions and their independence, however they may define it.
“Neither side expected this type of a landslide toward Democrats,” he said. “It’s up to our party to seriously look within to see that this never happens again. Unfortunately, with the losses we’ve seen, this is going to be a multi-election project to rebuild, if we’re willing.”
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