With a crucial vote coming before the Colorado Republican Party’s state central committee next month on whether to continue allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in Republican primary elections, recent voting records of that governing body indicate that grassroots Republicans hold power over establishment members, and could indicate that the state GOP will opt out of open primary elections.
Three different votes on issues before the state central committee in the past year indicate that, with the current composition of the 518-member committee, grassroots-affiliated members could prevail in their campaign to have the GOP opt-out of open primaries and, instead, select their nominees for federal and state races through systems of caucus, convention, or assembly in which only Republicans can participate.
First, last summer, the state central committee elected Randy Corporon — a Tea Party leader, conspiracist attorney, talk radio host, and Trump supporter — to the position of National Committeeman for the state of Colorado.
Corporon cites this win over Eli Bremer, an establishment Republican who recently announced his campaign to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), as proof that the grassroots-affiliated central committee members hold sway with their numbers.
“When I was elected Republican National Committeeman with more votes than the next two establishment candidates, Bill Cadman and Eli Bremer,” said Corporon on his Saturday morning conservative talk radio show on KNUS, “that’s the Republican Central Committee. That’s those delegates voting. And so we know that the people who actually take the time to donate their time to the Republican Party and be a part of this structure are the conservatives that want to see a fighting Republican Party.”
Then, this spring, the Colorado GOP state central committee voted to install Kristi Burton Brown as Chairwoman of the party over her establishment rival, former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Burton Brown cut her teeth in politics as a teenaged grassroots activist organizing for Colorado’s first Personhood Amendment, an anti-abortion referendum that failed in 2008. Similar versions of Personhood subsequently failed again, twice, in 2010 and 2012.
She served as Vice chair of the CO GOP under Chairman U.S. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) in the previous executive administration which won support from grassroots activists after Susan Beckman was defeated for the chairmanship.
Burton Brown’s honeymoon with the grassroots faction is challenged now with her recent statements indicating a reversal on challenging Colorado’s liberal abortion laws, and for standing with establishment types at gas station press conference to introduce the milquetoast, conciliatory, poll-tested “Colorado Commitment.”
Gessler, as an establishment Republican, was seen by grassroots activists as being squishy on his support for Trump. He was saddled with a negative association to Colorado’s all mail-ballot elections and election reform laws, the implementation of which he oversaw as Secretary of State. As an election law attorney, he also carried the stigma of working as a consultant, which grassroots Republicans blame for sucking money from campaigns while losing elections.
Finally, in an atypical twist of tradition, the GOP state central committee overturned an executive committee determination which called for a re-do on El Paso County GOP executive officer elections. Grassroots leader Corporon voted for a new election as an executive committee member, then reversed his stance in the central committee vote.
By a margin of 206 to 177, the process and results of the county election were allowed to stand. Grassroots committee members cheered the decision.
“It’s the division between the current grassroots leadership and the old establishment leadership,” said Corporon. “It’s been a constant battle down there to unseat [EPC Chair] Vickie Tonkins. And more importantly, as I said during the [central committee] meeting, absent some clear evidence of fraud or criminality, the state party should not interfere in these county elections.”
Despite these precedent votes favoring grassroots positions on issues before the central committee, a significant challenge remains for proponents of the opt-out. While most measures require a simple majority of votes to pass, opting out of primaries requires 75% affirmation among the 518 committee members according Proposition 108, the open primary referendum passed by voters in 2016.
Chuck Bonniwell, a leader in the lobbying effort to achieve that 75% threshold, explained that requirement during a recent appearance on a KNUS radio program.
“So they said, ‘Oh, we’ll be really tricky and … we’ll make it almost impossible.’ … You have to have 75% of all the [GOP Central Committee] membership [in order to opt out],” said Bonniwell. “So, if you don’t show up or don’t vote, that constitutes a ‘no’ [vote]. So, we’ve got to get 75% to say ‘yes’ at the September 18th meeting. And obviously we’re threatening [to reach] that [threshold] or they would not have pulled out Jon Caldara and the Independence Institute and all the rest of them to attack us. It means we’re really making a difference.
With these parameters, the success of Bonniwell’s effort is far from certain, but he projects optimism in his statement nonetheless.
Grassroots activists in the Colorado GOP — referred to as “crazies” by some establishment GOP types — believe that open primary elections in 2018 and 2020 have produced Republican nominees who are too moderate to win in general elections, while weakening the Republican brand by employing poll-tested messaging, compromising with Democrats, and abandoning Republican values and principles. They also contend that moderate Republicans are ineffective in opposing the legislative majorities and the executive branch monopoly held by Democrats in Colorado.
Establishment Republicans — considered to be more moderate and labeled as RINOs (Republican In Name Only) and SWINOs (Swamp Creature RINOs) by their GOP rivals — generally believe that engaging with and appealing to unaffiliated voters with some policy compromises and attractive candidates will lead the state GOP back to political relevance.
They try to steer the party away from the divisive extremist positions, conspiracy messaging, and antagonistic scorched-earth strategies favored by Tea Party activists, QAnon adherents, and Trump loyalists of the GOP’s grassroots faction.
Proponents of the open primary opt-out have lobbied committee members across the state throughout the summer and have broadcast their enthusiasm and optimism for successfully opting out of open primaries over their talk-radio airwaves and elsewhere. Opponents have published op-eds in online and print media outlets, trying to rally support for keeping open primaries.