Today’s Republican primary will clarify much about Colorado’s political landscape. In past elections, the ideological divide within the state GOP has largely been contested via state legislative races, albeit with a few notable exceptions, (See Darryl Glenn & Dan Maes.).

This year the statewide races for U.S. Senate, Governor and Secretary of State will rightly dominate the coverage, but that doesn’t make the legislative arena any less important. 

As with the statewide offices, most of the interesting primaries (with one notable exception) are happening within the Republican party and as usual, the intra-party divide is coming down to two issues: abortion and guns. For those last-minute voters still waiting to cast their ballots, last Friday’s landmark ruling overturning Roe v. Wade very well may have pushed abortion to the top of the issue list, but for much of the primary campaign, Second Amendment rights have topped numerous primary mailers and stump speeches. 

Two familiar groups are serving as proxies for the more moderate and more extreme positions on gun rights: the National Rifle Association’s state affiliate, the Colorado State Shooting Association (CSSA) and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO), respectively. Across eight state legislative primaries this evening (seven house and one senate seat) GOP voters will choose between a NRA/CSSA-endorsed candidate and one preferred by RMGO

RMGO’s endorsements have proven significant in the past. The far-right group founded by Dudley Brown and now run by Taylor Rhodes has a knack for relentless attacking opponents during primary races, often knocking out conservative candidates who are nonetheless palatable to a November electorate in favor of gun rights zealots who inevitably lose to Democrats in the general election. RMGO has been employing this strategy for nearly three decades. While it is indeed damaging to the Republican party, the tactics allow RMGO to raise gobs of fearmongered cash and install a loyal band of legislators who push the group’s extremist positions at the Capitol. 

As the Republican party veered rightward under Trump, both nationally and here in Colorado, RMGO’s scorched earth tactics left it with a majority of the minority in the House, leading to the installation of Patrick Neville as House minority leader. Following four years of overwhelming losses attributable at least in part to Neville funneling donor dollars into his brother’s consulting firm, Neville was ousted in favor of Hugh McKean. 

Today McKean finds himself squarely in RMGO’s sights, with Austin Hein an employee of RMGO’s national entity, the National Association of Gun Rights (NAGR), using RMGO’s classic playbook to attack McKean from the right as soft on guns. In this solidly red district, the Republican primary will likely determine the leader. 

Calling a Republican soft on guns is so effective with GOP base voters RMGO can spend pennies on the dollar, and no race proves this more than McKean’s. As reported by Colorado Politics’ Marianne Goodland, outside groups have poured a staggering $460,000 into the district, all but $20,000 or so in support of McKean (or opposing Hein). With a 20-1 spending advantage, McKean may very well keep his seat, but that’s a whole lot of campaign cash that could have been invested elsewhere. 

Here’s a look at some of the other GOP primaries featuring an NRA vs. RMGO showdown:

HD14: This dead-red Colorado Springs seat is open following Rep. Shane Sandridge’s decision not to run for reelection. Former Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, a one-time establishment GOP rising star who was expected to run for Secretary of State, is facing off against political newcomer Joe Woyte. RMGO rejects Pugliese for her support of background checks and taxes on firearm purchases, calling her, “yet another establishment RINO that sees an open House seat as a ticket to influence.” Meanwhile the NRA says Pugliese is “a proven fighter and liberty defender. She has a proven record here in Colorado and would be a great addition to the pro-gun caucus.”

HD18: A rare competitive district where RMGO’s influence may once again help a Democrat, in this case Rep. Marc Snyder, keep a seat. The NRA’s endorsement of Shana Black praises her understanding “that the Second Amendment is not just about hunting deer in kevlar vests but is about personal defense and the protection of all individual rights.” Meanwhile, RMGO prefers Summer Graubner, calling her “a community-driven mother that has decided to foray into the political battlefield,” while noting that Black refused to return the group’s questionnaire. 

HD21: Another deep red El Paso County district that features an NRA-endorsed incumbent, Rep. Mary Bradfield. Her “A” rating with the NRA didn’t stop RMGO from endorsing her challenger, Karl Dent, who was previously running for Sheriff until his felony conviction forced him to switch to a race with more lenient candidate requirements. 

HD25: This competitive Jefferson County seat pits Rep. Colin Larson against conspiracist activist Mary “Dede” Wagner. Larson’s moderate voting record made him a hard pass for RMGO, which endorsed Wagner, weighing her 100% questionnaire score more favorably than her public support of the QAnon conspiracy. The Wagner campaign declined to produce a copy of the RMGO questionnaire, but noted that it was 15-20 questions long, and offered the following statement on her Second Amendment position:

“When seconds count, the police are minutes away,” said Wagner’s spokesperson. “Every citizen has a right to defend self, family, and others. The police rarely stop a gun crime in progress and arrive after the fact to clean up the mess and put on toe tags.

“Criminals don’t obey gun laws or respect gun-free zones. Both only enable easy opportunities to do evil by the crazies.

“Schools need to be hardened with a single point of entry, have an armed resource officer, and armed teachers who, optionally, want to be certified and trained.

“The Red Flag Law is a major offense to the 2A, due process, and the right to face one’s accusers and subject to all sorts of abuse. It is most likely grossly unconstitutional.”

Mary Dede Wagner campaign spokesman, via email.

The NRA is sticking with Larson, who earned an “A” rating from the group and is much more likely to be able to give his Democratic colleague Rep. Tammy Story a run for her money in the general election.

HD45: Rep. Patrick Neville’s former district has new boundaries following redistricting but it’s still very conservative. The GOP primary features two rookie politicians: Bill Jack and Lisa Frizell. Neville and RMGO have both endorsed Jack, who scored 100% on RMGO’s questionnaire. The NRA picks Frizell, whom it calls “an honest leader committed to preserving our right to keep and bear arms.”

SD9: The only NRA vs. RMGO Republican primary race in the statehouse’s upper chamber features incumbent Sen. Paul Lundeen, who serves as the caucus’ minority whip, against newcomer Lynda Zamora Wilson, a USAF veteran and Big Lie conspiracist who bested Lundeen at assembly to take top line on the ballot. RMGO calls Wilson “blunt on her position regarding guns: ownership is a right. She is a proponent of Constitutional carry, and she is against any unconstitutional gun control legislation, including magazine bans, Red Flag Laws, and safe storage requirements.” Lundeen, who in 2019 argued on the radio in favor of private ownership of bazookas, still couldn’t earn RMGO’s endorsement. The NRA, however, praises Lundeen, saying “he not only votes the right way but he fights for other pro-gun leaders to be elected to defend the Second Amendment.”