If you’ve paid attention to the undoing of the Colorado Republican Party, you might wonder how much more could be undone.
More. Much more, if party leaders succeed in eliminating the open primary election.
After the party suffered a drubbing at the polls in November, largely due to the persistence of MAGA forces in its ranks, it had an opportunity to shed the toxic tendencies so many voters found repellent. Instead, the party chose an election-denying, conspiracy-purveying new leader, and now one of its priorities is the elimination of the open primary — a move that if successful would make a party that’s already irrelevant even more inconsequential.
In 2016, Colorado voters passed Proposition 108, which established a system whereby unaffiliated voters could participate in one or the other major party primary election. This made the election “open,” as opposed to the previous system, in which only voters affiliated with a party could vote in the party’s primary.
If the goal were to win elections, the leader of the state Republican party would woo unaffiliated voters. Republicans are steadily losing electorate market share in Colorado — in the 2014 election there were 24,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats, but by last November the party’s share of voters had dropped 6.6 percentage points, and they fell way behind Democrats.
Meanwhile, both parties have lost ground to the independent ranks so fast that almost half of Colorado voters now shun the parties. As of this month, 24% of Colorado voters are Republicans, 28% are Democrats and 48% are unaffiliated.
Simple math demands outreach to unaffiliated voters, but the state GOP by some alien arithmetic prefers to banish them. In March 2022, a group of Republicans sued Secretary of State Jena Griswold in an attempt to invalidate Proposition 108 as unconstitutional. One of their lawyers was John Eastman, the attorney who advised former President Donald Trump on how to overturn his 2020 election defeat. The case was dismissed.
But when former state Rep. Dave Williams, who says Trump won in 2020, was elected the new chair of Colorado Republicans he promised another lawsuit to close the primary. Now party members, led by former state Rep. Kevin Lundberg, are raising money to that end, and they want the disgraced attorney Eastman on their team again, even though Eastman is facing disbarment in California for his participation in Trump’s attempted coup. They say they need at least $25,000 to fund the effort, and by last count they’re up to $16,500. If the party sues, and they’re successful in overturning the open primary statute, it applies to everyone — Democrats, Republicans and all.
It’s a great way for a reviled party to beget even more disfavor.
But the party is also pursuing a parallel track to avoid an open primary. Proposition 108 came with an opt-out clause that can be invoked if three-fourths of the state party’s central committee votes instead to use an assembly or convention nominating process. Seventy-five percent is a high bar to overcome, but party leaders want to go for it, and they’re scheming to claim every advantage. What’s most astonishing is the reality-challenged plan they hope to implement if they prevail.
The plan is outlined in a draft brochure that was obtained by Newsline. According to this draft, Republican nominees for non-presidential offices would be selected through a caucus and assembly process. No candidate would be allowed to petition on to the ballot.
Instead of appearing on a primary ballot, candidates who make it through the party’s state assembly would advance five weeks later to a new round of voting, conducted by county parties, called an assembly of the whole. Any Republican who was qualified to vote at caucus would be eligible to vote in this round. Ballots would be hand counted. The candidate in each race with the most votes would appear on the general election ballot in November.
Some other points: “NO machines,” the plan specifies, in line with an election-denier priority, except absentee and overseas military ballots would be handled through email — you know, over the world wide web machine.
And the draft says the cost of the process would be “minimal,” largely because the election “will be conducted using volunteers.” This is fantasy. The system as described in the brochure would appear to require many hundreds of volunteers throughout the state.
The ultimate effect of the plan would be to further isolate the party and produce general election Republican candidates who are more extreme and unelectable. Dick Wadhams, former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, called efforts to cancel the 2024 Republican primary “political suicide.”
“Colorado Republican ‘leadership’ continues to drive the party toward political impotence and irrelevance with its obsession to ban unaffiliated voters from voting in so-called ‘open primary’ elections,” Wadhams wrote in a Colorado Springs Gazette column.
This all might sound like a Republican problem. But it’s a Colorado problem.
The push for a closed nominating process is part of the anti-democratic, minoritarian, conspiracy-touting style that has come to dominate the MAGA-era Republican Party. They’re the same traits that have inflicted bottomless bad faith at the U.S. Supreme Court, vile extremes of gerrymandering in red states, voter suppression campaigns throughout the country, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Sickness can infect the healthy.
The nominating process is supposed to produce candidates who are viable leaders for all constituents of the office for which they’re running. But far from expanding their engagement with Coloradans and fostering support with superior positions, Colorado Republicans are responding to voters who reject them by rejecting the voters.
In opting out of the open primary, they’ll opt out of mattering.
This article initially appeared in Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: [email protected]. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.