Douglas County Republican commissioners Abe Laydon, George Teal, and Lora Thomas have spent the last two years embroiled in a series of public infighting spats that have led to censures against Thomas and a lawsuit against Laydon and Teal.

Priscilla Rhan, courtesy of Priscilla Rahn for DougCo

But with Thomas term-limited, the battle to fill her seat in 2024 may prove just as contentious. So far a trio of conservatives have declared for Thomas’ seat. Former Colorado Republican Party Vice Chair Priscilla Rahn was the first to announce. She resigned her party leadership role in June, just months after winning reelection to pursue the county office.

She will face Kevin Van Winkle, the current Colorado state Senator representing Highlands Ranch who announced less than a year after winning his first four-year term in the state senate, and John Carson, a former Douglas County school board member and University of Colorado Regent, for the District 3 seat, who just recently declared his candidacy. 

CO senator Kevin Van Winkle, courtesy of Facebook

Douglas County has long been a Republican stronghold in a state where the party has seen its power dwindle in the last several elections. Democrats have controlled the Governor’s office, the House, and the Senate since 2018.

Yet, Douglas County’s commissioners have been universally Republican since at least the early 2000’s. For Van Winkle, who would likely resign from the Legislature should he win, serving as commissioner is a higher-paying gig than state senator at $125,913 vs. $41,449 annually.

Both Rahn and Van Winkle are staunch pro-life conservatives and defenders of the Second Amendment. Rahn shows herself firing a gun at a shooting range in a campaign video and says she wants to make Douglas County a leader in preventing school violence.

Rahn is endorsed by Douglas County Sheriff Darrin Weekly, who appeared on Jimmy Graham’s podcast saying he supports arming teachers and staff who’ve had active shooter training. Graham, the owner of Able Shepherd, a company that provides mass shooter training to churches and schools, organized a protest at the Douglas County PrideFest earlier this year, causing many county sheriff’s departments to cut ties, including Douglas County.

In his 2022 bid for state senator, Van Winkle earned the endorsement of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners Super PAC (RMGO PAC), Colorado’s largest state-based gun lobby.

“Kevin loves the Second Amendment and has demonstrated it through his voting record…RMGO is endorsing him because of his refusal to support unconstitutional gun control legislation, which is even more important than ever. As our rights are threatened, we need strong leaders like Kevin Van Winkle speaking up on our behalf under the Golden Dome.”

John Carson at the Castle Rock and Sedalia Republican Breakfast Nov. 17, 2023

Carson’s website lists enhancement of school safety and security and support for law enforcement as reasons to vote for him.

Rahn, a long-time public school teacher, previously lost a pair of bids for prominent educational roles: a 2020 run for University of Colorado regent and earlier this year she was a finalist to become Elizabeth school board superintendent. She supports the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action and believes equity is only appropriate in schools when supporting students with learning, emotional or physical differences.

With all three candidates having solidly conservative resumes, the primary fight will likely be a race to the right. Van Winkle is framing himself as the “grassroots” candidate, declaring his campaign to be a fight against “big-government leftists in BOTH parties.”

Rahn sports endorsements from more moderate or “establishment” Republicans like current commissioner Abe Leyden and talk show host George Brauchler, but she also was the only GOP leader from Kristi Burton Brown’s term to win reelection by the party faithful alongside far-right darling Dave Williams.

In 2021, the Colorado Times Recorder reported that Rahn gave a speech titled “Unpacking CRT” to FEC United, a far-right election conspiracy group with an affiliated militia, the United American Defense Force. Rahn has also been a vocal opponent of Critical Race Theory, equating this curriculum with Marxism and accusing universities of not creating safe spaces for conservative thought. 

Rahn also attacked Gov. Jared Polis’s (D-CO) support of Disney after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to revoke the company’s special tax status over its “don’t say gay” bill. In an X post, Rahn wrote, “You’ll target and destroy CO SMALL businesses and support the sexual grooming of 5-8 year olds.”

Van Winkle denies Trump lost the 2020 election. He signed a “Standing for Trump” petition stating that the “establishment media and deep state refuse to acknowledge the growing evidence of election fraud uncovered by the Trump Campaign and other independent investigators.”

According to his website, voter fraud remains a top issue. Van Winkle states, “Voter fraud undermines free and fair elections and must be stopped.”

He also supported a bill that would prohibit the government from forcing “speech, an artistic act, or a religious act” that would violate that person’s religious belief. Conservatives often use this argument to claim it’s not discrimination or harassment to refuse to refer to transgender youth by their preferred pronouns.

Carson announced his run for county commissioner at a Castle Rock and Sedalia Republican breakfast meeting earlier this month, saying he hoped to bring an experienced conservative voice to the office, according to a newsletter about county government sent by Thomas. As Douglas County school board president, Carson belonged to what is known as the “reform board” from 2009 to 2013.

Carson led the movement to create a voucher program that was later struck down by the Colorado District Court. He also began the pay-for-performance program and ended the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the teacher’s union.

Carson served as Colorado University Regent from 2015 to 2021, where he says he “oversaw multi-billion-dollar university budget and four university campuses in Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and the Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora serving 60,000 students.”

Rahn and Van Winkle have begun fundraising, with Rahn collecting $81,886 in donations to Van Winkle’s $30,682 (Van Winkle announced his candidacy in September). Carson, who filed his intent to run for Douglas County commissioner in District 3 on November 17 has yet to raise any money.

Candidates for county commissioner have until March 5, 2024, to be placed on the primary election ballot. The Republican primary will be on June 25, 2024.

Requests for comment from Rahn, Van Winkle and Carson had not been return at the time this article was published.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article listed incorrect dates for the candidate deadline and GOP primary.

Reporter Erik Maulbetsch contributed to this article.