Two of the four men bidding to be the Colorado Republican Party’s next chairman pitched their candidacies Monday night in Northglenn.
Ryan Call and Leondray Gholston told a crowd of nearly 100 grassroots conservatives and elected officials they each have what it takes to run the party and build the coalitions necessary to move Colorado back into the Republican column in next year’s presidential election.
They also talked about how the party should deal with “bad candidates” and gave their definitions of “RINO” — a pejorative term used in GOP circles meaning “Republican in Name Only” — at the freewheeling forum at O’Meara Ford, sponsored by the grassroots conservative R Block Party group. (A second forum sponsored by the group was set for Thursday night in Littleton, after The Colorado Statesman’s deadline.)
Republicans elect state party leaders at a central committee meeting on March 26 at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock. Two-term GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams unexpectedly dropped his bid for a third term earlier this month. Call and Gholston entered the race within days of Wadhams’ withdrawal.
Another announced candidate, state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, was unable to attend the forum at the last minute due to illness, but his presence was palpable if only because Call and Gholston spent much of the evening speaking out against positions Harvey has taken.
Portraying himself as a rock-ribbed conservative and something of an outsider, Harvey is going up against two candidates with strong ties to current GOP leadership — in addition to serving a term just ended as Denver County GOP chairman, Call has been legal counsel to the state party for five years, and Gholston was elected two years ago to a term as state party vice chairman. Both Call and Gholston sounded in agreement about broadening the appeal of the party for more moderate and independent-minded voters, in implicit contrast to Harvey’s promise to make the party more welcoming to Tea Party and more conservative activists.
Call and Gholston also stressed their experience with the ins-and-outs of the state party and the complex set of laws governing the operation. They both said they believe it’s the duty of a party chairman to support Republican nominees — again offering an apparent contrast to Harvey, who was one of the earliest backers of third-party gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo over GOP nominee Dan Maes in last year’s election.
The fourth state party chairman hopeful, one-time Michigan congressional candidate Barton Baron — who is running on a slate with a vice chairman and a secretary candidate — told organizers he was skipping the forum.
“They said that they wanted to take their campaign directly to the people, and I said, well, that’s fine,” deadpanned R Block Party organizer and forum moderator Lori Horn, eliciting guffaws and snickers from the crowd. “What do they think we are?” more than one Republican in the audience asked.
“The job of the state chairman, first and foremost, is to build the coalitions that are necessary to win elections,” Call said in his opening remarks. He said this can be daunting because Republicans “are a bunch of independent-minded conservatives and individualists,” and recalled his days organizing Republicans at the CU-Boulder campus — an uphill task, Call acknowledged — to make the point that he isn’t put off by long odds.
“Your next state chairman needs to have that fight in him and the willingness to be able to take that fight to the streets and every single voter,” Call said.
Gholston sounded the alarm on another battle that might be uphill — the 2012 election, when Colorado will be a crucial swing state whose nine electoral votes could determine who wins the presidency.
“What we’re up against this time is nothing other than the best campaigner I’ve ever seen,” Gholston said, terming President Barack Obama “a fabulous campaigner” intent on raising and spending more money than any candidate in history.
“In addition to raising the money and building the infrastructure and taking our principles, our party and our banner to people and places that have never, ever wanted to be Republican before,” Gholston said, “this state party chairman is going to have to fight back against — tooth and nail — the greatest campaigner ever, President Obama.”
He said it’s up to Colorado Republicans to defeat Obama. “We must deliver nine electoral votes to the Republican nominee, whoever that may be, in 2012. We all know that Colorado is the key to the western region. We’re fighting not just for our state, our districts, and our neighborhood. But right here is the battleground for our nation — whether we go on as a republic or whether we turn into something else.”
Both candidates appealed directly to the grassroots activists who have expressed frustration with a top-down approach by the state party.
“I believe the state party is simply there to be a resource for activists like us,” Gholston said.
Call got more specific, saying a difficulty with the state party has been that “it’s concentrated in the hands of the few.” He touted his proposed changes to the party’s bylaws to hand decisions that have been made by the chairman over to county leaders and the state executive committee, including appointments and the budget.
“The machinery, the operations of the party, has gotten itself away from the folks doing the hard work,” Call said, adding that his proposals will move “delegations of authority back out to where it really matters.”
The crowd perked up when Horn posed a more provocative question, asking the two candidates to define a RINO.
“I’m from Denver,” said Call, drawing cheers and laughter from the crowd. “Every time we find any Republican, we just give ’em a hug.”
Then he turned more serious and made a pitch for Republicans to embrace more voters.
“That’s the problem, in my opinion,” he said. “We have to recognize we share these core conservative values, but I believe that our party, because we hold up the value and worth of every individual, we need to make sure that in our party, in our tent, we’ve got room for some disagreement. And that’s OK.” He added, “What unites us is a whole lot more than what divides us. We win by building the coalition, and not by kicking out people we disagree with 20 percent of the time.”
“I hate that word, RINO, because I love Republicans,” Call concluded.
Gholston also drew laughter by rejecting the phrase.
“What is a RINO?” he asked. “I’ll tell you, I have difficulty with this one, because, if you hadn’t noticed, I’m black.” After the laughter died down, he continued: “The point is, I had to almost fist-fight for the right to be called and recognized as a Republican,” he said, and then added, “For the record, many of you know me, I’m a pretty nutty conservative, but I don’t think the whole world has to be.”
He said he did have a “litmus test” for real Republicans. “How many people love liberty, how many people believe in the Constitution, how many people are willing to fight for it?” After everyone in the room had a hand in the air, he concluded: “Congratulations, you’re a Republican — that’s my litmus test, those are the only Republicans I want.”
Horn’s next question was equally provocative.
“You have a bad candidate. It happens, right?” she said. “Here’s my question — now what?”
Gholston, who won an endorsement from Maes this week, sounded firm.
“Was the candidate duly elected by the Republican Party? If the answer is yes, you support the candidate,” he said to scattered applause. “It is difficult, but duty is duty,” he said, adding, “It was my duty to support our nominee for governor, and I did.”
Wadhams raised some Republican hackles last summer when he distanced himself from Maes, the political novice who upset former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis in the gubernatorial primary, and wound up cross-wise with others after he publicly clashed with Tancredo over his candidacy on the American Constitution Party ticket.
Call prefaced his answer by noting Republicans “have done a lousy job at candidate recruitment and development” and said he was committed to fielding better candidates by expanding the pool.
But he was as firm as Gholston about whether the party should support a nominee: “You owe a duty of loyalty to that candidate. Sometimes as chairman or party officers, you have to make tough decisions in terms of how we allocate resources, but we should never withhold moral support, we should never work to actively undermine the Republican Party’s nominee.”
In closing, Gholston painted a dire picture of the possible outcomes of the next election.
“Now we’re at a crucial juncture in this party,” he said. “We really do have a choice, not only in this party but in America. Where are we going to go? What are we going to become? Do we stay a constitutional, federal republic, or do we become something else? Do we keep elected officials or do we have de facto dictators? The Republican Party has to stand up for these things.”
One of the two announced candidates for vice chairman, Jefferson County GOP chairman Don Ytterberg, also addressed the crowd. (The other candidate, John Wagner, who managed the U.S. Senate campaign of Cleve Tidwell last year, is part of the ticket with Baron and skipped the forum.)
Ytterberg told the crowd he was offering his services to “see if I can offset some of the workload that’s put on the chair” and promised to work as a chief operating officer for the party. He said one of the problems he wants to correct is one he discovered running the county party during the last election cycle.
“Republicans don’t share information well enough between county parties, campaigns and the statewide Victory operation,” he said. “It seems to me that if we’re on the same team, we just oughta be able to work together without siloed operations.”
Before the party officer candidates spoke, conservative activist Lesley Hollywood, director of the Northern Colorado Tea Party, made an appeal for Republicans to show up at a rally at the state Capitol the next day to support Gov. Scott Walker in his showdown against unions in Wisconsin. After the forum, she shared her impressions with The Statesman.
“I’m personally glad to see Dick Wadhams step down,” she said. “Whether or not Dick Wadhams is to blame for things he’s been blamed for or he’s not to blame for those things, I don’t think he’s the right person for the job. With the grassroots as energetic and as powerful as they are here in Colorado on the conservative side, it’s important that we have someone in that state chair seat who can bridge the gap with the grassroots, and that definitely wasn’t Dick Wadhams.”
While she said she had some reservations about both Call and Gholston, she said she was “really excited” about the two candidates who had just spoken. “Both of them have some really excellent attributes, they both offer different things to the party, so that’s going to make it difficult.”
Her reservations are stronger about the other prominent candidate, she said.
“As far as Sen. Harvey, I’m a little more reserved about him personally. I haven’t really seen him interject himself into the grassroots the way these two have.” But she added that her primary concern was more one of tone.
“He’s known at the Capitol and he’s known in his position as state senator as being a political hit-man — he has no problem talking about that,” Hollywood said. “I’m not really sure a political hit-man is the right person for the job as state party chair when it’s really the local groups that should be dictating what should be happening in their own local communities.”
The Tea Party and similar conservative groups are here to stay and they’re serious about influencing the direction of the Republican Party in Colorado, she concluded.
“People on the outside, like these guys in here,” she said, gesturing to the state party candidates and a handful of elected officials, “have started to see that if they don’t embrace us, they’re going to be gone, they’re going to be irrelevant.”