The four candidates for Colorado Republican Party chairman agreed that if a GOP candidate needs a lecture, it ought to be done out of public view — but that’s about the only topic that found all of them taking the same position at a forum on Feb. 24 at the Bemis Public Library in Littleton.
Whether it was the prospect of turning municipal elections partisan, if there’s such a thing as a RINO (“Republican in Name Only”), or even whether the chairman position should be paid, at least one of the four staked out a contrary position, sometimes sharply at odds with his fellow candidates.
The forum, attended by more than 100 Republicans, was organized by the conservative group R Block Party, and featured chairman candidates Matt Arnold, head of the Clear the Bench campaign aimed at Supreme Court justices in the last election; Ryan Call, the state party’s legal counsel for five years and until recently chairman of the Denver County Republicans; state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, who claims the endorsement of a majority of Republican legislators and a number of last year’s statewide candidates; and current state Vice Chairman Leondray Gholston, who works as a defense contractor in Aurora and laments that he isn’t represented by a single Republican, from state legislator on up. A fifth candidate, recent Michigan transplant Barton Baron, who is running on a ticket with a vice chairman and secretary candidate, skipped the forum.
State Republicans will pick new leadership on March 26 at the biennial state central committee meeting at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock. GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams announced last month he was dropping his bid for a third term. In his letter to state Republicans, Wadhams said he was “tired of those who are obsessed with seeing conspiracies around every corner and who have terribly misguided notions of what the role of the state party is,” and warned against the notion that simply “uniting conservatives” is the path to victory in Colorado.
An audience member at the Littleton forum stated bluntly, “I didn’t like Dick,” and went on to suggest that some of the candidates have been accused of “being his voice.” He then asked, “How are you different than Mr. Wadhams?”
Gholston, who has made a point of saying he isn’t distancing himself from the Wadhams regime, nonetheless said he comes at the party from a different perspective. “I have more of a grassroots background,” he said. “I think Dick takes a top-down approach, I’m a bottom-up kind of guy.”
“I’m Ted Harvey,” Harvey said to cheers and laughter. After a beat, he continued: “If you recall, I’m the one that ran against Dick. There’s not one other person up here who took the leadership to run for this seat when we knew there was a problem that had to be changed.”
Call allowed that he’s worked closely with Wadhams over the last four years but pointed out he has worked equally with county parties and candidates, and added that he’s been “fighting conservative battles” since his school days at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he headed the College Republicans. “I will do things very, very differently than our current chairman,” Call said.
“I’m much better looking,” began Arnold, with one of many quips he sprinkled throughout the discussion. But then he turned serious. Contrary to Harvey’s assertion, Arnold said, he’d been exploring a candidacy since before Wadhams withdrew, and the timing of his announcement was “dictated by stategery” (repeated use of the Saturday Night Live-inspired malapropism was another of Arnold’s trademarks). Then he turned more serious still: “Unlike Dick Wadhams, I will not actively sabotage the fundraising efforts of any candidate or cause that is out there promoting Republican principles.”
Asked by forum moderator Lori Horn to “define a RINO,” three of the candidates said they plan to retire the term if they win the party election, but the fourth made a case for it.
“I really do hate this term,” Gholston said. “I fight for the right to be called Republican — I’m the only one in my whole family … I’m not willing to take that right away from anybody.”
“We have to unite around the principles that make our party great, we cannot be pointing fingers at each other,” Harvey said. “Right now our party is divided worse than I’ve ever seen it, ever, in the 20-some-odd years I’ve been involved in politics.” He added that Republicans ought to be united trying to beat Democrats and not waste energy squabbling with each other.
Noting that his years as a Denver Republican have taught him that not all Republicans are going to agree about everything, Call asked the audience to toss out the purity tests. “We cannot afford to be pointing fingers at each other and drawing lines,” he said. “If you want to identify yourself as a Republican, you’re going to find a welcoming place in the party. It’s critically important that we tone down that divisive rhetoric.”
Arnold begged to differ.
“There are RINOs,” he said, riffing off a comment made by Gholston. “They’re not just endangered species.” He said the party ought to be concerned about “putting someone in office who will advance our principles” and not work to elect just anyone “with an R behind their names.” As an example, he said, the Coca Cola Company spends plenty on quality control “to ensure that when you buy a coke and pop open a can that what you’re getting is Coke. Our brand is important.”
Arnold painted perhaps the most vivid portrait of the problems he sees with the Republican Party under Wadhams later in the discussion. Calling last year’s mixed results at the ballot box “a horrible opportunity lost,” he evoked his earlier comments about the Coca Cola Company maintaining quality control over the brand.
“We must be able to reestablish the trust that the Republican brand actually stands for something,” he said. “And when you pop open that Coke, you’re going to get a Coke, not a rat head. We’ve had too many rats’ heads in our Coke bottles.”
Earlier, several of the candidates called for Republicans to stop attacking each other over perennially divisive issues, including Referendum C and the abortion debate.
“The stakes are just too high in this upcoming election for us to remain divided,” Call said. “The job of the party chairman is to create an open and a welcoming party. We need to stand for liberty, for limited government, but we have to recognize within our party there is room for honest disagreement on legislative policy.”
Looking exasperated, Call continued: “Within our party, you are still a good Republican if you believe the right to choose is a decision to be made between a woman, her doctor, her conscience and her God. It’s OK if you believe that sometimes, as a Republican, you can vote to keep extra revenue for your school district.” The party chair should focus on what unites Republicans, Call said, not on what divides them.
Gholston took up the same theme, calling himself a “nutty, right-wing conservative” but stressing that he doesn’t believe everyone in the world needs to share his views. “News flash!” he said. “We can’t do anything about abortion, we can’t do anything about it anyway. The council of nine has already ruled. So it does us no good to go butting our heads up and beating each other up year after year after year. I’ve established I’m a right-winger, but I’m so sick of that nonsense, I’m so sick of it.”
Republicans have been purifying themselves out of office, Gholston suggested. “The simple fact is, without majorities, we can’t even begin to address all the other issues that are going on right now.”
Branding himself a “Constitutional conservative,” Arnold said that fealty to the U.S. Constitution was his only litmus test. “There’s no compromise in that,” he said and then warned against getting distracted by wedge issues Democrats could exploit to turn Republican against Republican.
“There are areas where we’re going to have some disagreement — we’re not cookie-cutters, we’re not Democrats, we’re not Communists, we don’t have a Politburo deciding our policy.”
Harvey acknowledged that not every GOP candidate in the state can be as strictly conservative as Douglas County Republicans.
“As state chair, my goal is to make sure everybody is on the same page, going the same direction, to elect Republicans. Whether they are pro-choice Republicans in a moderate district or hard-core Republicans,” he said, party leadership needs to talk “about what we are for, not what we are against.”