The nation’s first Latina governor told Colorado Republicans to stick to their guns but not to be too tied to traditional labels in the next election at a fundraising dinner on March 25 in Lone Tree.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said serious talk about issues, not the usual partisan rhetoric, is what Republicans need in her speech on the eve of a GOP central committee meeting to pick a successor to Dick Wadhams, who has helmed the state party since 2007.
Using her 2010 win as an example, Martinez said frank talk about budgets, crime and illegal immigration can sway voters otherwise inclined to vote for Democrats, including the burgeoning Hispanic population in Colorado and other southwestern states. Republican candidates need to do a better job reaching out to groups they sometimes write off, Martinez told a gathering of about 400 Republicans at the state party’s fourth-annual Centennial Dinner held at the Marriott South.
“You may not get them to switch parties, you may not get them to completely vote for all Republicans,” said Martinez. “What you do is you talk to them about the issues that are important to them, as they are to most American families, and you ask them to consider the candidate, not the party. And that’s how they start to vote and cross party lines, for the best candidate.”
The New Mexico governor — a rising GOP star mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate in the 2012 elections — was only one of the draws for the fourth-annual fundraiser. There was also the chance to meet state party officer candidates the night before the reorganizational vote the next morning. There was a humorous and emotional video bidding farewell to outgoing, two-term chairman Wadhams that featured three former Colorado senators and the former governor he helped elect. And there was a presidential straw poll — the first officially sanctioned ranking of strength in Colorado, a key swing state, from among a field of possible Republican presidential contenders that has left even some party stalwarts scratching their heads.
Ticket prices for the dinner ranged from $50 up to $1,500 for a package that included a private meeting with Martinez.
Party officials trumpeted historic wins in the 2010 election, knocking out two statewide Democratic incumbents and two members of Congress while retaking the Colorado House by a single-member margin. But the party is still bruised over losing the top two races on last year’s ballot: Senate nominee Ken Buck went down in a close race to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed to the seat two years ago. And Republicans split alle- giances between rookie gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes and a third-party challenge by former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, handing the governor’s race to Democrat John Hickenlooper.
Before Martinez delivered her speech, top Republican elected officials trooped across the stage to tout the 2010 wins and bash Democrats.
Claiming the highest statewide vote total in Colorado history — including wins in 54 of 64 counties — Attorney General John Suthers said Democrats miscalculated by making their campaign against him a referendum on his lawsuit challenging federal health care reform.
“The vast majority of people understand if the federal government can make you buy health insurance under the Commerce Clause, they can make you buy fuel-efficient cars, they can make you buy solar panels, they can make you buy anything they think is good for you. That’s why this case is so important,” he said.
The lawsuit Suthers joined with attorneys general from other states should land in the Supreme Court next summer, he predicted. “It will be close, but it’s the most important constitutional issue, I believe, that’s gone before the United States Supreme Court in 40 or 50 years and I greatly appreciate the support I got from you, as hard-core Republicans, when the Democrats came after me in this last election.”
Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who defeated incumbent Democrat Bernie Buescher in last fall’s election, warned Republicans against allowing Colorado to go the way of Rust Belt states.
Gessler told the crowd that both sides of his family hailed from Detroit and that his father came of age when the Motor City was in its heyday, “one of the most dynamic cities the world had ever seen.” Recent census figures, however, show the once-mighty Detroit has lost population and slipped in the rankings of America’s most populous cities.
“Every few years we talk about the decline of America,” Gessler said, comparing the country’s slide to the fall of Rome and the decline of the British Empire. Pointing to Detroit, he blamed Democrats. “I look at Detroit with sadness and a little bit of anger, and I blame modern day liberalism, or progressivism, or socialism-lite — whatever you want to call it — for really sort of ruining one of the great industrial centers of this country. It was choked off by greedy unions, protected corporate-welfare state, a government that burdened and taxed companies,” he said.
Detroit’s decades-long decline, however, doesn’t seal the fate of the rest of the country, Gessler said.
“Here in Colorado we’re still dynamic, we’re still entrepreneurial, but I’m here to say one thing. And that is, we have a choice: we can be a Michigan or an Illinois or a California, or we can be dynamic and grow and have opportunity,” he said. “There are definitely those who oppose us. It’s no surprise in my view they come from the other party, the one that presided over the decline of America’s great industrial centers.”
In Colorado, Gessler said, Republicans “arrested the slide” by taking control of “one half of one third” of the branches of state government, but the party has a challenging road ahead to keep Democrats from ruining the state.
State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who unseated one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars when he ousted incumbent Cary Kennedy, delivered the next rallying cry.
“We’ve got a great opportunity tomorrow to rebuild ourselves as a party, to start anew, and — whatever the results of the state chair race — we will come together, we will unite, and we will deliver Colorado’s nine electoral votes for a Republican president,” he said. He promised Republicans he was safeguarding the state’s money every day and would work to fix what he called a broken state pension system.
As state Rep. Robert Ramirez — the Arvada Republican whose 197-vote win handed control of the House to the GOP — sat beaming at a table with Martinez and other dignitaries, Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, thanked fellow Republicans for helping hand him the gavel.
“Ladies and gentlemen, anyone who tells you that 2010 was not a good year in Colorado for Republicans is dead wrong,” he said and then enumerated the party’s gains. After asking GOP House candidates — winners and losers — to stand, McNulty continued: “I am so honored to serve with these men and women, so honored to serve with those 32 other Republicans, who are standing in the gap to save our state.”
The five state party chair candidates each addressed the crowd for a few minutes. The crowd’s reactions foretold the next day’s vote, as state GOP legal counsel and former Denver County Republican Party chairman Ryan Call — who won a first-ballot victory the next day in Castle Rock — received the loudest and most enthusiastic applause. At the other end of the spectrum, Clear the Bench Colorado organizer Matt Arnold’s warnings about damages to the Republican brand drew a stony silence from the crowd of activists, donors and elected officials.
Years ago, after growing up just assuming she was a Democrat, New Mexico’s Martinez said was planning a run for district attorney as a Democrat until she and her husband met with some Republican friends and decided she belonged, instead, to the other party. After serving 14 years as Doña Ana County’s chief prosecutor, Martinez challenged Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish in the governor’s race last year and won with a 7-point margin in a state where Democrats hold a strong advantage in party registration over Republicans.
She said she and her husband thought long and hard before switching parties because Republicans just didn’t win in her corner of the state. She thought equally long and hard about running for governor when she had almost no statewide name identification and faced an uphill battle against the Democratic machine. But by talking straight to voters — in grocery stores and beauty parlors, everywhere she could find them — Martinez said she surpassed a life-long dream by winning the highest office in the state. (As a youngster, she said, she thought one day she might be elected mayor.)
“The way I won my election was by having an honest and sincere conversation with those who vote,” she said. But then she added a warning: “Republicans won many elections across the country by making commitments to voters on all sorts of issues. And the quickest way for us to give back everything we’ve won is to break those commitments,” she said.
Turning to the debate over immigration, Martinez said her solution relies on her years as a prosecutor. “I am targeting my focus as governor on illegal immigrants who come to New Mexico to commit criminal acts,” she said. The debate needn’t be so divisive, she said, adding, “There’s a difference between illegal immigration and legal immigration, and we strongly support legal immigration, because that’s what our country was built on.”
As with immigration, Martinez said, decisions on other state issues often come down to a simple, common-sense approach that doesn’t get mired in partisan and ideological labels.
“To build our party is not about token gestures or hollow stunts,” she said. “It’s not about having just the rhetoric — we have to get rid of the rhetoric, we have to dig deep and talk about issues in a meaningful way to convince people to vote for Republicans. You may not ever get them to change their party but you can get them to vote for Republicans. As a Hispanic raised in a conservative family, a Catholic family, I was a Republican, but nobody bothered to have that conversation with me.”
After a standing ovation for Martinez, party officials announced the results of the presidential straw poll.
“We thought it would be fun tonight with this crowd of prominent Republican leaders from all parts of our state to have a poll,” Wadhams said before sending ballot-collectors into the crowd.
The poll was open-ended — a slip of paper with a blank where Republicans could write in any candidate’s name — and left a few voters at a loss. “Who’s even running?” asked one Republican as ballot-collectors neared.
Unsurprisingly, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — who won the 2008 Colorado caucuses with 59 percent of the vote over John McCain’s 19 percent in a nonbinding preference poll — led with 76 votes, twice the tally of his nearest competitor, though he only garnered roughly one-fourth of the total votes. Next in line was Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a conservative lightning rod who has been making noise about a possible presidential bid in recent weeks, with 38 votes. Another half-dozen candidates bunched up with similar votes.
It’s a safe bet not everyone voting in the straw poll took their votes entirely seriously, as several Colorado Republicans — including U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, Denver Republican Party Secretary Brett Moore and four of the five state party chair candidates — received at least one vote.
The top 10 vote-getters, after Romney and Bachmann, were former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — the only announced candidate so far — with 34 votes, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels with 27, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 26, tied with businessman and TV personality Donald Trump, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with 20, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 19, businessman Herman Cain with 14 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 12.
Also receiving votes were former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Fox News host Glenn Beck and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, among others.