Republicans at last weekend’s Western Conservative Summit in Denver focused on repackaging the party’s message in the wake of a clobbering at the polls in 2012. Party leaders acknowledged a need to better connect with moderate and minority voters, but their message of limited government remained constant.
The annual event, sponsored by the Centennial Institute — a conservative think tank of Colorado Christian University in Lakewood — brought together more than 2,000 Republicans from across the nation. The summit included remarks from potential Republican presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Also speaking was 2012 presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Much of the event, however, was led by Tea Party Patriots; debunking beliefs that the conservative movement has evaporated over the last several years. The political activists led workshops, including those around self-governance, race relations, reversing federal health care reform, constitutional rights and “beating liberals at their own game,” to name a few.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, spoke to a ballroom full of Republicans at downtown’s Hyatt Regency about a fiscally responsible, free market approach to governance — making it clear that the Tea Party was not simply a fading fad. She focused on the Internal Revenue Service after recent reports that it targeted patriot-oriented political groups applying for tax-exempt status.
An investigation into the troubled agency is ongoing. Republicans on Tuesday accused the IRS and President Barack Obama’s administration of trying to “delay, frustrate, impede and obstruct” the investigation. Martin spoke to many of these concerns.
“For this vision, we’ve been marginalized, mocked and maligned by President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and by the elite Republican establishment, senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and by the IRS,” declared Martin.
She pled with her audience to continue to pledge support to the tea party movement, suggesting that the liberty-minded groups continue to fight for freedom.
“Do you want fighters who will stand on principle defending freedom?” Martin asked the crowd to a thunderous applause. “Our constitution is worth fighting for because freedom is worth fighting for.”
Cruz, who was the featured speaker during the Saturday luncheon, agreed that a grassroots approach similar to that of the tea party movement is the proper formula for success. His election was considered a great upset in 2012, where he defeated Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a competitive primary and moved on to become the second Hispanic Republican in the U.S. Senate, next to Marco Rubio of Florida. Cruz has since become the new darling of the tea party.
“What a tremendous testament to the power of the grassroots…” exclaimed Cruz. “The only way we will win is if conservatives come together…”
Former Colorado Senate President John Andrews, founder of the Centennial Institute, placed a spotlight on many tea party leaders throughout the summit, suggesting that the recent controversy with the IRS has acted as a sort of rebirth and call to action for the movement.
“How appropriate that this year’s Western Conservative Summit comes at a time when the tea party energy is reborn?” he asked. “The IRS has given the Tea Party Patriots the best gift they could have wished for — not that they enjoyed the hassle — but the naked hand of political corruption has been revealed.”
Democrats were successful in 2012 by painting a so-called “war on women,” in which liberals accused Republicans of attacking women by pushing agendas to ban abortion and limit how birth control is provided. But pointing to Martin, Andrews called that war a myth.
“There has been no bigger lie on the left in the last year than the so-called phony, nonexistent war on women,” declared Andrews. “There is no greater asset… than warrior [Republican] women…”
Making the case for a Republican governor
Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidates for 2014 also carried the limited government flag. Andrews, who called Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper the “brand X, ex-brewpub governor,” referring to Hickenlooper’s past as a brewpub owner, suggested that Colorado is in need of new direction.
Of the five Republicans who have filed paperwork to at least explore running for governor, only two were in attendance: state Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray and former Congressman Tom Tancredo of Lakewood. The other potential candidates, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and minor candidates Michael Frick and Jim Rundberg, were not in attendance. Gessler has said that he is only exploring a run. Arapahoe County DA George Brauchler has hinted at running for the seat but did not attend the event.
Brophy, an Eastern Plains farmer, took a jab at Hickenlooper, who established TBD Colorado, which was initiated in 2011 to identify Colorado’s challenges. But Brophy said it is leadership that has yet “to be determined.” He said the state needs action.
“A vision for Colorado that is not TBD, but a vision for Colorado that is determinative and actually works,” Brophy said of his leadership abilities. “That you might have a governor who is conservative, who is a great leader for the state of Colorado, who can actually put together a 51-percent coalition to save this state, to protect the Second Amendment, to do the right thing on the death penalty — then I’m asking you to take a look at joining our team.”
Tancredo stressed his admiration for Brophy and the other Republican candidates, suggesting that the last thing the GOP needs is a bitter primary that scorches the field and leaves Republicans vulnerable in the general election.
“A food fight is not what we need in terms of a primary,” said the outspoken former congressman.
Still, Tancredo said he would fight for Colorado if elected to lead the state, suggesting that a shakeup is in order.
“If I’m governor, will there be heat in the kitchen? Undeniably,” he said. “But I confirm this for you — I can take the heat.”
Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, also attended the summit on Saturday. He is no stranger to divisive primaries. The brazen and controversial champion for the Second Amendment has been accused of masterminding bitter primaries that caused irreversible splits within the Republican Party in Colorado and paved the way for Democrats to take control of the state.
Brown doesn’t believe “food fights” during primaries have caused the party all its problems. He points out that Tancredo ran for governor in 2010 on the American Constitution Party ticket because he missed the deadline to file with the Republican Party. Tancredo joined after scandals surrounding GOP candidates Dan Maes and former Congressman Scott McInnis surfaced.
“Had Tom gotten in the race as a Republican and dove in, frankly, I think we might have been in a different world,” opined Brown.
He suggested that his almost assaultive approach to primary politics has helped the GOP in Colorado to identify strong candidates who support conservative values like protecting gun rights, pointing out that all the Republican gubernatorial candidates are pro-gun.
“It’s important for the Republican Party to flesh out their candidates and properly vet them…” explained Brown. “From our perspective, there’s almost no Republican now who would fail to tow the line on guns… They all see that it’s a winning issue… a motivator, probably like there’s never been one.
“That doesn’t happen if we sit down every race and play pussycats,” added Brown.
Repackaging the message
While it was clear during the summit that the Republican message of limited government, fiscal responsibility, faith-based morality and protecting constitutional rights like the Second Amendment remains constant, the party did discuss how to repackage that message.
One workshop focused solely on reaching out to minority voters, called “Trump the Race Card.” The session was taught by K. Carl Smith and hosted by Tea Party Patriots.
Smith, a black self-described “conservative messenger,” fancies himself a “Frederick Douglass Republican,” taking the teachings of the iconic black social reformer to Republicans across the nation. Smith believes “it’s not about race; it’s about values.”
He says God spoke to him and said the way he was voting was not consistent with his Christian beliefs. So, Smith founded Frederick Douglass Republicans.
Speaking to a room full of white people, Smith told his audience that they should not be afraid to speak to blacks and other minorities about value voting, suggesting that liberals have been “playing the race card” to their advantage.
He likened the messaging to when Jesus commissioned Paul the Apostle to carry the gospel of Christ. Smith pointed out that Paul was a Jew by ethnicity, but commissioned to take the gospel to people of different races, religions and ethnicities after his conversion on the road to Damascus.
“Stop believing a lie that because you’re white you cannot engage other people, especially minorities, about your conservative values,” exclaimed Smith. “Stop believing that lie.
“Conservatives are mostly white Americans,” he continued. “We’re trying to take the life empowering message of the conservative philosophy and share it with people of different ethnicities, different races.”
Republicans also appear to be having trouble targeting voters who value “caring and fairness,” according to Ron Nehring, former chairman of the California Republican Party. He led a workshop titled “Crafting Your Public Image.”
He suggests that there is a formula to campaigning, which includes knowing what demographics to target in specific districts. In left-leaning districts, he says voters are interested in “caring and fairness,” and so campaigns should be organized with this background in mind. He used left-leaning Denver and right-leaning Colorado Springs as examples.
“If I’m running in Denver, we need to have messages that anchor-in and trigger those moral foundations… But if I’m running in Colorado Springs… it’s a little bit of a different message, it would be blended differently,” said Nehring.
“America is a center-right country, but too many candidates on the left are winning because they are being more effective in shaping their messages,” he continued. “Make sure that you craft your messages so that you anchor them in the moral foundations that are driving the decision making, not just of you… But of the people you hope to represent.
“If you can take your message… and identify why is your issue the fair position and the one that really cares about people… you’ll be more effective, you will elect more people like us, you will elect fewer socialists and vegetarians, and you will make our country a better place,” Nehring concluded.
U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, attended Saturday’s summit. He acknowledged that Republicans might need to do a better job getting out their message, but that the principles remain the same.
“If you look at our message, we know that when you implement good free market ideas and good free market economic policies that the economy grows; that people get back to work; that wages increase,” he said. “So, how do we take that message in a way that moves off of graphs and charts, to talking about businesses that do it in real terms and real sense that people around the kitchen table can talk about and believe in, and put their faith in.
“It’s doing what we know is right in a way that gains support at the kitchen table,” he continued.
State Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, an ardent conservative, said it is well known that his party must find a way to better reach voters.
“We’re always concerned with communicating to the average citizen, and when it comes to the Republican Party, there’s no secret that we need to be more effective in communicating to some of the communities that just don’t vote Republican very often,” he said.
Lundberg recently attended the Denver Juneteenth event in Five Points, a celebration of the struggles and history of black people in the United States. The June 19 festival commemorates the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865, and has become a more general celebration of emancipation of black slaves.
“I looked around and realized, it’s not my district, but I think I, as a Republican, need to be talking to people that need good values and good government in every community,” attested Lundberg.
State Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs agreed that Republicans must work on their messaging following 2012. But he said much of the focus should be placed on young voters.
“There’s a big question in the Republican Party now after 2012 about who are we? How can we get the message across better?” explained Lambert. “One of the interesting things is the outreach to youth. That is very important… because what’s happening is our national policy is dumping everything on them, everything from student loans to the national debt to health care… and saying to them you’re going to have to pay for all of this.
“That’s one of the big questions: are they going to continue being unaware of how these national policies affect them, or are they starting to really listen?” continued Lambert. “And I think a lot of under-30s are starting to understand how bad this is going to be in their futures.”
See the Aug. 2 print edition for full photo coverage