Perhaps the biggest victory for conservative candidates challenging mainstream Republicans in the primary elections on Tuesday occurred in Jefferson County where a bitter and divisive push by pro-life and gun rights groups propelled their candidates to commanding wins.
In Senate District 19, Laura Woods defeated Lang Sias 55 percent to 45 percent, earning 6,700 votes to Sias’ 5,413. She now faces Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, in the general election.
In Senate District 22, Tony Sanchez beat Mario Nicolais by an overwhelming 67 percent to 33 percent. Sanchez received 6,734 votes to Nicolais’ 3,387. He now takes on Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.
Both races saw low voter turnout of about 18 percent.
Both Woods and Sanchez were endorsed and heavily supported by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a far right gun rights group that has become a political heavyweight with a proven ability to upset mainstream Republicans in polarizing primaries.
Dirty attack mailers through an unofficial network that included RMGO and pro-life groups such as the Colorado Campaign For Life dominated the primary election season.
Surveys on pro-life issues such as personhood, as well as those asking candidates to state their stance on gun control, seemed to prove a coordinated effort by the third-party organizations, though the groups never acknowledged working with one another.
Both candidates were continuously attacked by the so-called “grassroots” for a lack of commitment to the Second Amendment and for not endorsing personhood, which would assign constitutional rights to the unborn in an effort to ban abortion.
Voters have repeatedly rejected the ballot question because they believe it goes too far. Mainstream Republicans have frantically tried to move away from personhood, as seen by U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, distancing himself from the issue in his race for U.S. Senate, as well as U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, also departing from his support of the initiative in his bid for re-election.
But it appears a more moderate approach to both pro-life and gun rights issues was not the direction Republican voters wanted in SD 19 and 22.
“I did not change who I was to try to win the primary, and that just wasn’t something the Republican electorate was ready to elect,” explained Nicolais, a campaign finance attorney who previously served Republicans as a member of the reapportionment commission in 2011.
Nicolais said the network created by RMGO and pro-life groups was too massive to overcome, despite his lifelong roots in Lakewood where he graduated from Green Mountain High School. Sanchez only moved to Colorado from San Francisco three years ago.
“They’re very smart about how they do this,” Nicolais said at his home on Tuesday where he hosted a small gathering of friends, family and supporters. He held up a packet of mailers, all with similar messages, from groups such as Colorado for Family Values, RMGO and Colorado Campaign for Life.
“They do a very good job of understanding that in a vacuum they get to pick the candidate and they can triangulate with all these groups that nominally are different groups but are working in coordination,” explained Nicolais. “And they are very good at it, as demonstrated by the fact that they just kicked the crap out of me.”
Some of the hardest mailers to handle were the ones targeting personhood, said Nicolais. Colorado Campaign for Life compared more mainstream Republicans to Kermit Gosnell, a former physician from Pennsylvania who was convicted of murdering three infants who were born alive during abortion procedures.
Nicolais said he was also beat up over his support of same-sex civil unions. When House Republicans in 2012 sabotaged a vote on a bill that would have legalized same-sex civil unions, Nicolais formed Coloradans for Freedom, which united Republicans in favor of the legislation.
Nicolais laughed that reporters missed an even more extreme move by him to sign a friend-of-the-court brief supporting gay marriage. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals just this week upheld a lower-court ruling that struck down Utah’s gay marriage ban. It becomes law in the six states covered by the 10th Circuit, including Colorado. But the panel delayed the ruling pending appeal.
“Let’s get it right, I supported marriage equality,” said Nicolais, who added that he had kept that piece of information close to his chest given the divisive primary. He signed the brief shortly after caucuses in March.
But Nicolais pointed out that he faced a closed primary, in which only Republicans were allowed to vote.
“History is written by the people who show up and the people who show up in a Republican primary clearly don’t want [mainstream], I don’t think you can demonstrate that any more strongly than they did today,” opined Nicolais.
“Until we get groups that can combat these groups… that basically fight these guys in every race that they get into, I don’t think that’s going to change,” he continued. “The Republican Party has become the RMGO party.”
Nicolais also believes that the unofficial network of groups violated certain campaign finance laws by not registering with the secretary of state’s office and reporting contributions, expenditures and electioneering.
For example, Colorado Campaign for Life is a registered 501(c)(4) nonprofit with the IRS. But they are not registered as an issue committee with the secretary of state’s office.
The lines can be hazy when it comes to electioneering. As a 501(c)(4), the organization does not have to disclose its donors, and it can spend unlimited amounts of so-called “dark money” on independent expenditures and electioneering communications. But they are technically supposed to file with the secretary of state.
As of press time, Colorado Campaign for Life had still not registered with the Colorado secretary of state’s office. A spokesman for the secretary of state pointed out that there are trigger requirements for registering and disclosing contributions and expenditures, such as if an organization expressly supports or opposes a candidate with so-called “magic words” like “vote for,” “vote against,” “support” or “oppose.”
In ads supporting candidates like Sanchez and Sias, Colorado Campaign for Life said “vote your values,” which raises questions, but remains unclear as to whether laws were broken.
The Colorado Statesman tried to reach Christy Rodriguez, executive director of Colorado Campaign for Life, seeking comment. She did not reply. Phone calls to the organization’s listed number went unreturned.
“There were definitely campaign finance laws broken…” Nicolais said. “The reason I didn’t pursue it was because, frankly, all it would be was a distraction from trying to walk and knock on doors, and it would have sucked all the resources of the campaign to try to do that.”
Sias was a bit more subdued than Nicolais following the loss. While Nicolais only wished Sanchez “good luck,” he would not pledge his support to Sanchez’s campaign. Sias, however, called Woods to concede and promised to help her beat the Democrats.
“I’m a Republican; she’s a Republican, I’ll be supporting the Republican slate,” said Sias, a pilot for FedEx who is no stranger to politics.
Sias ran for the SD 19 seat against former Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, in 2012, losing by only 584 votes. He also ran for the Seventh Congressional District in 2010, losing the GOP nomination to Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who ultimately failed in his bid to unseat Democrat Ed Perlmutter of Golden.
“I think at the end of the day, Republicans want a Republican in office and want to beat the Democrats,” he added.
Sias did not want to speculate on why he lost the race, saying that he first wants to go back and review the polling numbers and statistics. But he acknowledged the loud outside voices in the race.
“You would assume that it played a role, but again, I don’t know, you just don’t know for sure or to what extent,” he said.
Winners thank the grassroots
Sanchez, who operates a consulting business, downplayed the role RMGO and other groups played in handing him the win.
“That’s just politics as usual,” he said of the chatter about RMGO’s presence. “This was really a story of the grassroots.”
Sanchez pointed out that most of his donations came from individuals who contributed small amounts, such as $10 or $20.
“That’s the real story,” he said. “This is a real grassroots victory for so many individuals who don’t want politics as usual.
“People came out in support of liberty and limited government… they just want the government out of their lives,” added Sanchez.
Sanchez is hopeful for the general election. Many political insiders are saying that RMGO candidates can’t survive a general election in districts that have more unaffiliated voters than Republicans or Democrats.
With the Senate up for grabs this year — Democrats hold only a one-seat majority — Jefferson County, specifically Senate Districts 19 and 22, have become a focal point of political activity.
“On the ground, we’re getting independent as well as some Democrats because people appreciate the fact that I’m a constitutional conservative, that I’m about getting the government out of your life…” said Sanchez. “People are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ and I think that limited government message is very appealing to everyone.”
Sanchez is hoping to put the heated primary behind him to unite Republicans against Democrats.
“We’re looking towards the future,” he said. “Now we need to unite; we need to get together and work hard to take back the Colorado state Senate by defeating Andy Kerr.”
Woods, a former court reporter, is also looking to work with the GOP as a whole to take back the Senate in November.
“We are Republicans who are grassroots minded,” she said, suggesting that her campaign would make a peace offering to party leaders such as Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call.
“I’m not separating us from Republicans, we are part of the Republican Party and we need to work with the mainline,” Woods continued.
Woods gained notoriety in the district after taking a lead role in a recall campaign against Hudak last year. The attack on Hudak was born out of two successful recall attempts against Democrats in Colorado Springs and Pueblo where Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron were both removed from office over their support of gun control.
Proponents turned their attention to Hudak, who was vulnerable to begin with, mounting a campaign and collecting signatures to force an election. But just as proponents were ready to submit their signatures — which they say was enough to trigger the election — Hudak resigned.
“Our district was energized by the recalls last year, and this has definitely been about getting back a constitutional majority in the Senate, this is a continuation of that revolution across Colorado that started with the recalls,” surmised Woods.
Woods acknowledged RMGO’s support, but she pointed out that she and her small army of volunteers also knocked on thousands of doors and rang thousands of phones.
“It’s disingenuous to say that RMGO won and that we didn’t win because we were knocking on doors, calling folks and going to events in the community, and everywhere we went we were feeling a strong support,” she said.
“The grassroots is alive and it’s because the American public is tired of the Democrats telling us how to live our lives…” Woods added. “People are understanding that if you get up off the couch and get involved, you can make a difference. That liberty wave seemed to flow right into the primaries… and we believe it’s going to flow in the general.”
Woods also acknowledged that the primary season got pretty ugly. In one instance, Woods shared a Facebook post from Colorado Campaign for Life about the Gosnell comparison. She later removed the post from her page and apologized to followers for sharing it.
“This is the exact reason we need some campaign finance reform,” she said. “When we push money into the background because these third-party groups can’t give to candidates of their choosing, that money is not going to stay in the shadows, it’s going to come into these elections from other venues.”
Joe Neville, a lobbyist and political strategist for RMGO, defended the use of the attack ads, pointing out that they can be very successful.
“The voters spoke very clearly,” he said. “It’s not just that it works, they want to call it negative, but these were true statements that were basically just given out to the public.”
Neville is not worried that RMGO will face a tougher fight in the general election, suggesting that the energy is on their side.
“The left is going to constantly try to lower the bar for themselves, but just take a look at the recall in SD 19… There’s a reason Evie resigned. She resigned because she knew she was going to lose,” opined Neville.
“This is going to be a grudge match, and we have the momentum, and it’s up to us to make sure that we push through with it,” he added.
Neville said RMGO decided to focus on Jeffco this year because the grassroots movement is beginning to pour into suburban Denver communities.
“It’s time,” explained Neville. “That’s the place where they say it’s the swing district in Colorado and across the nation in some cases… There’s a great opportunity to make waves in Jefferson County. Jefferson County hasn’t always been a blue county… it’s traditionally gone back and forth… it’s time for a change.”
Call, the GOP chairman, said he is willing to work with the more grassroots base in an effort to take back the Senate, but he would not comment on whether he believes it will be more difficult now that RMGO candidates have won the primary.
“In competitive districts like Senate District 19 and 22, the Republican Party and all Republican candidates have to work hard to appeal across the political spectrum to independent voters, as well as to bring all members of the Republican coalition together,” said Call.
Democrats prepare for war
But Kerr and Zenzinger have already been out knocking on doors and making phone calls in the hope of staving off a Republican insurgency.
Kerr does not believe the GOP primary is an indication of a district that is tilting more to the far right.
“The few extremists here in Jeffco went out and voted and, unfortunately, I think that’s going to resonate in the upcoming election,” said Kerr.
“There’s going to be a very definite difference in candidates and definite differences in campaign styles, and everything else, but I’ll do what I’ve always done and focus on education and the economy and reaching out to people, and I was hopeful that the other side would do the same, but I’m less hopeful today than yesterday,” added Kerr, suggesting that he is bracing for a dirty election season.
He said that he would not shy away from more controversial topics such as gun control and personhood, but that he would rather be focused on education, jobs and the economy.
“When I talk to my constituents, they do not support those extreme proposals like personhood, so I’ll talk about it as my constituents want to talk to me about it and it comes up, but I know my constituents don’t support radical agenda items,” explained Kerr.
Zenzinger had a similar outlook, suggesting that she will simply draw a strong contrast between herself and Woods. But Zenzinger may also be forced to separate herself from Hudak.
There were many mixed feelings about Hudak within the district, even among Democrats. Some had fallen out of love with Hudak. Zenzinger served as her campaign manager and later replaced Hudak after a vacancy committee appointed Zenzinger following Hudak’s resignation.
But Zenzinger said she already laid the foundation to distance herself from Hudak’s legacy.
“It’s not part of our plan to campaign with her, but I don’t have to necessarily separate myself from her because I’ve already done that just by last session,” explained Zenzinger. “We are not the same person. We have two different personalities and different priorities.”