By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
“There’s your headline! Republicans elect liberal party chair!” exclaimed newly re-elected Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams before bounding down the aisle to deliver his acceptance speech on the stage of the Douglas County High School auditorium.
Despite being labeled a “liberal” by one of his two challengers, Wadhams won by a landslide — capturing 310 of 366 votes cast by state GOP central committee members.
A precedent-setting headline was the election of the state GOP’s first black officer — Leondray Gholston, of Arapahoe County, was elected vice chair. He won election on the third ballot, which had narrowed the four-way race to Gholston and former Arapahoe County GOP Chair Nathan Chambers.
Vice chair contenders Marti (Allbright) Whitmore, a former candidate for Colorado secretary of state, and Curt Grina, vice chair of the Teller County Party, dropped out of the race after the second ballot among four candidates failed to deliver 51 percent of the vote for any one candidate.
In Wadhams’ bid for a second two-year term, the state GOP chair had faced two challengers — Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone and Christine Tucker of Arapahoe County.
Each candidate was granted 15 minutes for nomination and campaign speeches. Stone thumped his experience as a county commissioner, from ramping up high tech communications to balancing budgets.
Tucker demanded a return to conservative leadership — and an end to Wadhams’ “liberal” politics. Pumping suspense into the predictable re-election of the state GOP chair, Tucker withdrew her candidacy and endorsed Stone.
“I really feel that in the last couple of years, our party leadership has led us down the middle — down the liberal way,” declared Tucker, who accused Wadhams of favoring pro-choice over pro-life organizations at the state party convention last year.
“I don’t want to split the vote because I am so afraid that we will continue to have a liberal chair,” said Tucker, with tears in her eyes. “It is so important to me that we become a conservative party again.”
Standing in the back of the auditorium, Wadhams looked shocked and amused.
“I’m a liberal! A liberal?” he deadpanned with a mischievous smile.
On stage, an impassioned Tucker urged committee members to vote for Stone.
“Vote for this conservative! Kick those liberals out of there!” she yelled.
The dramatic end of Tucker’s speech drew gasps, snickers and applause.
“I guess her definition of ‘liberal’ is different than mine,” mused Sam Schafer, a Monument Republican who has worked on numerous campaigns, including former U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley’s 5th Congressional District bids.
Schafer said the two women seated in front of her had moaned that “Tucker had droned on for 20 of her 15 minutes” and wished the challenger had skipped the speech and just withdrawn to save time.”
The nomination of Wadhams followed Tucker’s stunner.
In keeping with his reputation as a take-no-prisoners campaign strategist, Wadhams had spent about $700 on campaign posters, lapel stickers and letters to the central committee members. In addition, he had made follow-up calls to hundreds of the members.
“I’ve known Dick for nearly 30 years, yet, he called to ask me for my support,” recalled a Republican. “I asked why he was wasting his time calling me. Dick said he wasn’t taking anything or anyone for granted.”
On stage, Wadhams had assembled a crew of supporters to make nomination and seconding speeches. They represented all sectors of the party and countered his challengers’ “change” messages. Each speech hammered home the message that Wadhams is a conservative.
Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, nominated Wadhams as “the leader of the conservative party,” but conceded that “not everyone agrees that Dick Wadhams is the right choice.”
Penry reeled off a list of diehard Democrats — including President Barack Obama, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, state Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak, former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, of South Dakota — who, he said, “hope you vote for anyone other than our good friend Dick Wadhams.”
Wadhams was instrumental in unseating Daschle in 2004, when he managed the successful campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune.
“Dick Wadhams, and I say this as a rural legislator, is someone who values the rest of the state. The Denver metro area is important… in winning elections, but victories also pass through Weld, Washington, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, La Plata, Ouray, Fremont, Teller and Lake counties and all of the others,” said Penry.
“And Boulder!” chimed a chorus of voices in the audience.
“And Boulder, too!” replied Penry, whose voice was drowned in a roar of laughter and applause.
House Minority Caucus Leader Amy Stephens, of Colorado Springs, seconded the nomination. She credited Wadhams’ leadership for electing five new Republican women to the Legislature — Reps. Cindy Acree, of Aurora; Cheri Gerou, of Evergreen; Carole Murray, of Castle Rock; Betty Jane “B.J.” Nikkel, of Loveland; and Laura Bradford, of Collbran.
“We won a seat that no one thought we could get,” declared Stephens of Bradford’s triumph over former Rep. Bernie Buescher, who was expected to win the election and become speaker of the House. Earlier this year, Ritter appointed the Democrat as Colorado Secretary of State.
Wadhams’ nomination also was seconded by Weld County GOP Vice Chair Anne Kern, Saguache County GOP Vice Chair Michael Lobato and Gregory Carlson, a CU Boulder student who serves as vice president of the College Republicans and as second vice chair of the Boulder County Party.
Kern lampooned, “If you don’t think Dick Wadhams is conservative, then you don’t think (former) U.S. Senator Wayne Allard is conservative!”
Wadhams recalled being nominated two years earlier in the same auditorium.
“This party was broke — in fact, I didn’t know how broke it was,” said Wadhams, reminding folks that the state GOP was nearly $600,000 in the hole at the time — and that he’d raised money and retired the debt before the November election.
“I had three goals: To retire that debt, to reconnect with county organizations that had not been included in the state party, and to work with our state legislative leadership. I met with Josh Penry and his colleagues weekly at the state Legislature — and I am still doing so today,” said Wadhams.
“This party is solvent!” declared Wadhams. “We’re going do some things in 2009 that will take us to places we’ve never been before.”
His agenda this year includes registering Republican-affiliated voters, recruiting and training candidates and campaign managers, and hosting a new technology forum later this spring.
Those goals lay the foundation for the 2010 elections. Throwing down the GOP gauntlet, Wadhams vowed to unseat Democrats Gov. Bill Ritter and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
“Ritter has done nothing but tax this state to death!” thundered Wadhams. “He’s done nothing but hand the state over to the unions. And Sen. Michael Bennet, who was handpicked by Governor Ritter, has done nothing but be a toady for Barack Obama and the Democrat majority in Congress.”
“We can take these guys out!” declared Wadhams.
After a slam-dunk victory, Wadhams thanked the committee members as well as his challengers.
Asked later if he planned to meet with Stone and Tucker to settle the dust and offer roles in the statewide party organization, Wadhams flatly said, “No.”
“I don’t have a plan to do that. I’m more concerned about working with the party’s 549 county chairs, vice chairs, secretaries and bonus members, and our elected Republican officials,” declared Wadhams.
“Does this mean I won? Gosh! I’m going to ask for a recount,” joked Wadhams. “A liberal won!”