Wadhams quits bid for third term as GOP chairman

Party legal counsel Call announces he's running for top spot
The Colorado Statesman

Warning against the notion that “uniting conservatives” is all it takes for Republicans to win elections in Colorado, state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams on Monday dropped his bid for a third term. A day later, the state party’s legal counsel — and a key Wadhams deputy — jumped into the race, which also features a conservative Douglas County lawmaker who has promised to do just what Wadhams said will lead Republicans to defeat.

In a letter informing state Republicans of his withdrawal from the race, Wadhams wrote that he has grown “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.” He added that he fears a push for ideological purity could cost the party “the votes of hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated swing voters in 2012,” when Colorado will be a crucial state in the presidential election.

The next day, Ryan Call — the state GOP’s chief lawyer and the immediate past Denver County Republican chairman — announced he is running for state party chairman pledging to concentrate on organization, fundraising and candidate support rather than trying to hew the party toward its most conservative members.

“One of the strengths of our party is that we are all a group of principled and independent-minded individuals,” Call wrote in a letter sent Tuesday afternoon to state GOP central committee members. “That sometimes makes it a challenge to build consensus and agreement, but I believe we need a broad and welcoming Party in order to win elections and govern effectively — the stakes are just too high for us to be divided.”

Ryan Call, who declared his candidacy for state GOP chairman this week, rallies volunteers at Denver Republican Party headquarters last summer in this file photo.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Dick Wadhams has been under fire from conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists for much of his second term.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Call’s chief rival for the GOP’s top spot is conservative stalwart state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, who unveiled his candidacy for state chair last week along with the endorsements of roughly half the state’s Republican legislators.

Wadhams has been under fire from conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists for much of his second term — alternately for pulling strings to sway which candidates ran in GOP primaries and for not interfering enough by failing to vet candidates.

In the 2010 election, state Republicans scored historic wins by taking two congressional seats, two statewide offices and the majority in the state House from Democrats. But in the same election, as GOP candidates swept into office across the country, Colorado Republicans lost a tight contest for U.S. Senate and finished third in the governor’s race, a debacle Wadhams termed a “soap opera” in his reelection announcement.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes won just 11 percent of the vote — against the winning Democrat, former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and a third-party challenge by former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, who temporarily left the GOP to mount his campaign — coming within 20,000 votes of costing state Republicans major-party status under state law.

Just weeks after declaring he wanted another two-year term — and only days after drawing a challenge from Harvey — Wadhams wrote that he enjoyed the support of a “clear majority” of central committee members but, after giving it some thought, he could do without the headaches caused by his critics.

One of the state’s top Democrats, former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, called Wadhams’ announcement the “most surprising political news of 2011 so far” in a post to his Twitter account on Monday night.

Meanwhile, two lesser-known candidates who had been vying for Wadhams’ job combined forces with a third Republican on Wednesday to offer a slate under the “Elect Respect” banner. Retired engineer Barton Baron, a recent transplant from Michigan and past congressional candidate in that state, is the chairman candidate on a ticket with former rival turned vice-chairman hopeful John Wagner, who managed the U.S. Senate campaign of also-ran Cleve Tidwell last year. Cohort Jeremy Goodall is running for state party secretary along with the other two.

The day before he announced his bid, Call told The Colorado Statesman he would bring a lot to table as chairman but needed to first check with his young family and clients at Hale Westfall, the LoDo law firm where he serves of-counsel. (Richard Westfall, a partner in the firm, is the appointed treasurer for the state Republican Party.)

“I think I do bring a unique and valuable skill-set to the job,” Call said.

He went on to praise Wadhams while at the same time making clear he would offer more than just a continuation of the current regime.

“I have nothing but great admiration for Dick and saw first-hand the amount of hard work and the difficult spot he was put in the last couple of years,” Call said. “I think every Republican in Colorado should be grateful.” He added: “There’s no criticism from me for Dick, but this does present an opportunity to turn the page and look ahead.”

In his announcement letter, Call said his experience as the state party’s legal counsel — including work helping “candidates fix problems if they ever get into any trouble” — along with a history of grassroots organizing and a commitment to developing and supporting county parties are among his qualifications.

Call told The Statesman his work as an organizer — including a stint running the state College Republicans and two years as National Co-Chairman of the College Republican National Committee — and his expertise “navigating increasingly complex campaign finance and organizational rules that govern our party” are key assets he brings to the state chair race. Then he added that the state chairman should “focus the core operations on operational pursuits rather than ideological ones.”

That’s a direct challenge to Harvey’s campaign, which enjoys the support of Republicans who believe the party loses elections because it doesn’t draw a clear enough distinction with Democrats.

“We have to recognize in the state, in every single county, you win elections by building coalitions,” Call said, “by demonstrating that our message of limited government, fiscal responsibility and fiscal discipline is something that leads to good government.”

“In Colorado,” Call continued, “we have to understand there’s a very broad section of the electorate that sees themselves as independent-minded. That independence is also at the core and is the strength of the Republican and conservative moment. That’s why the party needs to focus its efforts on those things that unite us.” He added that the disagreement with GOP purists would be “part of the healthy discussion the leadership election and chairman’s race will bring out.”

It’s similar to the criticism Wadhams leveled at his Republican opponents in the letter announcing his withdrawal from the chairman’s race.

Though he didn’t mention Harvey by name, much of Wadhams’ message was clearly aimed at the conservative lawmaker, who charged when he launched his campaign that Wadhams has lost the confidence of grassroots Republicans.

“I intend to unite our base and return authentic conservative leadership to the Party structure,” Harvey said in his announcement.

That’s not enough, Call said.

“We need to reach out to many folks — not just in the party, but outside the party as well,” Call said. “We win by building and growing the party, and bringing people into the party, rather than by becoming narrow.”

The GOP central committee meets to pick officers on March 26 at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock. County parties are spending the next couple weeks selecting officers and other state central committee members, a process that winds up Feb. 22 when Arapahoe County Republicans convene.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com