Gholston jumps into crowded GOP state chair race

The Colorado Statesman

The race for Colorado Republican Party chair was upended last week by two-term Chairman Dick Wadhams’ unexpected withdrawal but the dust is still settling. This week, a fourth candidate joined the race while three other Republicans weighed whether to run, including a former statewide candidate and two local chairmen from key swing counties.

State Republican Vice Chairman Leondray Gholston added his name to the expanding field this week, saying he wants Colorado Republicans to have the option of voting for a candidate who knows the state party inside and out while bringing a strong background in grassroots organizing to the table.

Gholston, who was first elected to his term as vice chairman two years ago, said he had committed to staying out of the race while Wadhams was running for reelection but reconsidered after Wadhams dropped out last week.

“I asked several questions, and what I came up with was (that) I do have something to offer the party as chairman. It is a difficult job and I’m able to accomplish it, and I wanted the party to have that option,” he said.

Leondray Gholston, right, shakes hands with GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams after being elected vice chair of the party in 2009.
File photo/The Colorado Statesman

Jefferson County GOP Chairman Don Ytterberg, his Larimer County counterpart Larry Carillo, and Cleve Tidwell, the international businessman who failed to make the ballot in last year’s U.S. Senate Primary, all told The Colorado Statesman they spent last week pondering whether to run for the state Republican Party’s top job at the March 26 central committee meeting. Early this week, Ytterberg announced he was instead running for state party vice chairman and Carillo said he’d decided against a bid. The enigmatic Tidwell hadn’t declared his intentions by press time.

In addition to Gholston, three candidates are already in the running: state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, state party legal counsel Ryan Call, and recent Michigan transplant Barton Baron, who is running on a ticket with Tidwell’s former campaign manager as a vice chair candidate. Call — who chaired the Denver GOP until last weekend’s local party elections, when he declined to seek a second term — jumped into the race a day after Wadhams dropped out.

In his letter quitting the race, Wadhams said he was tired of Republicans who see “conspiracies around every corner and who have terribly misguided notions of what the role of the state party is.” He also warned against chair candidates who promise to unite conservatives at a cost of pushing away moderates and unaffiliated voters, which he said would jeopardize GOP chances of winning in Colorado.

Gholston declined to draw distinctions between himself and the other candidates. “I’m not running against anyone for chairman,” he said. “We are all different men with different perspectives and different ways of doing things.”

He also refused to distance himself from the Wadhams regime.

“I would stress that I don’t in any way, shape or form claim to divorce myself from any criticism that may have been levied at the state party leadership, because I was there, I am the sitting vice chairman and I take my full share with the chairman and anyone else,” he said. “It’s important to me as a point of integrity that people know I’m not trying to dump on our establishment or our sitting chairman, because that’s not who I am.”

Gholston, a longtime political ally of Aurora City Councilman and 2010 congressional candidate Ryan Frazier, won his spot in GOP leadership by defeating former Arapahoe County Chairman Nathan Chambers after several rounds of voting at the state party’s 2009 reorganization. He points to a decade in the military and experience leading the Colorado Black Republicans and the National Black Republicans Association, as well as experience running campaigns.

“My focus, my background is organization and grassroots — I’m a grassroots guy,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re looking at someone with this type of background.”

Gholston said the party chairmanship should be a paid position and that he’ll devote full time to it, if elected, but he also plans to keep his day job as a defense contractor with Raytheon working out of an office near Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora.

“It’s an incredible job to ask someone to do and do well and expect some success for free,” he said.

Ytterberg said he was considering whether the state party would benefit from the organizational and party-building skills he has honed in one of the state’s top battleground counties.

“I have been thinking about getting in,” Ytterberg told The Statesman late last week. “We had some successes in Jefferson County. I believe we could have a model that could work at the next level.”

Ytterberg, who won another term leading Jeffco Republicans at the county central committee meeting earlier this month in Lakewood, said he considered a number of factors before deciding to step back from the chairman race and run for vice chairman.

“My extensive experience running successful businesses, combined with what I have learned as both a county party chairman and a former candidate for State Senate provides me the skill set necessary to aid in the rebuilding of the Colorado Republican Party,” Ytterberg said in the statement announcing his candidacy for vice chair. “‘Business as usual,’ and ‘politics as usual,’ are not this candidate.”

Ytterberg sounded themes similar to those articulated by Wadhams when the departing chairman said Republicans push aside moderates at their peril.

“Further, I will continue the open door policy I have in Jefferson County, to bring in and welcome all interest groups of the Party. We cannot be successful without an open, friendly hand to all Coloradans. Being ideological does not have to mean being exclusive. We welcome all Republicans and unaffiliated voters to our GOP family,” Ytterberg said.

It’s a challenge of sorts to Harvey, who has said he’ll make it a priority to make sure the GOP’s most conservative members feel at home in the party.

Harvey, Call each have some baggage, critics contend

Some Republicans have qualms about supporting Harvey because of the lawmaker’s endorsement of third-party gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo in last fall’s election.

During the divisive 2010 gubernatorial election, Tancredo bolted the Republican Party to run under the American Constitution Party banner and wound up with more than three times as many votes as Republican nominee Dan Maes, who upset former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis in the Republican primary after a plagiarism scandal derailed his campaign. Across the state, local Republicans split over which candidate to back, and charges flew that local GOP officers violated party rules by supporting Tancredo instead of the Republican nominee.

Ytterberg’s hands are clean, he pointed out.

“I was bound by the bylaws of Jefferson County — bound to the Republican candidate,” he said. “I was not able then to recommend or to endorse Tom Tancredo, despite the fact that the race became very difficult.”

Call could face an internal backlash of his own over concerns he publicly championed U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton over primary rival Ken Buck, who went on to win the nomination but lose the general election to Democrat Michael Bennet.

“All rules have been thrown out to help Norton this year,” complained a Buck supporter in an e-mail to The Statesman last summer just hours after Call rallied volunteers at Denver GOP headquarters for Norton during an endorsement visit by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Carillo said Republicans had urged him to run for state party chair and he gave it plenty of thought after Wadhams pulled out. He said he received phone calls and e-mails from around the state — surprisingly, he said, since Larimer County isn’t always considered in the thick of things in Colorado. But those urging him to run point to his success bringing together Republicans of all sorts, including passionate Tea Party and 9/12 groups who bemoan the cold shoulders they’ve gotten from party regulars elsewhere in the state.

“We’ve managed to find a seat at the table for everyone,” Carillo said.

Of all the possible candidates, Tidwell sounded least involved in a potential run.

“I’m just down here to see the fireworks,” Tidwell said with a chuckle from the sidelines at the Douglas County GOP central committee meeting on Feb. 10 in Castle Rock. Tidwell told The Statesman he was thinking more about finding a sunny place to go fishing than he was about running for anything. But, when pressed, he admitted the thought of running for state party chair has crossed his mind.

“I’ve had a lot of — naturally, out of courtesy, people just being nice — I’ve had a lot of push to run for the chair,” Tidwell said and then declined to comment on his plans.

He said that Call’s entry into the race was what triggered the pressure on him to run. “That’s when the calls started,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear.

But he was firm that he hadn’t made a decision. “Believe me, I would tell you,” he said and then smiled at his companion, whom he jokingly called his campaign manager. “You can mention you saw us here.”

Maes said he was “likely to endorse” Gholston in the chairman race and was also a big fan of Ytterberg, who he noted was a neighbor and longtime friend.

Although he told The Statesman he had to speak with another candidate before making a final decision on the chairman’s race, Maes spoke highly of Gholston.

“Assuming I do endorse Leondray, I believe he’s the right person at the given time with what’s going on with the Republican Party. We need someone people have faith in and trust to do the right thing. Leondray walks a perfect middle line, respected by both sides,” Maes said, and then added: “But if the Republican Party does not return to its conservative roots and stand by those roots, I don’t think we are ever going to recover in our major races.”

Last week, Maes unleashed a broadside against Harvey in an email sent to supporters. Comparing Tea Party activists to the brave soldiers at the Alamo, Maes called on conservatives to “Remember November!” and reject Republicans — including Harvey, repeatedly branded “a traitor” by Maes — who sided with Tancredo in the election.

“My apologies in advance to my dear friends and supporters in Douglas County,” Maes writes, “but Senator Ted Harvey is a traitor and participated in the attack of the peoples’ candidate to aid and assist the old guard mentality that would not accept the hard work and dedication of the revolution.”

Maes told The Statesman that Ytterberg’s behavior during the last election differed sharply from Harvey’s. Maes said he has “enormous respect for Don abiding by party bylaws and playing by the rules. He didn’t take a side, he did his job — that’s the kind of leadership the party needs to move on. This intra-party bickering and game playing, especially by the old guard, has to stop.”

A number of candidate forums for state GOP chairman candidates have been set for around the state. An organization called R Block Party has scheduled forums for Feb. 21 in Northglenn and Feb. 24 in Littleton. Candidates will also gather in Wheat Ridge on March 10.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com