Wadhams looms large in GOP race

Five running for state chairman
The Colorado Statesman

Colorado Republicans pick a new state chairman this weekend from a field of five starkly different candidates but the outgoing party boss looms large over the election even after withdrawing from the race more than a month ago.

In a flurry of charges and counter-charges posted to websites and delivered in the mail, two-term Chairman Dick Wadhams has remained at the center of the selection process culminating at the biennial reorganization meeting on March 26 at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock.

Republican state central committee members — including county officers, elected officials and a smaller-than-usual number of bonus delegates awarded only to a handful of counties this year — will vote until one candidate emerges with a clear majority. The candidates are Clear the Bench coordinator Matt Arnold, former Michigan congressional candidate Bart Baron, state GOP legal counsel and former Denver County Chairman Ryan Call, current state party Vice Chairman Leondray Gholston and state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.

Decrying the fractured state of the Colorado GOP, Arnold said the party needs to get back to basics or risk losing a raft of newly energized supporters.

“There are a lot of very deep, underlying divisions in the party — and it’s troubling — we’re kind of at a point where we’re battling for the soul of the Republican Party,” he said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman this week.

The fault lines run deep and they criss-cross in unpredictable ways. There’s the establishment and the newcomers, typified by the Tea Party and other self-described “Liberty” groups; those wanting to aim the party toward its most conservative members and those seeking to swell the ranks with more moderates; social conservatives and fiscal conservatives; party members looking for a strong leader and those more attuned to a bottom-up approach; and cutting across all the usual lines, those who broke ranks and supported third-party gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo and those who stuck with Republican nominee Dan Maes in last year’s election (both lost to Democrat John Hickenlooper, though Tancredo outpolled Maes by about three-to-one).

Harvey makes a case that he’s best-suited to unifying the party.

“I’ve been in the Legislature for 10 years — so by definition, I’m establishment. But I do have a very conservative voting record. I also have the ability to reach out to those traditional Republican activists I’ve been working with for 10 years, and get everybody going in the same direction,” said Harvey, who added that his goal — shared by all the candidates — “is to unite the party and make sure Barack Obama is a one-term president.”

Noting that he is “very humbled and honored” by the support he’s gotten from central committee members, Call said he’s got the right stuff for the job.

“We’ve got some great candidates running for this post,” he told The Statesman. “I believe I bring a unique background and skill set to the job, as well as a focus on growing the party and being a unifying force.”

Baron, who notes that his turn-around expertise at the Harley-Davidson Company is featured in business school case studies, has said the party needs an outsider to fix things.

“I’m in this race for one thing. I’m worried about my kids, my grandkids. And I look at the Colorado Republican Party, and we have to get our act in order,” he said at a candidate forum in Wheat Ridge earlier this month.

Saying he’ll bring his knowledge of party operations along with a very different style to the post, Gholston, a self-described “nutty conservative,” has kept mostly above the fray involving current GOP leadership. “What I want to do as state party chairman is simply this: to serve you, to fight for our principles,” he said at the forum. “We know what we believe, we know what we stand for.”

“I am grateful, and most Colorado Republicans are grateful, for the service Dick has given to our party,” Call said, adding that no matter what happens, the Wadhams era will be over. “We have an opportunity to move forward.”

One of the targets of Wadhams’ attacks, Arnold brushed off multiple volleys while at the same time charging the chairman with interfering in a contest he abandoned.

“The Republican Party needs a makeover, we need a fresh set of people in there, we need a fresh set of leaders, and that’s why I’m stepping up,” he said, adding that he’s “chosen not to get in an endless series with Dick Wadhams.”

Starting in early March, however, the two got into at least a limited series, trading detailed accusations over each other’s fundraising prowess and integrity. After refuting each other’s contentions point-by-point in multiple open letters and Facebook postings, Wadhams sent a terse reply to The Statesman early last week: “Matt Arnold is delusional and a liar. He is the epitome of the kind of conspiratorial nut that I referred to a few weeks ago.” (In a letter announcing his withdrawal from the race in early February, Wadhams said 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.”)

Arnold shot back in an interview with The Statesman this week: “This is essentially a primary, and for Dick Wadhams to engage in personal baseless attacks against candidates is, I think, pretty despicable.”

That’s a double-dig at the departing chairman, who stood accused by some Republicans of pulling strings in statewide primaries last year, though he vehemently denied the charges and said his critics simply didn’t grasp how the party works.

Himself the subject of Wadhams’ wrath, Harvey declined to engage in the back-and-forth after Wadhams described him as “the little creep” in a story posted online at a liberal website earlier this week.

Wadhams was responding to a sheaf of court records and other filings passed to reporters by a Republican operative on Monday. The documents purported to demonstrate Harvey’s troubles with finances, but Harvey dismissed the attacks as baseless and said anyone who bought into the attacks didn’t understand how businesses operate.

“I don’t have any comment on that,” Harvey said a few days later, sounding annoyed.

Still, Harvey let his frustration with the current chair bubble over at least a little bit. “I don’t feel I’m so much running against the good people that are running,” he said. “I feel like I’m running against Dick Wadhams.”

Harvey declared his challenge to Wadhams in late January before Wadhams changed direction and withdrew from the race. The next day Call entered the race and later that week Gholston jumped in. Wadhams has said he thinks either of them would be fine successors.

Instead of engaging in personal attacks, Arnold suggested, the five candidates have comported themselves well and are offering Republicans a clear choice between different visions and different styles.

“Our performance and our treatment of each other has been mutually respectful, it’s been cordial,” he said. “We’ve certainly highlighted our differences, but not in a way that’s seeking to elevate ourselves by tearing down the other guy.”

Call made a similar point about the many times the candidates have appeared before Republican groups across the state over the last month.

“We’ve been really trying throughout the candidate forums we’ve had to keep the debate among the candidates very civil and focused on the future of the party. I have a lot of great respect for my colleagues,” he said. “I’m not going to speak ill of them. Dick’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but this should be a race about the qualifications, the approach and leadership style of the candidates running.”

At a forum sponsored by the Foothills Republican Club on March 10 at the Copperfields Event Center in Wheat Ridge, in addition to the standard set of questions, the candidates answered one that left the crowd of Republicans roaring with laughter.

“Speaking of vetting candidates at the local level,” asked moderator Lang Sias, who ran for Congress last year from the 7th District, “is there anything we should know about you that would be embarrassing to Colorado Republicans?” Quipping that he was glad to be on the moderator’s side of the debate for this question, Sias added, “The Democrats are very good at seizing at anything they can about one of our leaders. What would you expect the Democrats to seize on about you?”

Acknowledging that he could probably be tagged one of the “grumpy old men” from the “grumpy old party,” Baron said his multiple runs for Congress in Michigan had likely already brought anything noteworthy to light. “If there’s anything out there, the press would have found out about it. I’m not lily white,” he said with a grin, “but I honestly can’t think of anything.”

Without skipping a beat, Gholston deadpanned a response that had the Republicans in stitches: “I’ll have to give my very first partial answer of my life. Ten years in the Navy,” he said, and then turned more serious after the laughter died down. “Other than being the only Republican in the family, I was a cryptologist, I’m a defense contractor, so every five years I have to answer for every job I’ve had, every place I’ve lived going back to my 16th birthday, and they still let me in the building.”

Arnold narrowed his eyes and responded in a stage-whisper: “Don’t tell anyone, but they might find out that I’m a professional killer,” he said. “I jump out of buildings, I blow things up and I kill bad guys.” Raising his voice, he continued to describe the top-secret clearance he obtains in the Army National Guard. “If there was anything likely to come out, they would have found it in the most recent clearance investigation that just happened.” He added that liberal groups “threw everything at me they could find” when he was running the Clear the Bench campaign aimed at state Supreme Court justices, and came up empty.

“I’m a good, clean-living Mormon kid from the West,” Call said. “The most I typically do on the risky side is I drink Diet Coke a lot, but in my own personal background, I don’t think so.” He noted that a background check with the state bar association required him to reveal “every parking ticket” and a juvenile curfew violation on the 16th Street Mall, and then kept spilling. In his 15 years as a conservative activist and organizer, he said, “occasionally I’ve made some lapses in judgment. When I was chairman of the College Republicans at DU Law (School), I hosted a conservative coming-out day on the same day as gay pride week, and I offended people.”

Then Call, “in all seriousness,” said that about four years ago he “did make the mistake of contributing to a Democrat candidate, and I’m very sorry for that.” (When he worked at an election-law firm, he donated $400 to state Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, an offense Democrats aren’t likely to seize on.) “If there’s one blemish I regret, it’s probably that,” he said.

Harvey, who has won four elections and run in a few others, said the public vetting in campaigns has been thorough. “I assure you if there’s anything in my record that would embarrass the Republican Party, it would have come out by now.” When he ran in the primary for the 6th Congressional District seat eventually won by Mike Coffman, he said, his opponents did lots of digging. “I guarantee you, if I had something in my background, they had probably the best campaign teams to pull it out and bring it forward.”

Looking stumped to come up with a scandal in his background, Harvey cast a glance at Gholston. “I never served in the Navy,” he said straight-faced. “I never served in the Navy — what more can I say?”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com