Why did we lose?

Wadhams: Blame Romney
The Colorado Statesman

After enduring a shellacking at the polls in Colorado earlier this month, state Republicans are poised to come back in a big way in the next election, former state GOP chairman Dick Wadhams told a group of Aurora Republicans on Saturday.

But in order to win the favor of the state’s notoriously fickle electorate, he said, Republicans have to figure out how to reach increasing numbers of Hispanic voters, reject once and for all any association with the “lethal” personhood amendment, and do a better job picking candidates of “substance and discipline.”

“No election is predictive of the next one, and just about the time a party thinks there’s no way they can lose, the voters have something to say about that,” Wadhams said at a meeting of the Aurora Republican Forum that drew about 60 people to the Golf Club at Heather Ridge.

Former state GOP chairman Dick Wadhams and state Sen. Nancy Spence at the Aurora Republican Forum on Nov. 17 at Golf Club at Heather Ridge.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

While President Barack Obama won Colorado’s nine electoral votes by a nearly 5-point margin this year — down from his 9-point win in 2008, only the second time a Democrat has won the state since the LBJ landslide in 1964 — he won’t be on the ballot in 2014. Instead, Democrats will be running against the usual headwinds the party in power faces in a midterm election, jeopardizing the reelection bids of U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper, as well as the party’s prospects in other statewide races and in a bid to maintain control of the state legislature, Wadhams said.

“What I know about Colorado politics is, it’s very, very unpredictable, and every election is a new opportunity. I think if we put up a fresh new face of candidates in 2014, for United States senator, for governor, continue to do what was done in 2012 with great candidates for the state legislature, I think we can have a very good year in 2014,” he said.

Observers have noted that Republicans haven’t won a major statewide race in Colorado for a decade, since U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and Gov. Bill Owens — both candidates whose campaigns were managed by Wadhams at one time or another — won second terms in 2002, also the last election when Republicans won a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. Since then, Democrats have taken the governor’s race twice and won three U.S. Senate races, losing control of the state House just once, in the 2010 Republican wave election.

Wadhams pointed to election years past, including 1962 when Republicans defeated a popular Democratic governor and a long-serving senator, and again in 1974 when Democrats ran the field in the wake of Watergate, as proof that the state’s ever-evolving population can surprise the party in power.

Offering a sharp critique of Mitt Romney’s losing presidential campaign, Wadhams charged the Republican nominee with failing to define himself even after emerging from a brutal nomination process, instead letting President Barack Obama’s campaign etch an image of Romney as “an out-of-touch corporate raider” in the minds of swing-state voters.

Arapahoe County Treasurer Sue Sandstrom and Aurora city council members Marsha Berzins, Sally Mounier and Brad Pierce.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“What always amuses me about the mythology about Ronald Reagan is that he came riding on a white horse over a hill and we all swooned and said, ‘Our hero is here!’ and he swept Jimmy Carter out of power,” Wadhams said with a chuckle. Contrary to the legend, Reagan endured “a grueling nomination process against some furious, formidable opponents,” but through it all managed to define himself clearly for voters.

Romney, on the other hand, won the nomination by playing Whack a Mole with a field of opponents Wadhams dismissed as “not exactly the heavyweights of our party,” rather than portraying himself clearly as anything other than the most electable alternative to the incumbent. “Every time one of these candidates emerged as a front runner, Romney took his substantial financial advantage and just beat the holy heck out of that front runner for the moment, and so he wins the nomination basically by not defining himself,” Wadhams observed.

The dynamics of the race changed in Denver on the night of the first presidential debate, Wadhams noted, when Romney “emasculated Barack Obama,” but it was too little, too late. “Why did it take until Oct. 3, 2012, to finally have Mitt Romney tell the American people who he is, what he stands for, and what he would do as president? I have no idea.”

While polls showed the race tightening — Obama campaign officials say their polling said otherwise, that the debate instead just energized soft support for Romney — the needle didn’t move much in swing states, Wadhams said.

“There was still resistance by those swing voters who had been barraged by the negative ads in the summer of 2012,” he said. “They wanted to vote against Barack Obama, but they just couldn’t get over this Bain Capital corporate raider guy they’d been pummeled with all summer.”

The Romney campaign also mistakenly tried to turn the election into a referendum on Obama rather than presenting a choice between candidates, he said, and underestimated the enthusiasm of Obama’s core constituencies, including minorities and younger voters.

“This was not an outright rejection of the Republican Party,” Wadhams told the group.

“None of the people who have been elected in Colorado — Bill Armstrong, Hank Brown, Wayne Allard, Bill Owens — won their elections because they didn’t define themselves up front as people who could relate to Coloradans on a day-to-day basis, and who had a clear philosophy of what they wanted to do, and then ran an aggressive campaign in the face of their Democratic opponents. That’s how we won those elections, that’s how we’ll win elections in the future,” Wadhams said, listing candidates whose careers he helped steer to statewide victory.

But the Colorado GOP has its work cut out for it.

“First of all, we have got to address this disparity with Hispanic voters,” he said. “This is a demographic time bomb that’s going to explode in our face, and this party has got to come to grips with that. If we continue with the kind of rhetoric we’ve seen in the past, we can have this discussion every two years, but the fact is, it’s just going to get worse. There are some aspects to the immigration issue that we need to alter our positions on, but, more importantly, we need to do a better job conveying a positive Republican agenda in terms of education, certainly, and also small businesses.”

While the Hispanic vote in Colorado has traditionally tilted toward Democrats, he said, Republicans Armstrong, Owens and Allard made significant inroads with the electorate and didn’t lose by the overwhelming margins, estimated at roughly three-to-one, that helped defeat Romney in the state.

“Republicans can do this, especially in Colorado, but for the past few years, I think our party has been dominated by some very harsh rhetoric that we’ve got to knock off,” he said. “I can’t tell people to quit that, but it hurts us every time it happens.”

Another topic where Republicans need to take reassess their approach, he said, is abortion.

Referring to an infamous statement uttered by Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin, Wadhams raised his hands in exasperation. “We have Republican candidates talking about how a woman shuts down during a legitimate rape — who are these people? I’ve got to tell you, I’m a pro-life Catholic — where do these people come from?”

“Armstrong, Allard and Owens were all pro-life candidates, and they never went down any of these stupid paths with this kind of stupidity,” Wadhams continued. “The candidates we nominate have to be men and women of substance and discipline, they can’t be these kind of candidates — I don’t know what kind of world they live in.”

Republican candidates in Colorado also have to steer clear of what has become a perennial ballot issue, Wadhams said.

“As a pro-life person, this personhood amendment is lethal,” he said, referring to an initiative that voters shot down by wide margins in 2008 and 2010. “It gives the Democrats a powerful weapon, and we will continue to lose — pro-life candidates will continue to lose if they continue to endorse that thing. It’s so nice to not be state chairman, I can actually say what I want to,” he added with a smile.

The next election, he said, provides state Republicans with an opportunity “to get back in the game,” he said, particularly in races against two ostensibly strong incumbents, Udall and Hickenlooper.

“I do not buy off on the notion that the governorship and the U.S. Senate seat are off limits to us,” he said. “In fact, down deep, Mark Udall is smart enough to know that his worst nightmare is about to occur, that he’s going to be running mid-term of a second-term president, and the economy’s not going to get any better. Unless the economy suddenly just explodes, I think Barack Obama’s numbers are really going to be in the tank… that’s not the time to be an incumbent Democratic senator running for reelection.”

As for Hickenlooper — by some measures one of the most popular governors in the country — Wadhams said that Republicans should plan for the possibility that he won’t stand for a second term at all, leaving a “very winnable” open seat.

“I stand by my personal prediction, or anticipation, that he will consider running for president,” Wadhams said. “He is a very ambitious man. He is not the humble brew-pub owner who suddenly found himself mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado. And he’s going to look at that Democratic field — especially if Hillary [Clinton] takes herself out, she’s the only bench-clearer of the Democratic field — and he’s going to say, ‘I’m as good as anybody in this field, and what do I have to lose.’”

If Hickenlooper makes a run for president, Wadhams suggested, it’s a good bet he won’t seek reelection. “Why would he want to be stuck being governor of Colorado — finding himself in 2015 having to come home being on the frontline of a fire or some horrible tragedy?” Even if he does run for a second term, Wadhams said, “I don’t buy off that this guy’s invincible at all.”

After speaking to the group, Wadhams told The Colorado Statesman that possible 2014 statewide candidates include former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, who has run twice for the Senate — Wadhams managed his 2008 bid, when he lost by a wide margin to Udall — and former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, who gave up his seat in Congress for an unsuccessful run for governor.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com