Wadhams seeking re-election

McInnis, Hesse want to broaden GOP base

By Leslie Jorgensen

Dick Wadhams is good at attracting publicity, but speculation that he would hold a press conference to announce his bid for re-election as chairman of the Colorado Republican Party turned out to be a bit exaggerated.

“I’m not doing anything that grandiose,” Wadhams said with a laugh, clearly enjoying the prospect.

Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

Dick Wadhams, celebrating in August on the last night of the Republican National Convention,
remains upbeat in the face of GOP losses.

Instead, his re-election bid will be delivered in a letter to more than 700 members of the state’s Republican Party Central Committee, the group that elected him in 2007. He’s asking them to review the strides made under his leadership and consider giving him another two years. The committee will elect the party chair in March.

“We have money in the bank!” exclaimed Wadhams. “I’ll be able to do much more in 2009 to help the party and our candidates.”

When Wadhams was elected two years ago, he immediately faced a financial crisis at the state party headquarters. Records were in such disarray that it took three months to accurately assess the GOP’s financial condition.

The party had amassed a whopping $580,000 in debts from elections in 2002, 2004 and 2006, when Ted Halaby and Bob Martinez chaired the state party.

“The debt was massively piled on in 2006. I personally hate debt. I hate it!” declared Wadhams, adding that he has never left a campaign in the red.

Before he could start raising cash for the 2008 election, Wadhams had to find funds to pay off the debt. He slashed the party’s operating budget by trimming the staff and moving the headquarters from the $4,000-a-month building in south Denver to a $1,200-a-month office in the Denver Tech Center.

“I raised the money in one-on-ones with major contributors,” said the party chair, who also solicited financial help through a large direct mail campaign directed at the party faithful.

“I so deeply appreciate the donors who helped us get out of debt,” said Wadhams. “Bruce Benson really helped me in the months before he became president of University of Colorado.”

Benson, who served as state GOP chair from 1987 to1991, gave up partisan activism when he accepted the university’s presidency last March.

When reminded of recent reports on an online political site saying the party’s debt had been paid by the California Republican Party, Wadhams declared, “That’s absolute bullshit!”

He said the Republican National Committee had deposited funds from California into the Colorado GOP’s “victory” account, but the money was transferred to other state parties.

“We didn’t keep a dime of that money,” said Wadhams. “It wasn’t even ours. It belonged to the RNC.”

Raising money for the 2010 election cycle will continue to be a challenge for Republicans admitted Wadhams, who complained that the Democrats had developed a slick network of committees funded by heavy hitters. The Dem system has been dubbed “the Colorado model” by the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

“Pat Stryker takes hundreds of millions of her wealth and pours it into her preferred Democratic charities,” Wadhams said with a groan, referring to the billionaire Fort Collins heiress.

Stryker’s recent contributions have included $20,000 to the Colorado Democratic Party, $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee, $10,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $5,000 to the Democratic White House Victory Fund and $185,000 to Campaign Money Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization to “improve campaign finance laws.”

“I’d like to eliminate all of these stupid campaign finance laws on the state and federal levels,” declared Wadhams, adding that his wish to remove contribution caps to allow transparency of donors won’t come true anytime soon.

In addition to its money woes, Wadhams said the party faced other obstacles to victory. His list included Barack Obama’s charisma, the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the Wall Street crash, which was blamed on Republicans who had supported deregulation in the name of free enterprise.

“It was the perfect storm,” said Steve Schuck, Colorado Springs developer and former gubernatorial candidate. “I am for the ‘big tent,’ and I believe that there is no singular scapegoat on whom we can blame the losses in this election.”

Some Republicans, however, blamed Wadhams, who had juggled running the state GOP with managing former Congressman Bob Schaffer’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. Schaffer lost to Democratic Congressman Mark Udall, taking 42.5 percent of the vote to Udall’s 52.8 percent.

“Some want to jump on Dick because we didn’t win the U.S. Senate race,” said Jeff Crank, who in August lost a second primary race to U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in the 5th Congressional District.

Schuck, echoing other Wadhams supporters, said the state party chair had been caught in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. Had he decided not to help the Schaffer campaign, Wadhams probably would have been criticized for that.

Two of those critics have been former Congressman Scott McInnis and Mike Hesse, who served as McInnis’ chief of staff in Washington.

“You can’t be a state party chairman and run a campaign at the same time,” Hesse said of Wadhams. “You also have to create a level playing field. If the chairman is also working on a campaign, it doesn’t allow the objectivity that is required to help all the candidates in the party.”

McInnis said he’s glad Wadhams can now focus on running the state party instead of the Senate race.

“He will do well,” he said, chuckling. “Without that additional duty, we can work him harder.”

McInnis and Hesse had promoted the need for a more inclusive “big tent” and a strategy focused on selecting candidates whose views are in sync with views of most voters in their districts.

“It’s a game of sales,” said Hesse. “We have to get in that mode.”

McInnis listed several Republicans who had won past elections in liberal-leaning areas, including former state Sen. Dottie Wham, of Denver, and former Rep. Sandy Hume, of Boulder.

McInnis calls it “customizing” campaigns to fit the district. Others perceive it as moderating the party.

“It’s a code word for getting away from our conservative values,” Crank said.

McInnis and Hesse began building a coalition for change in the GOP, and their approach worked well in several county commissioner races on the Western Slope.

“People called us and asked what we’re going to do get the state party moving in the right direction,” said Hesse.

But momentum faltered when word spread that the duo had set their sights on state GOP leadership.

“I got a lot of phone calls from people who don’t want a blame game,” said McInnis. “They don’t want a blame game, and they want to keep Wadhams.”

Noted Crank, “Mike Hesse running for state party chair sounded more like getting Mike his next job or Scott his next office.”

McInnis, however, said, “In Colorado, I do think the party leadership is an issue. We’re facing Atlas Shrugged-type of issues.

“My goal is not to replace Dick Wadhams — it is to assist him in broadening the party.”

Hesse worked for Western Heritage, a 527 committee, during the general election and previously ran Bentley Rayburn’s campaign against Crank and Lamborn in the 5th CD. The incumbent captured the primary, and Rayburn trailed as a distant third.

Crank said Republicans also remember McInnis “throwing Schaffer under the bus before the election” and pulling a similar stunt on Bob Beauprez when he ran for governor in 2006.

McInnis said his criticisms of Beauprez, Schaffer and Wadhams have been mischaracterized in the media, as has Hesse’s interest in running for state party chair.

“Dick Wadhams is unquestioned in his ability to lead,” said Crank. “From his work for Senator Armstrong to Senator Allard to Governor Owens — he knows how to get the job done.”

“I don’t think Dick hung the moon, but he’s very, very good at what he does,” said Schuck.

Former Congressman Beauprez agreed.

“Dick was put in an almost impossible situation,” said Beauprez. “We need to let a little dust settle before we call for a change there.”

In the dust storm after the Nov. 4 election, several names were swirling as potential replacements for Wadhams as GOP chair.

In addition to Hesse, the list included Republican National Committeeman Mark Hillman; former U.S. Senators Bill Armstrong and Hank Brown; Denver County GOP Chair Mary Smith; El Paso County GOP Chair Greg Garcia; Sean Duffy, former deputy communications director for Gov. Bill Owens; and Tom Minnery, a Focus on the Family executive and former El Paso County GOP vice chair.

Hesse, Smith, Garcia and Duffy have said they won’t challenge Wadhams.

“There’s a real hunger to do things differently,” said Hesse. “It’s a question of Dick’s vision for the future.

“We’ve got until March.”