Divergent views reveal GOP schisms
By Leslie Jorgensen
Republicans are facing new realities in the wake of the 2008 election, which hit the GOP like a Katrina-scale political hurricane.
Barack Obama stormed Colorado, and Democrats captured all but two of the state’s nine seats in the upper and lower houses of the U.S. Congress.
The GOP will almost assuredly lose the Department of State when incumbent Secretary of State Mike Coffman goes to Washington to represent Colorado’s 6th Congressional District. Gov. Bill Ritter is reviewing 20 primarily Democratic applicants to replace him, and it’s extremely unlikely that he will choose a Republican. That will leave Democrats holding all elective statewide seats but one in 2009 — Republican John Suthers will continue as Colorado’s attorney general.
Democrats also maintain their majority in both houses of the Colorado Legislature.
In the second part of this series on Colorado’s Republican Party, we share views from Denver attorney, two-time candidate for mayor of Denver and former state GOP Chair Don Bain; outgoing Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, of Colorado Springs; Arapahoe County GOP Chair Nathan Chambers; and Republican National Convention alternate delegate Summer Vanderbilt, of Castle Rock, a student
Question: As the party moves toward the 2010 election, does the Colorado Republican Party need to change its message to attract more voters — particularly women, minorities and young adults? If so, how do you envision the new message?
• Bain: “I think we need a much less strident and harsh message to attract more people to the party. We’ve got to focus on practical problem solving and move away from a litmus test of God, guns and gays.”
He suggested following the example of the Tennessee GOP, which has moved away from promoting social conservative agendas to advance basic fiscal ideas that resonate with more voters.
Tennessee remained a “red” state, delivering 57 percent of the vote to Republican presidential candidate John McCain and 42 percent to Obama. Republican incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander took 65 percent of the vote, with 32 percent going to Democrat Robert Tuke. Tennessee Republicans also won four of nine congressional races.
• Chambers: “I don’t think we need to change our message. In fact, I think that’s exactly what we shouldn’t do,” said Chambers, who watched his county transform from “red” to “blue” in November. The county party chair noticed a trend toward more Democrat-affiliated voters in recent years, but he said there was a massive change in the past six month because of Obama and the activism of such groups as ACORN.
“The party needs to be patient. We need to realize that politics is cyclical,” said Chambers, who believes the party should stand by its principles of “limited government, fiscal responsibility and security through strength.”
“And we need to regain our credibility,” said Chambers, noting that Republicans in Congress had lost sight of “fiscal responsibility.”
• McElhany: “It’s a bright future for the Republican Party — the voters just haven’t figured that out yet.”
“The state party needs to return to its core values. Colorado Republicans need to separate themselves from Republicans in Congress who forgot fiscal responsibility and instead were building bridges to nowhere and pork barreling.”
McElhany said that “a positive aspect of this election” was the overwhelming rejection of new taxes and of Amendment 59. That measure had been designed as an end run around the TABOR Amendment, which caps government spending and gives rebates to taxpayers. It also would have allowed the state to place the excess revenue in a savings account for preschool-to-grade-12 public education.
• Vanderbilt: “The party needs to modify its message to immigrants… We need to convey that we love immigrants and encourage immigration into our country when it’s legal and by the book.”
Question: Who are some of the up-and-coming young Republican leaders who will be able to draw 18- to 24-year-olds into the state party?
• Bain: “Our bench has a number of up-and-coming leaders,” said Bain, listing Sen. Josh Penry, of Fruita; House Assistant Minority Leader David Balmer, of Centennial; Rep. Bob Gardner, of Colorado Springs, and Senate Assistant Minority Leader Nancy Spence, of Centennial.
Bain said a leader’s appeal to young voters is apt to be based on his or her message rather than age.
“Younger voters don’t care as much about social issues as the pragmatic concerns about the economy, jobs, pensions and health care.”
• Chambers: The Arapahoe County GOP chair listed Penry, House Minority Whip Cory Gardner, of Yuma, and Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier as appealing young leaders.
• McElhany: “Obama was so popular with the young people. Colorado College, which is in my Senate district, had a huge turnout at the polls. But once the students got past Obama on the ballot, I think they just started marking ‘D’ all the way down the ballot.”
Despite that, Republican former legislator Keith King defeated Democratic candidate Pete Lee in the race to fill McElhany’s seat in Senate District 12. McElhany couldn’t run for re-election because of term limits.
McElhany’s list of Republican leaders with appeal for young voters includes Penry, Cory Gardner, Rep. Amy Stephens, of Colorado Springs, and former state legislator and attorney Rob Witwer, of Golden.
• Vanderbilt: “Kristi Burton, who ran the Amendment 48 campaign, encourages and inspires me,” said Vanderbilt, adding that, because of Burton, she is considering a run for public office in the future.
“I think people like Kristi will inspire young voters, just like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin inspired voters in the presidential election,” Vanderbilt said.
Burton co-authored the “personhood” amendment that sought to define a person at the point of conception rather than at birth. Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected the amendment.
“I think Kyle Fisk and Nathan Fisk are great examples for young voters. They’re always working — down in the mud pit with all of us — for the party. They’re not uppity, and they’re very approachable.”
Kyle Fisk ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, in 2006. His brother, Nathan Fisk, is executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party.
Question: In keeping with the “big tent” concept, some Republicans want to downplay social issues — from both the conservative and moderate side — and play up more inclusive issues that resonate with voters, such as stabilizing the economy, creating jobs and developing energy independence. What’s your opinion?
• Bain: “We have to put social issues in the back seat to win elections.”
• Chambers: “To Republicans who feel social issues are most important — they are. For Republicans who believe fiscal conservatism is most important — they are. They should both continue pushing the issues important to them.”
“I don’t have a personal litmus test for calling someone a Republican,” Chambers said. “There’s room for all.”
• McElhany: “Social issues are important, but fiscal conservatives won’t fall on their swords over them,” said McElhany, who adheres to the belief that “Republicans come in all stripes.”
McElhany conceded that some moderate Republicans have a tough time running against social conservatives to win party nominations in district and statewide races because the party delegates tend to be more conservative. However, he said, “candidates who have petitioned onto the ballot have a great track record in winning primaries — if not general elections.”
“When I first ran, I was an unknown quantity,” McElhany recalled. “I had to make sure my positions on issues were in line with the majority of the party in my district. It means being able to reach a compromise. If you draw a line in the sand — taking a rigid position — you can’t win.”
Somehow, he said, the Democratic Party has managed to create a “big tent” where typically opposing groups — such as unions and environmentalists — find a way to get along.
• Vanderbilt: “I’m very involved in social issues, and I believe they need to stay in the party platform,” said Vanderbilt, adding that it is a major reason that she was drawn to the GOP.
“Pro-life is a social issue that is important to the economy,” she said. “When you’re killing off future taxpayers, you’re killing the future economy.”
“As a Christian, I believe our country has gotten off track,” Vanderbilt said, adding that the nation needs to return to higher moral ground.
“When you go against the will of God, then the blessings from God will not be given to this country,” said Vanderbilt, adding that legalized abortion is a major reason why “our economy has gone into a downslide.”
Question: The Democratic Party’s grassroots effort — primarily mobilized by President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign — is being discussed as a role model for the Republican Party. What changes do you think need to be made to recruit candidates, campaign and fuel get-out-the-vote efforts in Colorado?
• Bain: “A lot people who would consider being candidates don’t want to put up with the monochromatic litmus test on conservative social values,” he said. “Consequently, they won’t participate until the party changes that threshold.”
Bain said the political climate will change over the next few months as Obama tackles the economy and runs into the reality that he won’t be able to make good on all his promises. He noted that Obama already is abandoning his tax reform plan, which would have cut taxes for an estimated 95 percent of people, and raised taxes on those who make more than $200,000.
“It’s going to be fun to watch,” said Bain, adding that he hopes Obama moves away from the left to the center. “I believe Obama will move toward the center just as Bill Clinton did, and Tony Blair did when he became prime minister of England.”
Bain said the state party also will be helped by working closely over the next two years with the Republican National Committee leadership that appears “more willing to look at the reality and promote positions that have a broader appeal to lots of voters.”
“What we really need is a new Contract with America,” said Bain, referring to former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich’s public relations pact, which galvanized GOP voters in 1994. The contract included key components of President Ronald Reagan’s winning agenda in the 1980s.
• Chambers: “There’s a group of people in the party who’d like to abandon values voters,” said Chambers. “We should never abandon these people. They’re part of the base of our party, just as fiscal conservatives.”
“We had very good candidates running for offices in the past election,” he said, adding that what the Colorado Republican Party didn’t have was “the ungodly amounts of money that Obama and the Democrats had.”
In addition, Chambers said, “There’s a technology gap that Republicans need to close.”
As for the state GOP leadership, Chambers said, “I think Dick Wadhams did a phenomenal job under the circumstances. We’d be absolutely foolish to not re-elect him, or even look in a different leadership direction.”
• McElhany: “What Obama did was totally incredible — raising $600 million,” said McElhany. “He even had three offices in Colorado Springs.”
“It wasn’t anything new. Republicans understand the game. We just didn’t do it well in this election,” he said. “The party needs those million-dollar contributors like the Democratic Party, who seems to have a large number of them.”
• Vanderbilt: “Pod casts, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and up the use of the Internet,” said Vanderbilt. “To attract younger voters, the party should invest more money into these markets than television advertising.”
“I’d also like to see changes in the state party leadership,” said Vanderbilt, who didn’t want to elaborate.