Colorado Republicans elected former El Paso County chairman Jeff Hays as state party chair at the GOP’s biennial reorganization meeting on Saturday in Englewood.
“You know how you spell fun? W-I-N!” Hays said as he accepted the nomination in a packed auditorium at Englewood High School, invoking a catch phrase Hays learned from former Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry. Republicans in the crowd shouted out the letters along with Hays.
“And together, we will build a party we believe in, a party to be proud of, and a party that’s bigger, badder and better than it’s ever been!” he said.
Hays, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, management consultant and former football coach, defeated former congressional candidate George Athanasopoulos almost exactly 2-to-1, winning with 284.31 votes to 146.15. (The tally includes fractional votes because some of the state central committee’s seats split a vote among two or more party positions.)
Republicans also elected Colorado Springs organizer Sherrie Gibson as vice chair over Grand Junction activist Kevin McCarney by 284-134 votes. Incumbent party secretary Brandi Meek, who didn’t face opposition for a second term, sailed to reelection.
Pointing to record levels of GOP turnout in the Colorado county that boasts the most Republicans — as well as increased party donations and improved data operations during his two terms as county chair — Hays drew sharp distinctions with Athanasopoulos on nearly every count, including experience, fundraising ability and their approach to upcoming changes in state election law.
“We must have a chairman who can raise money if we even hope to have a chance at winning the governor’s race,” Hays said. “And if you want a chairman who can do that, I’m your guy.”
Incumbent chairman Steve House, who unseated two-term chairman Ryan Call at the party’s reorganization two years ago, declined to seek another term. Former state vice chair Mark Baisley jumped in the race for a few days in March but then withdrew, and McCarney briefly was in the running for chair before switching to the vice chair race.
Hays and Athanasopoulos clashed repeatedly since January, when both declared they were running for the top party spot.
When Athanasopoulos pointed to his campaign for Congress — he lost a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter by about 15 points in November — as proof he could turn out more votes on a lower budget than previous candidates in the district, Hays countered that prior GOP nominees came a lot closer to beating the six-term Democrat and raised a lot more money, to boot.
Athanasopoulos vowed to throw the party’s resources into overturning Proposition 108, a ballot measure approved last year by Colorado voters to allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in primary elections, saying he’d urge legislators to rewrite the law and seek an injunction in court if that failed. Hays called his opponent’s plans a sure path to a “win-win” for Democrats, because the GOP would bear the cost of redoing the law if that was successful and face a backlash from unaffiliated voters regardless of the outcome.
“You will have to choose from a candidate who will accept this or a candidate who will fight against this,” Athanasopoulos said to cheers.
Hays also elicited cheers from the crowd when he argued the opposite point in his nomination speech.
“You deserve a chairman who’s been honest enough with you to acknowledge that a unilateral lawsuit will waste resources and create a win-win for Democrats,” he said. “And a late bill to delay or prevent implementation of 108 has approximately zero support in the Legislature. Under my leadership, the state party will continue to challenge these laws and increase our autonomy that will not alienate unaffiliated voters.”
The chair candidates also scrapped over who was more committed to preserving Colorado’s caucus system, with Athanasopoulos distributing an opinion article written by Hays that argued the caucus system should be replaced.
“You in this room will decide if caucus is something worth protecting or if it will be slowly eroded and eliminated,” Athanasopoulos said. “I have made it clear that I’ve always supported and defended caucus, while my opponent has openly advocated for the abolishment of caucus.”
“Hear me now,” Hays said in his speech. “I am committed to running a fair and more efficient caucus and assembly process.”
Hays was nominated by Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn, Secretary of State Wayne Williams and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman. Athanasopoulos was nominated by Colorado Springs Republican Vickie Tonkins and Adams County GOP chair Anil Mathai.
“We are all members of a party that has, for the last several decades, always sought to impose victory from the top down. I want to build victory from the bottom up,” Athanasopoulos said and then described his proposal to pour party resources into field offices and staff throughout the state. “My opponent has called this unnecessary bureaucracy. You have to choose between a chairman who comes from and will always support the grassroots or one who does not.”
Hays pointed to his record as a county chair and called Athanasopoulos’s plan misguided.
“If you want a chairman with a record of party service, growth and positive encouragement, I’m your guy,” he said. “You deserve a chairman who actually understands the challenges our counties face, and I’m the only candidate who’s actually done that.”
Both candidates stressed the importance of next year’s election, when Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper faces term limits.
“We cannot afford four more years with a pro-abortion, pro-tax, anti-gun liberal Democrat governor,” Hays said. “As the proven leader of the state’s largest Republican party, I will deliver these results without on-the-job training. I’m running on my record, folks, as a military officer, as a coach and program manager, but most importantly as a Republican activist and leader. You deserve a chairman who’s actually done the hard work.”
Athanasopoulos cast the upcoming election in even more heightened terms.
“Everyone in this room has watched as Colorado has gone from a reliably red state to a state only the most optimistic among us would still consider purple,” he said. “But for one seat in the state Senate, the Democrats completely control our government. In only a few short years, the Census will be upon us and redistricting and reapportionment will soon follow. We will either undo the harm the Democrats visited upon our party nearly a decade ago, or we will suffer another decade of Democratic dominance. Therefore, this election is about more than just one party office. This election is a time for choosing.”
Once the nominations were official, Republicans completed the election quickly, using a new system of handheld remote clickers to cast their votes.
Hays said just minutes after learning the results that he was grateful and excited to get to work.
“The next big thing is to start meeting with our county party chairmen, specifically, start reaching up to the RNC — making sure we’ve got good relationships built with that organization — and I’m going to start meeting with our supporters,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “I’m going to meet with Steve House, start talking about the status quo and where he thinks we need to go going forward. I think a wise man has many counselors. We’re going to start building a team.”
Noting that he’s never met Colorado Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll, who won election at her party’s reorganization three weeks ago, Hays said he plans to reach out to her and get acquainted. “I’ve seen her work and certainly respect her and her organization,” he added.
He said it’s too early to talk about staffing various party positions and suggested he’ll come up to speed but won’t be spending too much time at state GOP headquarters in Greenwood Village.
“When I was in El Paso County, I never had an office in our office — I figured I needed to be out there amongst the people, and that’s going to be my philosophy being the state party chairman,” Hays said.
Then, as Republicans circled, eager to offer congratulations, Hays smiled and shook his head.
“I’m just very grateful,” he said. “I’m honored for the people that voted for me. My staff was phenomenal. It’s just an honor. I’m excited to get going on this thing and win the state back in 2018.”