Colorado Republicans in crisis
The party is in historic decline. Extremists see an opening.
Anil Mathai, former chair of the Adams County Republican Party, speaks during a Save Colorado Project rally Nov. 30, 2022, in Greenwood Village. (Screenshot from Facebook livestream)
We learned this week that a group of El Paso County Republicans have made extraordinary allegations against their own county party chairwoman, Vickie Tonkins. The most disturbing charges involve physical intimidation.
“Most recently, at the special central committee meeting, we were told we should be put in front of a firing squad and shot,” they wrote in a formal complaint, obtained by Newsline, to the state GOP chairwoman, Kristi Burton Brown. “We are no longer safe at her meetings.”
The stunning document is made all the more significant by the identity of its authors, who include such party leaders El Paso County Treasurer Chuck Broerman, Colorado Springs Council Member Wayne Williams — who is a former secretary of state — and several sitting state lawmakers.
One might ask how the situation in El Paso County became so volatile that the lives of elected officials are being threatened at gatherings of their own partymates. But one might as readily ask whether such devolution was inevitable for an organization that has so long tolerated the bad-faith style of election deniers and the fascist impulses of its MAGA faction.
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In fact the crack-up over Tonkins is more the rule than the exception. The crisis of the Colorado Republican Party is exemplified in El Paso, but it’s apparent way beyond the county — in its inability to win elections, in the B-team candidates for the state party chairmanship, and in the revolt of many Colorado conservatives against the party establishment in favor of an irrational, burn-it-all-down extremism.
The party has arrived at a historic moment of weakness. Now it will either crumble irrevocably or, perhaps with the emergence of some capable leaders as yet unknown, begin to rebuild.
Until 2005, Republicans dominated statehouse politics. They enjoyed Senate-House-governor trifecta control in more years than not in the early aughts. As conservative strategist Sage Naumann recently observed in National Review, George W. Bush handily won the state in 2004, and only five years ago Colorado Republicans had a majority in the state Senate and held every constitutional office except governor.
It’s hard to exaggerate the decline they’ve since endured.
In recent years Republicans have been losing elections in Colorado at an accelerating pace. In November they got so trounced — Democrats retained their trifecta at the state level, Democrats hold 7 of 10 positions in the congressional delegation, Republicans now have zero members in statewide office — that former Republican state Rep. Colin Larson told CPR the election was “an extinction-level event.”
The drubbing exposed intraparty antipathies that, as in El Paso County, have escalated to threats of physical harm. That could be one of the reasons that one-term state party chairwoman Burton Brown declined to run for reelection in March. And in an ominous sign that the party is destined for more misery, the pool of candidates to replace her, even this late in the process, comprises some of the party’s most dishonest and unserious figures, and it has emboldened a conspiracy theorist-friendly effort called the Save Colorado Project to agitate for an uncompromising extremism in party leadership.
“We have a Republican Party that is full of whores,” Anil Mathai, former chair of the Adams County Republican Party, said during a Save Colorado Project rally in November. “They have not held to the Republican platform which is conservative. They have not held to the U.S. Constitution and then you wonder why these a**wipes can’t win a race.”
The Trumpist style of treating any opponent with vicious spite was always going to turn inward eventually.
Earlier this month, Save Colorado Project organizer Aaron Wood announced his candidacy for state party chair. He’s running on a platform of Christian values, the elimination of electronic voting and closed party primaries.
El Paso is home to the GOP’s largest county party organization, and its ties to the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs gives it outsize influence. Members of the party’s more traditionally conservative wing, some of whom are affiliated with a group called Peak Republicans, have been engaged in a deepening feud with the hard-right Tonkins and her allies. The formal complaint they sent to Burton Brown accused Tonkins of mishandling party funds, disenfranchising voters and acts of physical intimidation. It prompted Burton Brown to call a special meeting of state party leaders to decide whether to sideline Tonkins during county party elections in early February.
The county party’s vice chair, Karl Schneider, has long called on Tonkins to resign, and he describes her behavior as “near-criminality.”
“She’s not doing it out of ignorance. She knows exactly what she’s doing,” he told Newsline last week. “And this is how the fascist regimes start to grow. We’re at the root level here in El Paso County.”
It’s not just El Paso.
More than a third of the Adams County Republican Party’s executive committee called a special meeting this week in defiance of the chairwoman, former state Rep. JoAnn Windholz, who accused the rebelling faction of trying to “usurp the authority” of the party’s central committee, according to documents and communication obtained by Newsline.
Thomas J. Scovill, a precinct committee person with the Adams County Republicans, told Newsline that some members of the party suspect that Windholz is trying to tip the scales toward favored candidates ahead of the party’s Feb. 4 reorganizational meeting elections.
“The suspicion is that she’s under the thrall” of Mathai, Scovill said, adding that the Save Colorado Project “has put a lot of us off.”
“The only thing they talk about are election deniers and closing the primary, and they use this coarse language, and call everybody they disagree with a RINO,” Scovill said. “What we’re afraid of is they’re just waiting to take over, which of course is their right, but they shouldn’t be aided and abetted by the chairwoman, as she’s doing.”
The Trumpist style of treating any opponent with vicious spite was always going to turn inward eventually. Colorado is enduring the dead-end result of the approach, which leaves tens of thousands of voters without an organizational structure through which to advance their interests. Democrats might be celebrating their historic dominance in Colorado politics, but democracy suffers when any one party goes utterly unchallenged.
If the Colorado Republican Party is to be resurrected, it will be due in large part to the perseverance of its many good-faith members who have resisted the party’s fascist misfits and spoken out in defense of democratic principles. Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, exemplifies this courageous contingent.
In an interview in November, Crane ruminated on the question of remaining a Republican.
“I really believe that our democracy, our constitutional republic, is healthy when we have a strong two-party system,” he said. “And the way that it’s looking right now, it’s the bad actors who want to take over the party, and it sounds cheesy, but evil wins when good men do nothing … If good people don’t stay and fight and try to level set and get back to what we truly believe in as conservatives and Republicans, then we’re in a heap of trouble. You need a healthy and vibrant Republican Party. So I’m going to keep fighting and scratching for it.”
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