Then-state Rep. Dave Williams, center, now the chair of the Colorado Republican Party, attends the GOP state assembly at the Broadmoor World Arena on April 9, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
Colorado Republicans plan a vote Saturday on a new rule that could help dramatically alter how the party’s nominees are selected, and the debate is exposing rifts in an already divided party.
The new rule would make it easier for the party to opt out next year of participating in primary elections. Party purists don’t trust primaries to produce candidates with solid conservative credentials. But GOP opponents of the proposed rule — known as the Bonniwell Amendment, which would increase the potential for the party to opt out of primaries in favor of a caucus-assembly nominating process — see it as a crisis.
“I can no longer remain silent when it is now clear that our party has lost its way and its moral compass,” wrote Erik Aadland, former candidate for the 7th Congressional District and former candidate for state GOP party chair, in an email obtained by Newsline. “The ‘Bonniwell Amendment’ is un-American, incongruent with our Republican values and grossly unethical.”
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Proposition 108, passed by Colorado voters in 2016, established a system in which unaffiliated voters could participate in one or the other major party non-presidential primary election. This made the election “open,” as opposed to the previous system, in which only voters affiliated with a party could vote in that party’s primary.
A faction of the state GOP, aggrieved that unaffiliated voters could help nominate Republican candidates, has been trying to overturn Proposition 108 ever since. The state party, since March chaired by former state Rep. Dave Williams, on Monday sued the state over the measure, arguing it’s unconstitutional. It’s the second Republican attempt to invalidate Proposition 108 through the courts.
The party is represented in that suit by attorney John Eastman, who allegedly conspired with former President Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election results.
Some far-right members of the party are pursuing a parallel track to avoid an open primary — the Bonniwell Amendment.
Proposition 108 came with a clause that allows a state party to opt out of primaries altogether if three-fourths of the party’s central committee votes instead to use an assembly or convention nominating process. Since 75% is a high bar to overcome, Chuck Bonniwell, the Republican podcast host, proposed to amend the party bylaws so that any central committee member who doesn’t participate in an opt-out vote will be deemed to have voted “yes.” The central committee comprises more than 400 members.
The party plans to hold the opt-out vote at its meeting Sept. 30.
Many Williams-aligned party leaders support Saturday’s proposed rule change.
“Adopting the Bonniwell Amendment on Aug 5th is crucial to the success of the opt out vote we are taking at the Sept SCC meeting. It does not guarantee a win, it just evens the playing field a little,” state party secretary Anna Ferguson wrote in an email to supporters last month. “We are up against a force (which includes both Democrats and Republicans) that wants us to fail. We see misinformation and lies reported every day. Let’s stand up for what is right — a fighting chance at conducting our own nominating process.”
Todd Watkins, vice chairman for the El Paso County Republican Party and candidate for vice chair of the state party, said the 75% threshold was set unusually high on purpose to prevent parties from opting out of primaries.
“Seventy-five percent was deliberately put in place to make this a near impossibility,” he told Newsline. “It’s the illusion of a choice, you really don’t have a choice here.”
He also said there are strong indications that Democratic voters and left-leaning unaffiliated voters game open primaries to meddle in Republican races. This phenomenon occurred in the 3rd Congressional District last year as some Democrats switched affiliation to try to defeat Rep. Lauren Boebert.
But other prominent Republicans find such arguments unpersuasive.
The Bonniwell Amendment is an attempt to “fix the election for the Opt Out,” Kevin McCarney, state central committee member and former chair of the Mesa County Republican Party, wrote in an email to other Republicans. “Be sure this is not about UAF voters voting in the Primary, it is about people who want to run for higher Office, but not face the Republican Electorate because they would lose. It is about fixing Elections. It is about cheating. It is about corruption. This rule change has all the markings of the Democrat Party.”
Dick Wadhams, former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, called efforts to cancel the 2024 Republican primary “political suicide.”
“Colorado Republican ‘leadership’ continues to drive the party toward political impotence and irrelevance with its obsession to ban unaffiliated voters from voting in so-called ‘open primary’ elections,” Wadhams wrote in a Colorado Springs Gazette column.
Colorado Republicans in recent years have steadily lost influence in state affairs. Democrats hold all statewide elective offices and control large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
After the GOP suffered losses in the November elections, members looking ahead were divided between the vision of unabashed far-right priorities offered by Williams and an anti-MAGA practical approach favored by more traditional conservatives.
Williams won the party chair position in March.
Republicans on Saturday are also due to elect a new vice chair.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at The Rock Church in Castle Rock.
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