The Jefferson County GOP began its annual assemblies in the 1990s by asking all elected Republicans in attendance to say a few words.
“It was not uncommon for it to take an hour to get through all of those speeches,” said Rob Fairbank, the former state representative from Littleton.
Now, said Rob Witwer, former attorney for the Jefferson County GOP and also a former state lawmaker, “It would take five minutes. You could fit all the elected officials in a phone booth.
“And that,” he adds, “in a nutshell is the trajectory of the party over the past 25 years.”
This is a low point for the Colorado GOP, now with less electoral power than at any time since World War II. Democrats control both chambers of the statehouse by comfortable margins — 41-24 in the House, 20-15 in the Senate. The governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state are all Democrats. Next year, both of the state’s U.S. senators and four of its seven U.S. representatives will be Democrats. In November, the University of Colorado Board of Regents, previously the last statewide body controlled by the GOP, flipped blue for the first time in 41 years.
Just 18 years ago, roughly the opposite was true.
The Denver Post examined data and spoke to more than 20 Republicans, including many current and former elected and officials, and found most attribute the powerlessness of a party that was competitive here just a few years ago, and dominant as recently as 2002, to a mix of factors: allegedly mismanaged campaign money; fundamental disagreements within the party over its direction and message; the increasing strength of the Democratic Party; demographic shifts that contributed heavily to the GOP’s disadvantage in voter registration; and the unpopularity of President Donald Trump, whom one pollster referred to as a “rocket booster” for Colorado Democrats.
Jefferson County, once firmly red and later a bellwether, is run by Democrats now. In fact, Democrats dominate the Denver area suburbs in general. Arapahoe, Adams, Broomfield, Jefferson and Douglas counties cumulatively went for Hillary Clinton by five points four years ago — on par with the statewide margin. This year, those counties combined went for Biden by more than 15 points.
That leaves the party in soul-searching mode. A slew of party bigwigs, such as U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, former House Minority Leader and current state Rep. Patrick Neville, outgoing U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and incoming U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert have allied themselves with a far-right politics despite an electorate that’s now about 33% Democratic, 27% Republican and 40% independent. Those independents disproportionately lean left, favoring Joe Biden by about 25 points this year.
“You have to be a big tent,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and a moderate who outperformed Trump in his district by close to 10 points — a rare bright spot for the GOP. “You have to have a number of interests and voters and coalitions that support what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it. Unfortunately, that idea has kind of been pushed out in some areas of the GOP in the prior decade. That philosophy has been seen as equivocating or being soft or not fighting enough.”
The disappearance of the Priola brand of politics within much of the GOP — he said he’s felt marginalized at times — and the electoral consequences of it, are perhaps best exemplified recently by the state House Republican caucus, where the GOP seat deficit in the chamber of 65 ballooned from three to 17 in just four years.
House money and leadership in question
Whatever other problems the GOP faced, they appeared to culminate in the election of undisciplined or otherwise fringe candidates in safe seats over the last decade, said Frank McNulty, former Republican speaker of the Colorado House
One of those candidates was Neville, of Castle Rock, who was elected in 2014. House Republicans then elevated him to minority leader in late 2016, handing him the keys to the caucus bank account.
That fund is meant to protect sitting Republicans, attract new candidates and contribute to their campaigns. Members of the caucus across the state add to its balance, so it’s meant for the entire group.
But a few things changed under Neville.
The new minority leader renamed the fund “Values First Colorado” and registered the account to his brother, Joe Neville.
He also fired the old advertising vendor — who would send out mailers, buy media ad spots and more — and hired his brother’s company, Rearden Strategic.
“I said ‘OK this looks bad, but I won’t be upset if they win,’” said former Republican state lawmaker Greg Brophy, from Wray.
They didn’t win. House Republicans lost five seats in 2018 and broke even this year. Not since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency has their deficit been so great.
“You start looking at the money transfers and the way they hid expenditures so you can’t even tell what the money’s being spent on,” Brophy added.
After the 2018 losses, some House Republicans — including Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida — raised an eyebrow over retaining the Rearden connection.
“I said, ‘You know, with the Broncos, if the coach goes 1-11, you don’t hire that coach back,’” Wilson said.
But the checks to Joe Neville’s company kept coming.
Since November 2017, Values First cut at least $207,800 in checks to Rearden Strategic, campaign finance filings show. In addition, the House fund gave two other committees run by Joe Neville — Citizens for Secure Borders IEC and Take Back Colorado — at least $274,200 and $545,000, respectively.
In turn, Take Back Colorado has paid Rearden at least $306,554 between May and November of this year, the finance documents show. And Citizens for Secure Borders has paid Rearden at least $140,873.
Values First also wrote three checks in 2018 worth a total of $363,000 to Colorado Liberty PAC, controlled by Neville ally and Rearden employee Aaron Yates, the financial documents show. Between 2018 and 2019, Yates’ PAC transferred at least $340,271 back to Rearden. Yates did not return messages seeking comment.
That means in a little over three years, Rearden Strategic cashed in just under $1 million from those four funds alone.
Corporations created by Neville ally Matt Arnold — Values First’s designated filing agent — also received at least $21,250 in “consultant and professional services” payments from the House fund between 2019 and 2020, state filings show. Arnold did not return a call seeking comment on those expenditures.
Several House Republicans told The Denver Post the money was not spent in a transparent manner.
Rep. Larry Liston said he felt embarrassed on behalf of those who contributed to the funds and received nothing.
“There was no oversight, there was no input and the money was not spent on the appropriate candidates at the appropriate times,” Rep. Lois Landgraf said. “There are candidates who should certainly feel cheated and the caucus overall should feel cheated.”
Neville did not return a call from The Denver Post but in a series of text messages said he and his brother were transparent with the Values First cash. He’s also quick to note that House Republicans maintained their net total number of seats this year despite being largely outspent by Democrats, and he wrote that he’s “proud of what we did.”
Joe Neville said the 2018 and 2020 elections were difficult for Republicans all over and his company did the best it could. He also acknowledged that Rearden did not earn the House’s vending contract through a competitive bidding process in 2018 or in 2020.
“We weren’t trying to take money and fleece anybody, that’s not the goal,” Joe Neville said. “Did it work out? No. And now it’s somebody else’s turn.”
Priorities and infighting
Some payments from Values First were interpreted by House Republicans as an attack on a sitting member of their own caucus. Former state Rep. Justin Everett, an arch-conservative, and his company, Comma Consulting, received at least $17,500 from Values first between 2018 and 2020.
Everett was paid for some copywriting and marketing work, Joe Neville said, and the checks stopped once the former representative announced he would oppose incumbent Republican Rep. Colin Larson of Littleton in his primary this year.
Larson is young, relatively moderate and he’s shown he can win in the suburbs, unlike most of the rest of his party. And so the fact that he faced a challenge from the right this year from an old friend of the Nevilles disturbed many in the party.
“There’s no opportunity for any diversity of viewpoints within a party where any deviation from the most conservative line is considered heresy,” said Witwer, the former lawmaker and co-author of The Blueprint, a book about how Colorado Democrats rose to power. Witwer is now a registered independent.
“The roadmap is there for anybody who wants to follow it,” he added. “It was written by people like (CU Regent) Heidi Ganahl, Kevin Priola and Colin Larson. It’s a pragmatic form of conservatism, where people are strong on their principles but understand the need to communicate and work with people who might disagree with them.”
Larson fended off Everett’s challenge and said it’s still unclear what concrete product his opponent produced for the caucus money, and why Patrick Neville didn’t publicly rebuke the primary attempt.
“It’s the job of the Republican leader to defend his House caucus members,” Larson said.
Some ads bought with the house fund feature Neville more prominently than the candidates they were meant to support.
“The money is spent in a way that it recycles the political future of Patrick Neville and not the candidates for whom the help is intended,” McNulty said.
Patrick Neville did not run for House minority leadership this year; though it was his choice not to run, he was effectively ousted by his own caucus, which replaced him with Hugh McKean of Loveland. The end result of his leadership, many in the party agree, is lost time, money and energy, translating to lost votes for Republicans at a time when they could least afford it.
It was only six years ago in November that Colorado Republicans celebrated a mostly successful election. Cory Gardner had beaten Mark Udall in the U.S. Senate race. Wayne Williams had become secretary of state, beating now-U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a national rising star in Democratic politics. Cynthia Coffman won the race for attorney general by nine points, and Bob Beauprez lost narrowly to John Hickenlooper in the race for governor.
That feels like a lifetime ago, for many in both parties. All those big-ticket seats the GOP won in 2014 are now blue. And there’s real concern not just about the losses, but about how the state is trending. Colorado has the second-highest number of people with college degrees of all states, and the population growth here has been focused in urban areas that are trending away from the GOP. Even El Paso County, home of Colorado Springs and a Republican stronghold, is increasingly competitive; Trump won just 53.5% of the vote there this year, while Democratic strongholds got even bluer. Almost four in five Denver voters chose Biden.
“El Paso is the thing that, if I was a Republican, would’ve scared the (expletive) out of me,” said Craig Hughes, the longtime Democratic consultant. “They’re losing their base. and they’ve already lost the swing areas.”
It’s to the point, Hughes and several pollsters believe, that in a statewide election, a generic Democrat starts with a nine- or 10-point advantage.
“I think 2018 was basically plus-8, and 2016 was basically plus-4 and 2014 was minus-5,” Hughes said. “They’re in a very deep hole now.”
Added Brianna Titone, Democratic state representative from Arvada, and one of a slew of Democrats who’ve flipped previously comfortable Republican seats, “If the Republicans continue to go toward these ways of denying science and emboldening white nationalists — those kinds of things — the average suburban person, they don’t want that kind of stuff.”
Demographic and electoral shifts, in the suburbs and beyond, have lent urgency to a party searching for direction.
Part of the problem is that Republicans continue to ignore their own beyond the I-25 and I-70 corridors, said Kaye Ferry, an executive committee member for the state GOP and Eagle County Republican Party chair.
“They drive right past us on the way to Aspen to collect big checks,” Ferry said. “They’ve got 1,200 Republicans there last I checked. I’ve got 8,000 right here.”
Ferry is among a number of state party leaders keen to move on from the current state party chair, Ken Buck.
Buck embodied much GOP infighting this year. He made national headlines in May after a recording showed him pressuring a local election official in El Paso County to submit incorrect election results to the secretary of state. And then the Weld County GOP chair mentioned one of Buck’s congressional aides in a complaint alleging election fraud and corruption. Buck did not grant The Denver Post an interview for this story.
Democrats passed the first complaint to the state board that regulates attorneys, asking them to disbar Buck. And the second was passed to the Attorney General’s office for additional investigation. Both generated bad press and a distraction at a time when Republicans said they should otherwise be focused on the 2020 election.
Already other Republicans appear poised to run for Buck’s chair. He announced Thursday he would not run for a second term.
“He’s smarter than he looks because he wouldn’t have gotten elected anyway,” Ferry said. “He’s very unpopular.”
However the race for party chair turns out, there is a general feeling among many Republicans that without new leadership and a fresh vision they will continue to suffer.
“I firmly believe the Colorado GOP needs to have a deep bench and diverse bench and we need to field quality candidates that can compete with the Democratic candidates from the top of the ticket to the bottom,” Priola said. “That’s one area the Colorado GOP could focus on.”
Priola’s caucus will be entirely white next year, with one woman member. The statehouse Democrats, by contrast, are an increasingly diverse bunch, much more reflective of a diversifying electorate.
“There’s never been a circumstance where a candidate has been rejected based on their gender or their race,” said Naumann, of the state Senate GOP. “We’re not going to tell someone who’s white, ‘Sorry, we have enough white people,’ but if we can show that we are a party that fights for all of Colorado, that diversity of candidates will be organic.”
Easier said than done, he and many others know. They’re encouraged that Coloradans continue to support fiscal conservatism through ballot measures, even as they reject conservative candidates. And they hope that a Biden presidency creates an opening for a red wave in 2022 — after all, recent history here shows just how quickly things can change — provided the party learns from its failures, especially those in the Trump era.
“If the extreme members of the Republican Party ever want to have power again,” Priola said, “they’re going to have to earn back the trust of the middle. And the middle, I would say, is larger than most realize it is.”
This content was originally published here.