Tom McDowell, a moon-faced, 62-year-old retired businessman, describes himself as “a pretty heavy-duty fiscal conservative.” Nothing unusual there — many other folks who live in northern Colorado Springs wouldn’t mind being described the same way.
But McDowell parts ways with many of his neighbors when he says he’s pro-choice on abortion and doesn’t care about gay marriage. “I am not a social conservative,” he said over coffee before setting out on another round of door-to-door calls. “I’m going to be opposed to Bible-thumping.”
His combination of policy positions makes him an unusual candidate to unseat state Sen. Dave Schultheis, a Republican best known for his persistent efforts to curb abortion and illegal immigration.
McDowell says he’s running because Schultheis and other social conservatives are costing the Republican Party a legislative majority, nationally and in Colorado.
“I happen to think that the party, by choosing to emphasize those issues, drives away enough people that it really can’t be in the majority,” he said. He calls it “choosing to lose.”
McDowell compared local Republicans to the Colorado Rockies, whose attendance figures jumped this summer when the team started winning. “Politics works the same way,” he said. “If you choose to lose, you can’t get political contributions, you can’t get people to work for you.”
You also can’t control the political agenda, he noted.
It’s an argument that goes to the heart of a debate simmering in local, state and national Republican circles since the GOP wipeout in November 2008: Does the party need to reach out to moderates and liberals to succeed? Does success require a “big tent” where anti-abortion and pro-choice Republicans are equally welcome?
Schultheis has never made a secret of his preference for ideological purity over let’s-make-a-deal politics.
“He wants to abandon the principles of the Republican Party in order to win elections,” he said of McDowell. “I don’t agree with it.”
Schultheis said the GOP had already “gone too far the other way” in hopes of broadening its base. “We’re finding we can’t win elections with that,” he said.
Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, disagreed. “I do not think that we lost elections in 2006 and 2008 because we didn’t emphasize social issues enough,” Wadhams said. “There’s a long-standing position of being pro-life in the Republican Party nationally. I’m sure that will continue. It does not mean that we will not be a party that embraces pro-choice Republicans, because we do.”
If enough Republicans think it’s time to change the party’s stand on abortion or gay marriage, Schultheis said, they should rewrite the party platform. Until then, he expects GOP candidates to be loyal to the platform. “You don’t set a party up and say we believe in certain things, and then run from them,” he said.
For Wadhams, the debate is yesterday’s news. “The issues that unite us as Republicans are fiscal and economic,” he said, “and I think you’re going to see those issues playing out in the 2010 elections.” He said the Schultheis-McDowell fight was “the rare exception.”
Another “rare exception,” then, is the contest in state House District 17 in southern Colorado Springs, where Kit Roupé is squaring off against Mark Barker for the right to face the incumbent Democrat, Dennis Apuan.
Barker, a lawyer and former Colorado Springs police officer, says he’ll work harder on his campaign than Roupé did when she opposed Apuan in the 2008 election. Roupé says her long record of civic involvement gives her a better grasp of the issues than Barker, a political neophyte. Pressed on what issues separate the two candidates, neither Barker nor Roupé came up with anything other than abortion. She favors it to save a woman’s life; he doesn’t.
Roupé and Barker say they’ve signed a pledge to abide by the results of next spring’s El Paso County GOP assembly, where the party hierarchy will choose a favorite. McDowell says he’ll get on the ballot by petition, assuring a primary.
It’s hard to find anyone who thinks he’ll win.
“A pro-choice Republican is never going to win in northern Colorado Springs,” said Daniel Cole, a local conservative activist and a regular contributor to The Gazette’s editorial page.
“There might be some parts of the country where Republican voters don’t like social conservatism,” Cole continued. “All I know is that the voters certainly do like social conservatism in Senate District 9.”
The district is home to Focus on the Family and New Life Church and is often described as the most conservative area in Colorado. The winner of next summer’s GOP primary is all but guaranteed to win in the fall.
McDowell disputed the notion that his district is as far to the right as Schultheis is, pointing to the results on Amendment 48, an anti-abortion initiative on the November 2008 ballot that would have defined “personhood” as beginning at the moment of conception. The official tally shows the measure carried only the district’s 92 precincts.
“I don’t think I would be doing this, and working as hard as I am, if I didn’t think I could win,” McDowell said. But he anticipated that “even if I don’t win, I will have raised the issue so high that it will be very difficult for the people who choose to lose to continue that course.”
Contact the writer at 476-1654.