Some lawmakers seek GOP purity

April 17, 2005
DENVER - A newly formed Republican cell in the Colorado General Assembly wants to purge GOP Statehouse ranks of those who aren’t true to the party’s “core values.” The conservative-leaning Republican Study Committee of Colorado was recently started by Rep.
Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, and several other lawmakers. They say they would rather see a small group of pure Republicans operating in the Legislature than a Republican majority populated by lawmakers who support abortion rights, gay marriage or higher taxes. Schultheis has recruited 13 or 14 other House Republicans — almost half the GOP House caucus — to join the committee. “There are Republicans in this body who don’t adhere to what the Republican platform is,” Schultheis said. “We forget these core values on a billby-bill basis. We are trying to . . . keep people from drifting off.” Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in November for the first time in more than 40 years. Some conservative groups even fought against Republican incumbents who they thought had cast bad votes. Former Rep. Ramey Johnson of Golden backed abortion rights, and she voted against a controversial school voucher measure last year. GOP activists campaigned against her, and she lost to a Democrat. For Schultheis, that was an acceptable casualty. “Ramey Johnson had to go,” he said. “I think those kinds of losses are not necessarily bad; they purify the party.” That the hard-liners are gaining power is “more perplexing, because the divide cost them the majority,” said Gayle Berry, a GOP lawmakerturned-lobbyist after term limits forced her to step down in 2003. Berry was often criticized by fellow Republicans for her votes on a variety of issues, including women’s rights. “One thing they’ve said all along is they want folks that will be with them all the time or not at all,” she said. Schultheis represents the new face of the GOP — urban lawmakers whose political passion and fervor has roots in evangelical Christianity. El Paso County, home to Focus on the Family and many other religious organizations, is viewed as the power base of the new Colorado Republicans. Schultheis and his philosophical brethren stand in contrast to old-school Republicans: generally rural lawmakers who just want the government to provide basic services and stay away from their water, land, guns and civil liberties. Republicans who subscribe to the party’s historical ideals bristle at the rhetoric from the study committee. “I think it is a mistake for Republicans to adopt these concepts,” said Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park. “If you want to exclude pro-choice Republicans based on that concept, that is silly. It’s self-defeating and it’s self-limiting.” The fight between the urban and the rural, the conservative and the moderate, is nothing new. In the past, Republican leaders were able to smooth over dissension within the ranks by using the carrot and the stick. A more moderate lawmaker might be persuaded to support a conservative proposal in exchange for a promise to back another piece of legislation. If such a deal were unreachable, leaders would threaten to take away committee chairmanships or other positions of power from those who didn’t toe the line. But the tools used to leverage party unity disappeared in November, when Democrats won control of the Legislature. “Since the leadership doesn’t have the hammer anymore, they lose the ability to exercise discipline among the caucus,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and an expert on Colorado politics. Nowhere is the divide more apparent than on the debate over House Bill 1194, which would ask voters for a fiveyear timeout from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the 1992 amendment that caps the taxpayer dollars that government can keep and spend. HB1194 would let the state keep and spend $3.1 billion in surplus tax money that otherwise would be refunded to taxpayers. Those calling themselves true fiscal conservatives — including every Republican in the El Paso County delegation — oppose the bill, on grounds that “it goes against the limited government goals of the party,” Schultheis said. More moderate Republicans are rallying behind it. In the past, Gov. Bill Owens, who backs HB1194, might have been able to use political clout to establish a middle ground between those who oppose the bill and those who support it. But he has less than two years left in his final term. Also, he angered members of his party when he endorsed Bob Schaffer in the U.S. Senate race last year and then reneged to back Pete Coors, who lost to Democrat Ken Salazar. Many Schaffer supporters inside and outside the Legislature — mostly from the party’s conservative wing — have not forgiven Owens. That, combined with the fact he’s in his last term, strips the governor of his ability to command unity. Hard-line conservatives recognize that and have been flexing their muscle. For example, House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, originally supported HB1194. A few days later, Stengel reversed course under pressure from conservative Republican House members. It remains to be seen who will win the power struggle, or when. Straayer notes a GOP house divided only benefits the Democratic Party. “I’m sure the Democrats are pleased to see the right fringe of the GOP enhancing its visibility,” he said. CONTACT THE WRITER: 1-303-837-0613 or
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