Updated: March 15, 2010 at 12:00 am
Tea party enthusiasts and 9/12ers head to the caucuses in El Paso County on Tuesday, a first foray into mainstream Colorado politics for the grassroots conservative political movements that have been gaining momentum in the past year.
The groups are best known here for their rallies in Acacia Park, raging against federal government spending, big business bailouts and federalized health care proposals. Now, they’re working to grab control of partisan politics in voting precincts around the region in a move that some say could fundamentally change the Republican Party.
“When we first started we were just mad,” said Don Rodgers, as he trained about 50 would-be caucusgoers for the 9-12 Pikes Peak Patriots on Saturday in Colorado Springs. “Now we’re mad but we’re focused, and that means you’re extremely dangerous.”
The national tea party and 9/12 movements emerged in 2009 as Democrats rode a wave of support into the White House, sweeping large Democratic majorities into Congress. Inspired by conservative talk radio and mostly lacking formal leadership, both groups say the country is slipping into a socialist decline.
The 9/12 project was inspired by talk show host Glenn Beck as a way for Americans to regain the patriotism they felt the day after the 9/11 attacks. The tea party has similar origins, with an anti-tax bent that the name implies.
Rodgers said organizers for the two groups statewide have rounded up hundreds of like-minded conservatives, mostly Republicans, who will head to neighborhood caucuses seeking to become delegates to county and state party conventions. .
If the groups can get enough delegates elected at caucuses, especially in the GOP stronghold of El Paso County, they could have a big voice at partisan conventions where party platforms are set and candidates earn spots on the August primary ballot.
Republican candidate Wayne Williams said the conservative outrage could seal a primary spot for some candidates. Williams, a term-limited county commissioner, is seeking the county’s clerk and recorder job.
“It can change the outcome in Republican races,” he said. “It can also help Republicans in November.”
Republican office-seekers are courting the movements, but they could cost GOP moderates. Candidates on the right who might otherwise be also-rans are gaining strength from the groups, including political newcomer Dan Maes, who is vying with Scott McInnis for the GOP slot in the governor’s race.
“It will tend to pull Republicans more to the right,” said Sean Paige, a Colorado Springs city councilman and follower of conservative politics.
The pull was evident last week as Republican candidates debated before hundreds of 9/12 and tea party faithful at Mr. Biggs Family Fun Center in Colorado Springs. Traditional GOP members McInnis and U.S. Senate hopeful Jane Norton defended their conservative records at the event but were portrayed as liberals by opponents, earning loud cheers.
One of Norton’s foes, former Douglas County Republican lawmaker Tom Weins, worked the Colorado Springs crowd hard.
“I need every vote I can get,” he said before the debate. “This is serious business running against Washington and Denver insiders.”
At Rodgers’ training event, most of those in attendance had never set foot in a caucus meeting.
“I always voted, but I was real uncomfortable about going to the caucus,” said Joan Eich, who plans to take the 9/12 agenda to her precinct meeting.
The groups aren’t asking their followers to pick specific candidates. They are asking them to take up precinct leadership positions from which they can sway parties toward conservative principals and fiscally conservative candidates.
Doug Gardner, after training for his first caucus, said he’ll hit his precinct with a fiscal message.
“You can’t spend $2 when you have $1 in income,” he said, referring to the federal deficit.
Democrats are eyeing the movement, and say while it includes some disaffected former liberals, it will have a wider impact on their rivals.
“Is it good for us? Yes,” said state Colorado Springs Democratic Sen. John Morse.
Morse and state Democratic Party chairwoman Pat Waak said if the 9/12 and tea party crowds push the GOP far to the right, the Democrats will benefit by picking up more moderate voters.
The Democrats, who have been battered in opinion polls, face their own primary battle. Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff is fighting for his party’s spot in November’s U.S. Senate race against incumbent Michael Bennet.
Republican state Sen. Dave Schultheis of Colorado Springs said the conservative surge is good for his party, even if it costs a few votes.
“It represents what we should believe,” he said.
CAUCUS MEETINGS TONIGHT
The Republican and Democratic parties will hold caucus meetings throughout the region tonight.
Those who have been affiliated with one of the parties since Jan. 19 can join their precinct meeting.
Registration for the gatherings begins at 6:30 p.m.
For location information, go to your party’s Web site.
JOIN OUR DIGITAL CAUCUS
The Gazette will launch its first digital caucus tonight as Republicans and Democrats meet to sort out Colorado’s slate of candidates and the state’s political agenda.
Tonight, caucusgoers and readers can join with Gazette reporters, who will hit El Paso County caucuses with mobile devices to record the action in a live blog. Caucusgoers will be able to send messages to the electronic caucus on Twitter by including the tag #springscaucus.
Live caucus coverage will start at 6:30 p.m. at www.gazette.com.