Colorado Republicans wore gloom like a cheap suit on election night.
Jeff Hays, the ever-positive state GOP chairman, went to the stage for what was supposed to be a victory party at the Marriott in Lone Tree, and told fellow Republicans he wouldn’t try to “put lipstick on a pig.”
The news was bad and the rest of the night seemed like a wake two years after essentially the same crowd was so giddy about putting Donald Trump in the White House.
Pundits and some overly hopeful Democrats are saying the Colorado Republican Party is done, and the once red state of Colorado that became purple is now officially blue.
Baloney. It was two years ago that reporters were asking if U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman was unbeatable, after he dispatched state Sen. Morgan Carroll, now the state Democratic Party chair, with relative ease. This year, he lost by 12 points.
Claiming this was a landslide to the left in Colorado, however, ignores some facts. The same night Democrats were taking control of state government in this election, ballot questions to regulate oil and gas, as well as to raise taxes for schools and transportation, were getting pounded.
The person in the White House had a lot more to say about the outcomes than the names on the Colorado ballots. There are places in this country, deeply red states in the South and the heartland, where people love Trump.
The suburban and independent voters who helped elect Trump nationally two years ago abandoned him this year. At most, Trump has one more election. The question is not if the GOP will come back. It’s about how fast (and how) do they reach those young moderate voters, if Trump’s brand of conservatism cannot endure.
After 2012, when Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama, Republicans talked about a bigger tent to include more women and voters of Hispanic descent, but now the canopy seems smaller than ever.
The challenge presents a serious bind for U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the rising-star Republican from Colorado with a 2020 re-election campaign upon him.
His best bet is for Democrats to surge so hard and fast to the left that they turn off the state’s middle-of-the-road suburban voters.
If Gardner tries too hard to separate himself from the president, however, Trump isn’t likely to let that go unchecked. No candidate can win a close race without the support of the party’s base.
As for a conservative to take on Polis in 2022, Republicans don’t have a deep bench, barring a comeback.
George Brauchler was expected to do the honors after one term as attorney general, but he lost to Phil Weiser this year. Secretary of State Wayne Williams was also dealt a setback and now looks more likely to succeed another Republican, former Attorney General John Suthers, as Colorado Springs’ mayor someday. State Sen. Owen Hill didn’t even make it out of the primary against Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn this year.
It might take some convincing to get Suthers to run for governor, according to GOP kingmakers I’ve talked to since the election. They say their best bet now might be Heidi Ganahl, the well-regarded University of Colorado regent. If you’re a Republican or considering the options to Polis, you should get to know her. Gov. Ganahl has a ring to it; so does being the first woman to serve as Colorado’s governor.
I’m not ruling out a comeback for Coffman, the Republican supported by immigrant communities who nonetheless lost his first race in 30 years.
And if Gardner loses in 2020, he could be the Republican who takes down Polis in 2022.
After the election, somewhere between denial and anger in the five stages of political grief, Colorado Republicans spoke of their worst liberal nightmares.
“Welcome to the conservative therapy session,” Jeff Hunt, the leader of the conservative Centennial Institute, told a crowd of kinsmen at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood 48 hours after the polls closed.
Former state Senate President John Andrews, a speechwriter for President Nixon who founded the Centennial Institute and its Denver big brother, the Independence Institute, said on election night he felt like Gen. Custer at the Little Bighorn.
Hunt remembered the day the Western Conservative Summit began in 2015, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. The founder of Colorado Christian University, the late former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, knew it was a gut punch to the religious conservatives he led. Hunt remembered his upbeat mood, however.
Hunt reiterated Armstrong’s charge: “‘Fellow patriots, now is the time to mount your horses and ride into the bullets.’ You could feel the energy come back in the room.”
Religious conservatives as a bloc see an enemy in Polis. First, he’s the state’s first gay governor in a same-sex marriage with two children.
The Grand Old Party in Colorado will have to get its groove back or the losses will mount. And with Trump bound to maintain his place in the national spotlight for the next two years, that won’t be easy.
But to call it impossible for Republicans to bounce back is to greatly underscore their resolve and ignore history. Colorado is a swing state, and you can bet the pendulum will swing back with equal momentum. The asterisk is how fast.