‘An extinction-level event’: Colorado Republicans react to deep election losses

Republicans hoped to make gains in this Colorado election.

The party recruited more moderate and younger candidates, women and people of color, and focused largely on purse problems. And with an unpopular incumbent and Democratic control in Colorado and nationally, the media and political observers focused on the scale of the moves Republicans would make.

Instead, the opposite happened. A blue wave hit Colorado, leaving Republicans in a worse place with bigger electoral losses than they ever imagined, shocking Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Honestly, I think Colorado Republicans need to take this and learn the lesson that the party is dead. This was an extinction-level event,” Republican Rep. Colin Larson said. “This was the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaur, and in this case the dinosaur was the Republican Party.”

Larson’s pessimism is understandable. He was poised to become the new House Minority Leader following the sudden death of Rep. Hugh McKean. Instead, Larson unexpectedly lost his own Jefferson County race.

He was already the last Republican to represent the suburban district west of Denver. That’s a huge change from just a decade, when Jeffco was considered one of the country’s swing regions and a focus of both candidates during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Republicans lost seven seats in the state legislature, and another Republican state senator had become a Democrat before the election.

That leaves the party with less than a third of the seats in both houses, the deepest Republican minority in state history.

“Honestly, it couldn’t be much worse,” said Dick Wadhams, former leader of the Colorado Republican Party. Wadhams largely blamed changing demographics and the national Republican brand.

“And I think we came up with very strong candidates that were worthy of consideration by all Colorado voters, and yet they were clearly rejected in favor of Democratic candidates,” Wadhams said. “So I don’t know what it takes for that to come back the other way.”

And it wasn’t just the Statehouse, losses were heavy at the top of the ticket as well. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis defeated Republican Heidi Ganahl by nearly 58 percent of the vote, even winning in the Republican stronghold of Douglas County, where she lives.

Larson said he believes it will take a seismic turn to turn things around, saying both local and national parties must reject former President Donald Trump, the Jan. 6 uprising and election denial outright. He believes that only then would enough voters in the state even consider Republicans as a “seriously viable option.”

“On January 6th, we just thought it got out of most people’s minds,” he said. “It just wasn’t the case. They weren’t willing to overlook the party.”

Larson said it’s difficult even for him personally. Although he has always voted for the Republicans, he said if Trump is the party’s presidential nominee in 2024, he cannot support him.

“We don’t solve our problems with violence, riots and conspiracy theories,” Larson said.

January 6, 2021 was a turning point for Dana Basquez, a voter from Lakewood. She was a Republican for most of her adult life. She became a Democrat about a decade ago, but even then she said she would consider Republican candidates and usually splits her ticket. After January 6th everything changed.

“On January 6, it was cemented in my brain that I can’t trust these people,” Basquez said. “That our nation, everything I hope for my grandchildren, is in peril.”

Raised in a Republican family in Texas, she said her father voted for Trump both times. She said he regrets it and is heartbroken about the state of the Republican Party.

“They tried to overthrow our government. He felt he had a part in it. And this man was 86 years old and had had prostate cancer for more than a year,” Basquez said. “And by May he was gone. He was just devastated by what they did.”

Some candidates tried to distance themselves from Trump, but it still didn’t help. Democratic US Senator Michael Bennet easily defeated Republican businessman Joe O’Dea, despite O’Dea breaking with Trump, defending the 2020 election and taking relatively moderate positions on abortion rights, immigration, infrastructure and same-sex marriage.

20221108-ELECTION-DAY-GOP-CLOCK-PARTY-ODEA-OPPOSITEHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican US Senate nominee Joe O’Dea, from Colorado, accompanied by his wife Celeste, tells supporters he called his opponent, incumbent Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, to arrive on Election Day, November 8, 2022, in the ballroom at the Hilton DoubleTree Hotels to admit defeat in Greenwood Village, a Denver suburb.

Zack Roday was O’Dea’s campaign manager and said they knew ahead of the race that beating Bennet in a state where Trump lost by 13 points was a long way off, but they didn’t expect the margins to be so large would be as they were.

“Our polls showed it was getting worse, the public polls showed it was getting worse, and history. I mean the incumbent [President] was under 50 percent in all credible polls,” Roday said. “Gravity, Midterms, all of this points to the challenger going to close hard and fast.”

But as the election drew closer, the campaign began to see troubling hints of the Republican Party’s brand. Roday said the campaign sent text messages and got some replies like, “I really like this guy. That’s the type of man I could support. I’m just not voting Republican right now.”

O’Dea scored a few points better than Republican gubernatorial candidate Ganahl, who courted leaders of the counterfeit movement and drew attention for championing “parental rights” and making unsubstantiated claims that children “identify as cats … in all of Colorado” and the schools “tolerate” it.

Roday said this election showed that the Republican Party’s problems are greater than those of any single candidate.

“The reality is that (Trump) lost the midterms for us in 2018,” Roday said. “He lost the White House in 2020.”

Roday said this effectively set a limit on what the party could achieve “in what should have been an extremely benign environment in 2022.” And there is only one way to move forward and that is to rid ourselves of this cancer.”

Still, he said he was proud that O’Dea publicly opposed Trump.

“Going toe-to-toe with the former President of the United States and not backing down is in the history books. Even if we fall short,” he said.

Votes are still tabulated, but with a vote gain of about 42.4 percent, O’Dea narrowly surpassed Trump’s 41.9 percent share of the Colorado vote in the 2020 general election. That race had 23 candidates, who split the vote, compared to just five in this year’s Senate race. Either way, the Libertarian candidate was the biggest third-party draw with 1.61 percent of the vote in 2020 and 1.7 percent this year.

Republicans also narrowly lost Colorado’s new 8th congressional district, and Republican Lauren Boebert’s race in the 3rd congressional district is still too close to decide, in a seat where Republicans hold a 9-point lead , despite leading her Democratic opponent Adam Frisch.

Some Democrats point to the Supreme Court and the Roe v. Wade as a turning point that helped them and mobilized voters. What matters to Democratic US Senator John Hickenlooper, who did not stand for election, is that he believes Colorado has one of the strongest economies in the country.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect here. And there are a lot of people who feel inflation and the interest rates on their loan or their loan bill or on their home mortgage, they care,” Hickenlooper said. “But they are also more optimistic and believe our future is bright. That’s not true everywhere in America.”

But while the dust has settled, Colorado’s state Republicans next need to figure out how to slow down or moderate Democrat priorities in the state legislature, even though they don’t have the votes to stop anything. Though the party was already in the minority, Larson said, with fewer Republicans now, Democrats would have even less incentive to lean towards the center.

“There will be a lot of negative political outcomes if there isn’t a reasonable and relevant loyal opposition party,” he said, noting that despite some strong new members, some of the more moderate lawmakers are no longer in the Capitol.

Former Democratic State Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp agrees that having more Republicans in the statehouse can be a good thing. She served a 2020 term and is now a Jefferson County commissioner. For part of their time in the Capitol, Republicans controlled the state Senate.

“It actually went very well. It forced people to be able to negotiate, collaborate and find common ground to get things done,” Kraft-Tharp said.

And now that Republicans are no longer in power at the state and federal levels, local races could become an increased focus. When Republican Congressman Mike Coffman lost his re-election bid in 2018, he became Aurora’s mayor.

“It’s clear that it’s a blue state statewide and Republicans can be successful in certain counties or certain pockets of state and city councils,” said Michael Fields, the head of the conservative Advance Colorado Institute.

Fields has helped spearhead successful ballot initiatives in recent years, including Proposal 121, which lowers the state income tax rate from 4.55 percent on income to 4.40 percent on income. It had widespread support and was passed in every county in the state except Boulder.

“We can win on issues. We just cut taxes and 65% of voters agreed with us. They’re still avenues to enact policies,” Fields said. “And I think politics is the most important thing. And we’ve been out of power for four years (when Republicans last controlled the state Senate), but we’ve still done a lot on the political front as conservatives.”

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