GOP desire for an uncontested primary leads to trainwreck

The Republican Party calls itself a big tent. In Colorado, every square inch of tattered canvas is needed. Even then, there seem to be a few people who feel like they’ve been left out in the rain.

Dick Wadhams

The Colorado Independent last week called all 64 county GOP chairs in Colorado. (We spoke with 28, left messages for most of the rest, but got a few busy signals and endlessly ringing lines without voice mail.) A lot of them are not happy. At least as it relates the governor’s race; many of those we talked to think things have gone seriously awry.

Even so, most of them say Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams has done about as good a job as could be expected. Most of those who were willing to answer the question said they favor GOP nominee Dan Maes in the governor’s race, many of them vehemently.

The vast majority of those willing to talk about it said they wished Josh Penry would have stayed in the race. When state Senate Minority Leader Penry pulled out, he said he was doing so for family reasons. Few believed that was the only reason. Some blamed presumed front-runner Scott McInnis for pushing him out. Others thought Wadhams had a hand in it.

The idea of decisions being made and candidates anointed in proverbial smoke-filled rooms rankled many.

Judy Reyher, of Otero County, was especially harsh in her characterization of what may have gone on behind closed doors. “Josh wasn’t the only one who was forced out of the race, but Josh was very strong in Southeast Colorado at that point. People here liked his stance on Pinon Canyon. The entire pact that got him and others out of the race was a bad idea.

“It is an example of the games people play and how the good old boys like to do things, and this is why we have such a train wreck now.”

She didn’t blame Wadhams for Penry’s decision, saying it came about more because of pressure from McInnis.

“Dick couldn’t have stopped the deal if he wanted to. It was all about Scott McInnis and his assertion that it was his turn and everybody else needed to back away. It seems like every politician thinks he is the one. And people played ball. Everything else stems from his insistence that everyone else get out of the race. No one even thought Dan Maes was a factor back then.

“I would hope this would teach us to watch out for these backroom deals. All around the country this year we are seeing people who were picked in backroom deals getting the doors slammed in their faces. People don’t like that. That is what has got us in the position we are in, but they have doing it this way for so long that I doubt it will change,” she said.

Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy says the efforts to keep Penry out of the race were typical of politics these days and may cost the GOP the statehouse.

“Both parties try to avoid primaries,” he said. Loevy said the parties have very good reasons for wanting to avoid primaries: (1) They can cost a lot of money, and (2) because of negative campaigning, they can give the other side ammunition against the winner in a general election.

“Everything we see now came about because the Republicans settled on McInnis early. When he became the victim of a feeding frenzy, his candidacy was destroyed and they were left with no viable candidates. I blame the party. If you drive all the other viable candidates out, this is where you end up. The Republicans were only doing what both parties try so hard to do. In this case, it backfired,” he said.

Loevy said he doesn’t consider Maes a viable candidate simply because he has never won an election at any level. “He does have one thing going for him, though. He’s the duly elected nominee.”

Larry Carillo, Larimer County party chairman, said, “The situation with Josh Penry was no different than the situation with Dan Maes. It is an open process; they both made their decisions. Whatever did or didn’t happen was Penry’s decision. The only one who can get Maes out of the race is Maes. It was an open and fair process. A very similar thing happened on the other side with Andrew Romanoff challenging [incumbent Democratic Sen.] Michael Bennet. That’s how it should be.”

“I’m a big supporter of Josh Penry’s,” said Pueblo County chairman David Dill. “I don’t know why he stepped down, but he’s young and he probably thought he would have another chance.”

“I liked Josh Penry a lot,” said Adams County chairman Clark Bolser. “I thought he brought a young face and would have made a real viable candidate. As to why he dropped out, I have to take him at his word that he didn’t know how he would support his family without a job as he campaigned full-time while in a very long campaign.”

In order to speak frankly, we allowed the county chairs to speak anonymously if they wanted to. One suburban chair had this to say: “I like Dick a lot, and I’ve worked closely with him. I know him better than most people. Generally, I think he has done a good job, but I don’t like the idea of manipulating outcomes. They don’t invite me to those meetings because they know I won’t cooperate.”

Only 19 of the chairs were willing to discuss Penry’s decision to drop out, but of those, 15 said it was a mistake. According to party rules, county chairs are not supposed to express a preference for a candidate until that candidate has been nominated. Still, 13 were willing to tell us their original preference, and seven of those said they favored Penry, three said McInnis, two Maes and one Bob Beauprez.

Asked whom they liked today, many laughed, but an overwhelming 12 out of 16 said they were voting for Maes; Democrat John Hickenlooper and American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo each got one commitment. Two said they favored people who were not in the race. Several hedged their bets, saying it will depend on how things shake out between Maes and Tancredo as the election gets closer.

In spite of what people hear from the media or from GOP headquarters, it seems most of the county chairs are trying to circle the wagons around Maes.

Part 2: Making the most of a bad situation — more reaction from GOP county chairs.

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About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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