Carolyn Olson is a fundraiser for a Denver-area political consulting firm, so she’s used to helping other people get elected. These days, though, she’s trying to get elected herself — as one of the nearly 1,000 Republicans across Colorado campaigning to be one of 37 delegates Colorado will send to the Republican National Convention on July 18.
But this is not your typical political campaign.
Olson’s bid won’t feature TV commercials, direct mailers, or rounds of knocking on doors at dusk in the suburbs. Instead it’s a quick-sprint self-promotional campaign where the stakes for Olson — and those of so many other Republicans in Colorado like her— are high this year. A volatile presidential primary hurtling toward what could be an explosive contested national convention is now shining a spotlight on exactly who these 37 Colorado Republicans will be who wind up carrying their state’s banner in Cleveland.
Former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call, a Denver lawyer who himself is running to become a delegate, puts it into perspective.
“These delegates to the national convention are likely to be as influential, if not more so, than at the 1976 nominating contest between Reagan and Ford,” he told The Colorado Independent.
Why? Because Colorado’s chunk of delegates could walk into the Cleveland convention unbound to any particular candidate and potentially have a chance to help swing the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Because national rules would have bound state delegates to presidential candidates this year, Colorado Republicans chose not to have an official straw poll like they’ve done in years past. So now Colorado’s delegates are unbound, and trying to get to the National Convention to have more of a say in who becomes president.
That’s why Olson, a South Carolina native with blonde curls and a Southern accent, wants to be one of those 37 Republicans from Colorado who wins a golden ticket to Cleveland.
So how does a 28-year-old Palmetto State native who moved to Colorado in 2011 actually get there? For one, she’s using some of the campaign tactics she’s followed in her work as a political consultant. She runs the fundraising department of Olson Strategies and Advertising, where she’s a partner along with her husband Dustin who was the campaign manager for Bob Beauprez’s 2014 campaign for governor. In 2013, she raised money to help defeat Democratic Senate President John Morse during a recall election following the passage of a package of gun bills Democrats pushed to limit magazine rounds and expand background checks.
She met her husband in 2010 when he was in South Carolina running the re-election campaign for Congressman Joe Wilson right after Wilson had shouted “You Lie” at President Barack Obama during a joint speech to Congress.
But while politically oriented, going through Colorado’s arcane, grassroots delegate selection system is new for her.
“This is my first time actually going through the process,” Olson said in a phone interview. “The main reason why I am running is to protect the integrity of the party’s nominating process.”
‘I’m going to Cleveland’
The experience of this one particular candidate for national delegate in Colorado offers a window into the subterranean world of campaigning to become a delegate in a key state during a chaotic national presidential primary.
Olson’s election will take place at her congressional convention this Saturday, April 2, at Church for All Nations, a nondenominational megachurch in Littleton. She’s already won two prior rounds to get this far, once at her March 1 precinct caucuses, and again at her county convention on March 19.
Now, at her local convention at the church on Saturday, she will be one of about 95 others running for one of six coveted delegate slots in her Denver County congressional district. She’ll have about 15 or 20 seconds to pitch to the assembled Republicans who will vote for or against her. That will be her final round.
“If I get one of those six spots,” she says, “I’m going to Cleveland.”
Olson’s campaign might not have a tour bus, but it does have at least one attribute of a real, big-time campaign for public office: a key endorsement. None other than presidential contender Ted Cruz has endorsed her as part of a slate of potential delegates from Colorado. The endorsement was orchestrated in part by one of Colorado’s GOP congressmen, Ken Buck, who is the state chairman for Cruz’s presidential bid. The behind-the-scenes endorsement wrangling process is another indication of the nationalization of very local elections and what those local elections can mean for national politics.
For the most part, Olson is waging her campaign for national delegate on social media and on the phone. She spent two hours yesterday talking to just six other Republicans in her district who will be tasked with voting for or against her at the April 2 convention. Like in larger campaigns, she’s crafted a platform and is urging other potential delegates to get on board. The central focus is a public petition to the country’s top GOP operative, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, asking him to stop any attempt to allow a drafted candidate to parachute into the convention and try to snatch the nomination away from anyone other than Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich.
There has been talk of a contested convention in which a candidate who has so far not been part of the national GOP primary air-drops into Cleveland and gets drafted as the nominee. And that potential scenario is what was behind Olson’s ultimate decision to try and play a major role for her state.
“The actual specific reason why I chose to run is because a prominent national Republican consultant called … trying to get us to support this stupid idea of trying to support a last-minute candidate,” she told The Independent.
Hence, her campaign to become a national delegate and her petition to try and stop anyone from getting the nomination who isn’t Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich.
That strategy is an interesting one, likely making her attractive to Cruz supporters but also those behind Donald Trump who are angered by movements to deny him the nomination. As part of her campaign, when Olson gets a Trump supporter on the phone she says if Trump has the delegate count to win she’ll campaign for him in the General Election, even though she thinks Cruz is a better choice.
‘I don’t think anyone really anticipated what this election cycle was going to be like this year’
In Colorado, three Republicans are already anointed delegates because of their position in the party, including state party chairman Steve House and two state members of the Republican National Committee. But the vast majority of Colorado’s ultimate delegates — 34 out of the total 37 — have not yet been chosen. Republicans will start selecting them this weekend at congressional conventions, and will finish the process at their state convention in Colorado Springs the weekend of April 8-9 at the Broadmoor World Arena.
In a sign of just how important Colorado’s potential delegates are becoming, Cruz has announced plans to speak at the state convention here. State Republican Party officials anticipate Trump and Kasich will also show up.
The presidential candidates will want a hand in helping decide who becomes a delegate to the national convention from Colorado. Their attention to the state comes despite Republicans here not holding an official straw poll during their March 1 caucuses. The decision in August to cancel it had split members of the state party over whether doing so was the best way to give Colorado Republicans a voice in the presidential nomination contest. Republican officials are now pointing to the kisses blown the state’s way by presidential contenders as a sign they made the right choice as Colorado’s delegates could be some of the most sought-after in the nation.
“I don’t think anyone really anticipated what this election cycle was going to be like this year,” says Kyle Kohli, spokesman for the state GOP, about how it’s all played out.
The rank-and-file Republicans like Olson who are running to become delegates don’t have to officially pledge their support to a particular candidate, which would bind them to that candidate in Cleveland. But some have. Most of the pool of Colorado’s delegate hopefuls are unpledged and unbound free agents. More than 100, though, are bound to Cruz, around 70 are bound to Trump, and a handful to Kasich, according to state Republican Party data.
Olson has signed a pledge to support Cruz if she gets to Cleveland. Some 270 people have liked her campaign page on Facebook, and she says about 35 people have signed her petition. And if she loses out on Saturday for her shot in Cleveland? She hopes those who end up going will still follow her platform to stop anyone other than Trump, Cruz or Kasich from getting the nomination. Millions of people have voted in many states, and their voices should count, she says, not the voices of party elites who think they know best.
If a drafted candidate helicopters in and snags the banner of her party without going through the process like the trifecta of current candidates still in the race for the White House, she fears it could destroy the Republican Party.
“I’ve always been on the outside of it,” Olson says. “I’ve never been in the mix of being part of the actual political process. I’m 28 years old, and I hope to be part of the Republican Party for a very long time. But if it blows up I might not be able to be part of it.”