The Donald spoke to a near half-empty ballroom Friday during the keynote event of the Western Conservative Summit. While the audience at points cheered Trump’s remarks, his statements were at times met with tepid responses. As some Republicans tell it, the event may not have been the best place for Trump to launch his Colorado campaign.
But conservatives are “not Trump’s audience,” said former state Republican chairman Ryan Call.
Friday marked Trump’s first official campaign stop in Colorado since winning enough delegates more than a month ago to put him over the top in the race for the GOP nomination.
Call said that Friday’s speech was a good opportunity for Trump to begin building bridges in Colorado, where he failed to gain a single delegate in the state GOP convention last April. But Trump’s decision to open his speech by blasting Colorado’s caucus process, which included complaining about a “rigged system,” was a mistake. Those who attend the summit are among the most active in Colorado’s caucuses, Call explained, and by insulting the state’s caucus system, which has been in place for more than a century, Trump likely didn’t score points with some of those voters.
Call also noted that Trump coming to Colorado just two days after hiring a state director gave the campaign no time to pull together Trump supporters who could have packed the ballroom. Had Trump put a ground game in place here even two weeks ago, that would have been more than enough time to ensure Friday’s speech was met with a full audience and a more pro-Trump crowd.
What’s more, the three-day summit, which brings together Christian conservatives, features a host of speakers who are opposed – some fervently – to Trump becoming the presidential nominee in three weeks.
Among them: Sunday speaker Erick Erickson of the conservative political blog The Resurgent, who wrote in February that he would not vote for Trump, “ever.” His July 1 column was directed at evangelical Christian Republicans whom he labeled as “Judases” for supporting Trump.
Also in the lineup for Friday evening: Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who said in February he would not support Trump and hasn’t wavered from that position.
Linda Chavez led a seminar Friday afternoon on immigration. She’s chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and held several positions in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, including director of public liaison and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Chavez penned a column in March for Townhall, a conservative blog, saying she would never vote for Trump, calling him “a danger not only to the principles I hold dear but to the nation I love.”
“I have heard nothing from him that suggests he has either a basic understanding of our constitutional system or minimal knowledge about domestic or foreign policy,” Chavez wrote.
Saturday evening speaker Ben Shapiro, a writer for The National Review, has been in the #NeverTrump camp for some time. He wrote in May that Trump is “unfit for office of any sort, regardless of his opponent, based on both policy and character.” Dennis Prager, who also writes for The National Review, has endorsed Trump, but at the same time called him “stupid.” He’s scheduled to be the main speaker for Saturday’s dinner.
You couldn’t help but notice Friday that Colorado’s most prominent elected Republicans were absent from Trump’s speech. Missing in action: every Republican member of Colorado’s congressional delegation – the four House members and U.S. Senator Cory Gardner. Also not in attendance was the Republican leadership of the state House and Senate: Senate President Bill Cadman, Senate Majority Leader Mark Scheffel and House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso. The state’s top elected GOP officials – Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Secretary of State Wayne Williams – also were no-shows.
As was GOP U.S. Senate candidate and El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who has been endorsed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Glenn was scheduled to introduce former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but a scheduling conflict meant he missed the morning event.
And some students from the host organization, Colorado Christian University, weren’t happy with Trump’s appearance either. According to The Denver Post, several marched in protest Friday, carrying signs that said Trump’s values are not their values.
That’s not to say there isn’t anyone headlining the summit who supports Trump. Nationally-syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt, who will speak this afternoon, has battled with Trump during the past year, but finally lent his endorsement about two weeks ago. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who’s scheduled to speak Saturday morning, has been mentioned as a possible Trump vice presidential pick.
And there were Republican state legislators at the Friday speech, including Rep. Clarice Navarro of Colorado Springs, who’s considered a rising Latina star in the Republican Party. Navarro was one of two Colorado GOP officials to receive stage time in the hour prior to Sarah Palin and Trump taking the podium. State GOP Chair Steve House also spoke briefly, telling the crowd he would follow Glenn into battle anytime.
Also in attendance: state Sens. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, Ray Scott of Grand Junction and Jack Tate of Centennial, and state Reps. Gordon Klingenschmitt of Colorado Springs, Paul Lundeen of Monument and Cole Wist of Centennial.
A mid-day fundraiser for Trump, hosted by former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and Pete Coors, scion of the brewing family, drew more than 100 “establishment” Republicans, according to state party Chairman House. That event included Glenn, Palin and Trump.
“His business experience is very appealing to business people,” House said of Trump.
Summit attendees had a variety of explanations for why the ballroom at the Convention Center was half-full during Trump’s speech Friday. Some cited the cost, ranging from $120 to $600. Some noted that Friday was a workday for most people, saying the summit is usually better attended on the weekend. Some said people were vacationing for the holiday weekend. And some pointed out that that Trump, who was invited months ago to the summit, only accepted the invitation about two weeks ago.
Others said Trump’s problems in Colorado are about far more than just scheduling. They stem partly from a lack of a Colorado ground operation by Trump campaign, which announced just last Wednesday that it had hired its first state director, Patrick Davis.
They also stem from lingering battles over Trump’s nomination. He faces a possible floor fight over the GOP nomination in Cleveland in three weeks, led by a Colorado member of the Republican National Committee rules committee, Kendal Unruh of Englewood.
“I think any other nominee we’ve seen in years past had become the presumptive nominee” without an undercurrent on problems and concerns with the nominee, House said. “You’d have to stick your head in the sand to not know what’s going on with the [Colorado] delegation.”
Unruh is a co-founder of Free the Delegates, which will ask the rules committee later this month to “unbind” the delegates from their mandated candidate (Trump, for most states) at the national convention and allow them to vote their conscience. Unruh told The Washington Post more than 400 delegates are backing that request.
House said that he believes when the convention ends on July 21, “anyone on the fence” will realize Trump is the nominee and they will start to get behind him.
“What are your choices? If there’s anyone out there who’s wavering, it’s because they’re watching this undercurrent and don’t know if it’s completely over yet,” House said. “I have to believe it’s the same on the Democratic side as well. Once you get past the conventions, people will take sides very clearly.”
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr