COLORADO SPRINGS — It’s 8 p.m. on Thursday in the back room of the El Paso County Republican Party headquarters, and the smallest race within a race for the state legislature in Colorado is in full swing.
This wasn’t supposed to be a race at all.
Republicans in Colorado’s 18th House District, which encompasses downtown Colorado Springs, the Broadmoor area, and the hippy-dippy mountain town of nearby Manitou Springs, had already nominated Sonya Rose, a Southern transplant and real estate advisor to run against incumbent Democrat Pete Lee, who has represented the district since 2010.
While the greater Colorado Springs area is one of the most Republican parts of the country, Lee’s urban district contains more registered Democrats and is packed with some 17,000 unaffiliated voters.
But, on Thursday, with just 80 days until the election, Rose announced she didn’t want to run anymore. She has a special needs daughter she wants to homeschool, and she couldn’t split the time.
“I plan to be a mother first and a politician second,” Rose tells the crowd of about 30 local Republican Party officials who scrambled together on this weekday evening to help find a new nominee for the race.
So, what happens in Colorado when someone who is already nominated to run for a seat in the state legislature abruptly drops out before the general election?
A fresh candidate is chosen by a district vacancy committee of party insiders, a panel made up of dozens of local Republicans.
But a candidate must be nominated first.
Speaking from a lectern, Rose nominates local land surveyor Cameron Forth for the post. His previous political experience includes running for Congress in Idaho as an independent a decade ago*.
“I don’t even know anyone in this room,” Forth says to the assembled local Republicans when he accepts the nomination.
But, to Forth’s apparent surprise, he’s quickly challenged.
Some area Republicans nominate two other candidates: a local Hispanic pastor and former school board member named Al Loma, and a young, self-employed videographer who dabbles in real estate named Pat McIntire*. Both accept on the spot.
Loma says the local party is essentially looking for a sacrificial lamb who could rack up name ID for the 2018 race when Lee leaves office. Should the local party want him, Loma says, he would offer himself as a willing participant for this year’s slaughter.
McIntire says he made his decision to run on his drive over.
So, a race within a race.
When this happens in Colorado, each candidate gives a short speech to the voting members who will elect their nominee. Loma says he’d run as a compassionate conservative, McIntire and Forth say they would try to make inroads with non-Republicans in the district.
“I like Trump a lot, too,” Forth says at the end of his speech, the only candidate to offer his support for the Republican presidential nominee.
But then another twist.
On this night in El Paso County only 28 members are able to show up on such short notice. That is not a quorum, which is necessary to make an official nomination. So they can’t technically nominate anyone. There is, however, something of a loophole. The state Republican Party’s chairman, Steve House, can appoint a nominee. So what the local Republican officials can do is hold a vote and then hope House will take their advice and approve their pick.
Chairing the vacancy committee meeting, Holly Villa, the Republican leader of House District 18, tells the crowd she thinks House is the kind of guy who will go along with the local choice.
“One way or another, we are walking out of here with a candidate,” she says.
In the end, the fewer than 30 voting Republicans of the vacancy committee nominate Forth as their standard bearer for House District 18, but it takes two rounds of balloting to win the needed plurality of votes.
“I’m pretty shocked, but I’m excited,” Forth says. “I’m all in.”
In an interview, the candidate says he is against a big federal government and wants to end over-regulation. He supports Donald Trump for president, but his first choice was Rand Paul.
“There are a lot of the things Trump has been saying that, as much as he does off-the-cuff things, sometimes he is spot on with a lot of what he’s saying, too,” Forth says.
Asked if he thinks his public support for Trump at the meeting helped him win, he says, “No, I thought that would be a detractor.”
El Paso County Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hayes calls the downtown Colorado Springs district a “very interesting” and diverse one that encompasses plenty of small businesses. He acknowledges it will be an uphill battle for an underfunded Republican with such a late start to take out the incumbent.
As for the process of selecting a replacement for Rose, he says: “This is not unlike some of the other vacancy committees I’ve had. People weren’t thinking about running until— bam!— something happens … In essence, it’s really kind of democracy at work.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled a name and misstated the state where a candidate ran for Congress.