BOULDER — With a critical vote among Republicans to help shape the governor’s race looming in a convention hall in this liberal college town, no one knows what might happen— and some are prepared for sheer chaos.
Seven candidates are set for the afternoon ballot.
On the buzzing convention floor and raked stadium seating are roughly 3,000 of the party’s most hardcore loyalists. Men in bushy mustaches and bolo ties mix with MAGA-hat-wearing Trumpists and country-club types in blue blazers all under placards for county Republican Party organizations from Saguache to San Miguel.
In roughly two dozen interviews, most Republicans said they remain undecided in the governor’s race— a remarkable thing for a race with a sprawling field that has played out across this bellwether for a year and exploded this week with a front-runner’s status thrown into question because of ballot-petition fraud.
But several Republicans said they will wait to hear the speeches given by former Trump campaign official Steve Barlock, ex-Parker mayor Greg Lopez, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, businessman Barry Farah, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter and Westcliff resident Teri Kear before they decide.
“It’s a high-stakes state assembly today,” said former Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call, noting that for Stapleton and Coffman, the most well-known candidates on today’s ballot, it’s their only shot to make it to the nomination.
Inside the brightly lit, air-conditioned stadium on the campus of the University of Colorado-Boulder, several Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson, who is bypassing the assembly to petition onto the ballot, remember a stunning speech at the 2016 GOP state assembly by Darryl Glenn.
Glenn was a little-known county commissioner running in a wide U.S. Senate primary who took down the house with a speech that earned him 70 percent of the vote and blew away six of his assembly rivals on the spot, dispatching them from the race. Robinson says he came to that assembly planning to vote for someone else, heard Glenn’s speech, and switched his vote.
Paul Danish, a Longmont Republican in a bright orange NRA hat on the convention floor, said around 10 a.m. that with so many candidates for governor at Saturday’s assembly, he’s going to sit back and see who tears the roof off.
“And this is very unusual for me, I’ve been doing politics for about as long as I could speak,” he said. “This is one of the few time where I have gone into a convention genuinely undecided.”
As Danish finished his thoughts, Colorado’s U.S. Senator Cory Gardner took the stage to remind the delegates that Colorado has not had a Republican governor in more than a decade.
“If you listen to the media,” Gardner shouted, “they tell Republicans we can’t win, it’s over.”
Colorado has only elected one Republican governor since John Arthur Love left office for the Nixon administration in 1973, and that was Bill Owens, who served from 1999 to 2007. (When Love left, his Republican lieutenant governor filled out the last two years of his term, leaving office in January 1975. So another way of putting it is that Colorado has only had one Republican governor in the last 43 years.)
Republicans this year— starting at today’s assembly— are hoping they can nominate a candidate who smashes that narrative.
In 2016, Colorado voters went for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by about five points. At Saturday’s state GOP assembly, red hats reading “Make America Great Again” were plentiful in the crowd.
Buying some merch at the counter of a Trump-gear vendor out in the convention hallway, Nancy Mckiernan said she is supporting Barlock at the assembly because he is the only candidate on today’s ballot who has been with Trump from the beginning.
“He supports the things I support,” she said. “He’s pro-life, pro-gun, pro-country.”
A few minutes later, from the stage on the convention floor, a round of statewide officials gave brief speeches, including Stapleton and Coffman. The latter used her time on stage to rip into Stapleton for a 1999 DUI he got in California and for his fraudulent petition-gathering process that forced him to go through today’s assembly in the first place.
That aspect of today’s upcoming vote is what, around noon, had the 2018 state assembly on the brink of bedlam. Because Stapleton, an establishment favorite with a background in banking and real estate, did not initially sign up to go through the assembly, Coffman unsuccessfully moved to try and block him from being able to speak through party rules. Stapleton has to go through the assembly now because the firm he hired to gather petition signatures for him did so improperly. His decision to ask the Secretary of State to ditch all his petitions and to go through the assembly happened four days ago. His campaign had to make a 90-degree turn, focusing now on persuading 30 percent or more of delegates at today’s assembly to vault him onto the June 26 primary ballot.
On the convention floor, men and women in white T-shirts bearing Stapleton’s name scribbled on clipboards as they tried to find delegates to commit to casting a ballot for the state treasurer.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and blazer, Stapleton pressed the flesh himself, flanked by campaign staff in a hallway overlooking the convention floor in the early afternoon. “We’ve had a groundswell of support that has come through for me since Tuesday morning like I have never seen before in elected office,” he said. More than a dozen volunteers materialized out of nowhere in his campaign office to put together leaflets and buttons and make phone calls, he said. “It’s just been full steam ahead and it feels awesome … because I have a chance to unite this party.”
Dan Bidstrup, a Republican alternate delegate from Jefferson County, says he supports Stapleton because he shares his values, “even after subtracting the fact that he’s the anointed one.”
That’s a narrative that might be taking hold among some Republicans who look askance at the way Stapleton ended up with a speaking spot at today’s event.
Typically, a candidate who missed the deadline to sign up for the assembly would have to get nominated from the convention floor. But yesterday, party officials changed the rules to allow Stapleton a speaking spot without having to be nominated. Colorado Republican Party spokesman Daniel Cole says it was because if Stapleton was nominated from the floor he would get to speak last— a prime slot, which could be unfair to the others.
Shortly before noon, some Republican operatives were worried about the potential for people to just start nominating other candidates from the floor left and right to see how many they could crowd onto the already crowded ballot.
That drama was the subject of a letter by a “concerned delegate” floating around the convention.
— Colorado Independent (@COindependent) April 14, 2018
Theories held that doing so, and trying to splinter the delegate vote further, could either help or hurt Stapleton. One Republican who worked on Trump’s Colorado campaign even wondered of someone would try to nominate former GOP Gov. Bill Owens from the floor just to see what would happen.
Unlike the dramatic 2016 state assembly for U.S. Senate candidates, this year each of the roughly 3,000 delegates will vote on a handheld electronic clicker device.
Here is the could-be infamous electronic vote clicker at the GOP state assembly in Colorado depending on what goes down during the balloting for governor. Each delegate has one. #copolitics “COgov pic.twitter.com/NTMZ2XJf4e
— Colorado Independent (@COindependent) April 14, 2018
The votes will be tallied immediately after all candidates speak. If no candidate gets 30 percent of the vote on the first ballot, a second vote is taken. If no candidate gets 30 percent in that vote, the two candidates with the highest vote get nominated and end up on the ballot.
The candidates should begin speaking sometime after 1 p.m.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included some bad math about the years when a governor last served in Colorado.
Photos by Amanda Clark for The Colorado Independent. The 2018 GOP state party assembly in Boulder, CO on April 14, 2018