DENVER — One might presume that the job of GOP Chairman Ryan Call, seeking a third term, would be safe just months after the party’s first big statewide win in more than a decade.
One would be wrong.
Call is in real danger of losing his job on Saturday to businessman and former GOP gubernatorial hopeful Steve House, who has seemingly consolidated opposition to the chairman from both the establishment and grassroots wings of the party.
What makes it more interesting is that the battle between Call and House has also become a proxy war of sorts between two of the GOP’s leading officeholders.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, who emphatically broke the party’s 12-year losing streak in top statewide races last fall and has become the de facto leader of the party, is supporting Call and making a big final push to rally the troops on his behalf.
On the opposite side: newly elected Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who recruited House to challenge Call and has become one of the chairman’s most vociferous critics.
The results of Saturday’s election carry serious implications for both surrogates but especially Coffman. If House wins, she’s a king-maker and suddenly on the list of credible 2018 GOP gubernatorial hopefuls; if he does not, she has serious fences to mend with Call.
Gardner, viewed by party activists on both sides of this race as a loyal soldier, will continue to dominate party politics even if Call goes down; in fact, some believe Call’s defeat would already be a foregone conclusion without Gardner’s support, a testament to the senator’s popularity across the party.
Race is a referendum on Call
As unusual as it is to see two high-profile elected officials squaring off over a party chairman race, the vote Saturday remains a referendum on Call himself and may come down to showmanship, emotion and who makes a more compelling case to those casting votes at the state GOP convention in Douglas County.
According to a number of Republican sources who spoke freely on the condition of anonymity, Call’s perceived behind the scenes support of 2014 gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez during a four-way primary alienated grassroots activists who supported other gubernatorial candidates; and the party’s continued financial support of Beauprez through the general election certainly alienated Coffman, who felt that the state party largely ignored her and other down-ballot candidates who were more in need of additional resources.
“There was this perception that Ryan was all about Bob, and ignored everyone else,” one Republican insider said. “So Cynthia is teeing off.”
Interestingly, Coffman’s husband, Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman, is backing Call, as are most other federal and state GOP elected officials.
Tom Tancredo, who finished second to Beauprez in the gubernatorial primary last June, has been publicly outspoken about his disgust with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who served as chairman last year of the Republican Governor’s Association and surreptitiously funneled money to Beauprez during the primary — publicly, the RGA said it was staying neutral — through the Republican Attorney General’s Association.
Christie, Call and establishment Republicans worried privately that if Tancredo were the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Hispanics would be motivated to vote in greater numbers, something that could have jeopardized Gardner’s chances in the senate race; Tancredo, who didn’t put up much of a fight to win the primary last summer, isn’t missing out on a chance to settle the score with Call.
The Tea Party’s dissatisfaction with Call runs deeper, going back to the 2013 recall elections when a loose coalition of political neophytes, angered by the Democrat-controlled legislature’s passage of gun control bills, successfully ousted two lawmakers; the state party was reluctant to get behind the initial signature drives and only later put some money behind the two Republican successor candidates once the elections were set.
As recently as last week, two recall organizers, Victor Head, who lead the campaign against former Democratic Sen. Angela Giron in Pueblo, and Mike McAlpine, who coordinated another recall against former Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster who resigned her seat before petitions could be certified, were lambasting Call on conservative talk radio.
According to Head, Call took credit for the eventual victories that netted the GOP two senate seats but was slow to cough up the money to reimburse him and other activists for their legal fees after promising the party would cover those costs.
“That’s just the type of person he is,” Head said. “He’s not there to really help empower the grassroots of the Party. He really is in this simply to self-serve, as far as I can see.”
The state party contributed more than $102,000 in direct and indirect contributions to the recall effort, according to Colorado GOP spokesman Owen Loftus.
GOP establishment split
Unlike so many recent party battles, this fight can’t be boiled down to the old establishment versus grassroots narrative.
House, a former businessman and Adams County GOP chairman, has real credibility with the establishment side of the party — and Call’s standing with many of those figures has diminished.
One prime reason is Call’s decision heading into a critical election cycle last year to devote time and party resources to a Colorado bid for the 2016 Republican National Convention (the convention was eventually awarded to Cleveland).
“His party is in this epic fight to save itself in Colorado, and he is worried about throwing a party in 2016?” one Republican operative said. “It just didn’t make sense to anyone, especially the money types who were asked to fund the whole misadventure.”
Another reason was Call’s decision to create an independent expenditure committee for the party to raise larger amounts of money outside the restrictions of current campaign finance law; the committee was a non-factor in 2014 and the consultant hired to run it just pleaded guilty to illegally coordinating campaign contributions in Virginia.
Call supporters tout vision
While some big GOP donors have found Call’s performance uneven, other supporters tout his vision and willingness to think big; and they believe his investments in party infrastructure helped Gardner neutralize the Democrats’ vaunted ground game last fall.
“After the 2012 losses, it was apparent that Republicans in Colorado had to do what Democrats and their allies bad been doing for a decade: move away from reliance on volunteer walkers organized in the months leading up to an election and instead move to a paid canvassers deployed much earlier and charged with collecting and acting upon detailed data on the citizens they interact with,” one prominent GOP activist and Call loyalist said.
“Ryan Call decided that the structure of the Republican coalition meant that much of this operation needed to be organized and paid for by the state party. He set about raising more money than the state party had ever raised in an off year election in order to allow him to hire field staffers for 2014 by the spring of 2013.
“It worked. In an all mail-ballot election that was supposed to increase turnout and favor Democrats, it ended up that the GOP dominated the mail ballot returns and the Democrats were left scrambling to turn their voters out at voter service centers in the last days before the election.”
Should Call be defeated, Gardner, the beneficiary of the GOP’s vastly improved ground game last fall, could opt to set up a PAC of his own to raise money and run a field operation that has heretofore been the primary focus of the state party.
Ironically, a successful activist-driven challenge to Call could leave those same activists with far less sway over party policy where it matters most.
Can House capitalize?
While the race is indeed a referendum on Call, it wouldn’t be as close as it is if House weren’t so credible a challenger.
He has said publicly he wouldn’t be running if Coffman hadn’t asked him to; but by all accounts, he has worked very hard on this campaign, as he did during the early months of the gubernatorial contest before failing to make the ballot at the state convention last April, and gotten advise from a number of long-time GOP politicos.
“House is a guy who just sensed his moment and pounced,” one prominent GOP operative said. “Activists love him because he isn’t Ryan; business types love him because he’s not a ham sandwich like Ryan.”
More importantly, House has run a smart campaign, with a message broad enough to resonate with the party’s conservative grassroots and its establishment, country club wing.
“House is running stylistically to Call’s right because that is where he has to run (that’s where the votes against Call are to be found), but he’s actually trying to make a managerial argument if you listen to him,” another party insider said. “I think that’s pretty shrewd because Call’s entire reputation is managerial skill.
“It is sort of a swift-boating of Call.”
Does the job even matter?
For all the heated rhetoric and hard-fought endorsements, many within the party view the whole election as a sideshow, a hard-fought slugfest that’ll earn the winner little more than a job as a feckless figurehead.
The days of the powerful party boss strong-arming candidates and calling the shots in a secret, smoke-filled room are long gone.
As a result of campaign finance reform that limits contributions to political parties, most big donors give their money to super PACs and other outside groups.
“The state party is not strong enough to make or break candidates anymore,” said former GOP state lawmaker Rob Witwer, the co-author of The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.
“The back-room party boss has been replaced by shadowy nonprofit entities called 527s, 501c3s and 4s, funded by mostly unnamed millionaires and billionaires.”
For several cycles now, as detailed in Witwer’s book, Democrats have shifted their operations almost entirely to independent groups and away from the state party; Republicans, meanwhile, continue act as if the party and the role of its chairman still matter.
Saturday’s election may determine whether that pattern continues.