Three months ago, the Republican Party in Colorado took its worst beating since before World War II. Since then, rank-and-file Republicans have been asking, “Can we turn this around?” and “Are Colorado Republicans on the verge of becoming politically irrelevant?”
Colorado Republicans aren’t yet irrelevant, but from where we stand today, irrelevance is within view. Anyone who says otherwise is ignoring hard facts. That should make your blood run cold – even if you’re a Democrat – because states in which Republicans are a permanent minority tend to be fiscal basket-cases (see California, Illinois).
Our state’s leftward drift didn’t happen overnight, so turning it around will require persistence, patience and, most importantly, long-term commitment by everyone from grassroots activists and party leaders to financial supporters.
As chronicled in The Blueprint, Colorado Democrats began building their machine, combining a massive, ongoing infusion of money and an army of activists, back in 2004.
Back then, Democrats were sick of losing. Bill Owens had broken their 24-year hold on the Governor’s office. Republicans controlled both legislative chambers for more than 20 years, except for a one-vote Democrat majority in 2001-02. Hank Brown and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (who switched parties after first being elected as a Democrat) were overwhelmingly popular U.S. Senators.
At that point, Democrats – fueled by the deep pockets of Tim Gill, Pat Stryker, Jared Polis and Rutt Bridges, and the brains of a shrewd young strategist, Ted Trimpa – and their various interest groups agreed to put aside their intra-party differences in order to focus on one thing: WINNING.
Future Governor Polis described their meetings: “There was never any policy discussed. There were never any issues discussed. This was simply a group of people who believed that all of our issues . . . would be better represented with a Democratic majority.”
Republicans must first grasp the reality that if we don’t win, we don’t govern. As Republicans, we’re proud to think for ourselves – not as a group. But that often causes us to place a higher priority on being “right” than winning.
We fight over who is truly conservative or who is loyal to President Trump, while Democrats win elections and make laws. Republican candidates tout their exemplary conservative voting record, but with Democrats in control, those votes are cast in a losing cause. Without a governing majority, those conservative votes don’t make even one Coloradan more free.
The first step toward a Republican comeback is to call off the intra-party purity wars. That doesn’t mean that primaries should become a beauty contest for the best-looking or smoothest-talking candidate. It doesn’t mean we surrender our principles. After all, principles – not personalities – have long been the bedrock of the Republican Party.
But it does mean that Republicans must consider, both, which candidate best represents our values and is best able to connect with non-Republican voters in a general election.
That’s because Republicans will be doing well to stay even with Democrats in voter turnout. Democrats now have more registered voters than Republicans, and because of their sustained voter outreach efforts, the trend is currently in their favor.
Elections will be won by the candidates and party that can capture the hearts and minds of unaffiliated voters and moderate Democrats who are alienated by the progressive movement.
But there is hope. Consider Wisconsin which had become reliably Democrat beginning with its outlier vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and was solidly Democrat by 2008. Then the anti-Obama backlash of 2010 ushered in a Republican resurgence. By 2016, the GOP held five of seven statewide or federal offices and legislative majorities, and Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win since Ronald Reagan.
Only when enough Republicans are sick and tired of losing can we focus on what it will take to make more Coloradans willing to vote for our candidates.
Mark Hillman served as both Colorado Senate Majority Leader and State Treasurer. A version of this article first appeared at MarkHillman.com.