DENVER — The minority leaders in both chambers of Colorado’s legislature say a proposal by their party to do away with the Republican primary for the 2022 election is likely to cause more problems and send the wrong message to voters.
Under the proposal being brought by a handful of members of the Republican state central committee, candidates on the general election ballot in November for all state and federal offices — including the Colorado House and Senate, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Attorney General, Governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate — would be selected through the Republican assemblies in the spring of 2022 rather than the statewide primary in June.
The effort is being led largely by committee members Peg Cage, former chairwoman of the Boulder County Republicans; Jimi McFarland, who runs the Jefferson County Tea Party; Chuck Bonniwell, better known as one-half of the former Chuck and Julie Show on KNUS radio; Anil Mathai; Ben Nicholas; Joe Janecky; and Joseph Stengle, former Republican State House Minority Leader.
The group of metro-Denver area Republicans told the Colorado Sun they don’t want unaffiliated voters to influence the GOP’s selection of candidates.
“I think it’s time for the party to start standing on its platform and principles and to get candidates who will do the same,” Cage told the Sun. “We can’t do that if we’re constantly going left and trying to placate the unaffiliated voters and the Democrats.”
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert told Complete Colorado they disagree. They think it’s a bad idea to tell voters in Colorado’s largest voting block — unaffiliated — that Republicans don’t care about their voices early in the election process, but then ask for them back during the general election.
“The voters have already decided this,” McKean said. “The voters have said what they want is for the unaffiliated to have a voice in the primary.”
McKean was referring to a 2016 ballot measure, Proposition 108 that changed the way Coloradans select candidates from each of Colorado’s two major parties to run in the general election.
Unaffiliated in Colorado have always been able to vote in a primary election. Prior to 2016, if an unaffiliated voter wanted to vote in either the Democrat or Republican primary, they had until 7 p.m. on election day to change their affiliation to one or the other and vote in that primary. They could change their affiliation back to unaffiliated after the election.
After passage of Prop 108, unaffiliated voters are now sent ballots for both primaries and they must choose one to vote in. If they submit both, both ballots are disqualified.
However, Prop 108 also allowed both major parties in Colorado to opt out of the primary and select their general election candidate in private at their respective party assemblies, which are small, exclusive gatherings among the party insiders. Such a move that would not only remove 1.6 million registered unaffiliated voters from the process, but also 1 million registered Republican voters.
Holbert said he won’t take an official position because he also helps lead the Senate Majority Fund, which generally stays out of primary elections. He did say he is concerned about the message that opting out would send to voters in November, 2022 and hopes those on the state central committee will consider past examples when making their decision.
Holbert said he thinks back to 2016 when Colorado didn’t have a presidential primary. The Republican National Committee informed the state GOP that the RNC would not seat delegates to their national convention from states that held non-biding straw polls.
“As a result, our state party decided to not conduct such a completely meaningless, non-binding, straw poll at our 2016 caucus meetings. That way, our delegates would be seated at the RNC convention. However, the viral story that resulted was that Republicans wouldn’t let people vote. Voters do not like to hear that and I’m concerned that the outcome would be the same in 2022.
Daniel Cole, a Colorado Springs-based political consultant, agreed and told the Colorado Sun it would “spark backlash” against the GOP.
The “very right wing of the party… is pushing to limit the franchise this way,” Cole told the Sun. “… getting rid of the primary would be sticking the party’s finger in the eye of unaffiliated voters (and) … an unnecessary insult to voters that we will need with us in the general election.”
Cole also fears that “getting rid of the primary would be sticking the party’s finger in the eye of unaffiliated voters.”
“We’d be losing the important proving ground that the primary provides,” Cole said. “We don’t need untested candidates in the general election.”
Republicans are set to hold their central committee meeting on Sept. 18. Members consist of more than 500 county party activists, as well as all state office holders. According to the bylaws, it needs more than 75 percent of the eligible voters to agree to do away with the primary.
Just moments before McKean and Holbert spoke with Complete Colorado, they stood alongside some of the state’s top Republican leaders at a news conference pledging to take Colorado back by making a commitment to all Coloradans.
“We cannot stand idly by as our beloved states descends even farther into chaos,” McKean said while speaking out on the increased crime rate and decline of public safety in Colorado. “It won’t be easy, but we have dedicated partners, genuine public servants and a Republican commitment to the families of Colorado to solve this vexing problem.”
Holbert said during the news conference that if voters give the state senate and house back to the Republicans one of the top priorities of the party will be to expand Colorado parents’ voice in educational matters.
But both men said afterward this proposal could hinder taking back a majority.
“Because the Senate Majority Fund is focused on November 2022, we want unaffiliated voters to say, ‘Yeah, we want balance in government. We need to vote Republican.’ So, it concerns me that we would do anything that leads to a message that says we don’t want their vote.”
“It is my obligation to have that conversation, and that happens in the primary where you are actually talking about the ideas that differentiate a candidate within their own party. If we are going to succeed, we need to have those conversations.”
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