Hetti Hennessey sits on the west steps at the Colorado State Capitol during a pro-Donald Trump rally on Jan. 6, 2021. More than 1,000 people gathered to contest Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election. Credit - Aaron Ontiveroz—MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images
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About 30 miles west of Grand Junction, Colo., aspiring paleontologists can sidle up next to working professionals and guides from The Museums of Western Colorado. There, they offer half-day, full-day, and multi-day visits to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry, which has been turning out dinosaur bones on the Colorado-Utah border with regularity since the early 1980s. The visits aren’t cheap, can be hellishly hot and dusty, and guests can’t keep what they find—this is protected land, after all—but it’s a great way to get up close to an extinct species like the Allosaurus.
For those looking to save a few bucks but see a similarly past-its-heyday species, one could also dust off what remains of the Colorado Republican Party. Once a mighty force, it has atrophied in recent years to the point of being unrecognizable. Although it’s not yet extinct, no one would accuse the state party of being a real force. In fact, in Tuesday’s primaries, not a single incumbent is seeking re-nomination to a statewide office and most of the races feature at least one supporter of former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election. Democrats, perhaps overly confident that the election deniers can’t win in November, are even throwing money at Republican races to help those candidates come out on top on Tuesday.
From the outside, the status of the Colorado party is a cautionary tale about what happens when the Establishment abdicates its protective role. Trumpism subsumed Republican identity in the state, and those who started the Trump era in power found themselves tossed by the time Joe Biden was in the White House. Rep. Scott Tipton, who represented the western Colorado district for five terms, lost the 2020 primary to Lauren Boebert, a gun rights advocate who campaigned with a Glock strapped to the hip. Tipton’s support for Trump through the Access Hollywood tape and two impeachments proved insufficient for the district, and voters tossed one of the original members of Ronald Reagan’s political operations from office in exchange for someone seemingly designed to troll indiscriminately; in other words, the latest MAGA celebrity.
It’s been the same elsewhere. As a Republican senator, Cory Gardner impressed his colleagues enough to run the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm in 2018. He stepped aside in 2020, when it was time to seek a second term. (Generally, senators don’t get to hold the checkbook as they’re fighting their own races back home.) He lost to the state’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, more of a sign of Colorado’s shifting demographics than any weaknesses from Gardner. By the time Election Night 2020 was over, Republicans would also lose control of the board that oversees the state’s third-largest employer, the University of Colorado system, for the first time in 41 years.
Just twice since 2004 have Coloradans sided with the GOP in top-of-the-ticket races. The slow fade of Republicans in the state has been years in the making and hardly came from nowhere. More than a decade ago, demographers began describing a more cosmopolitan region forming. They called it The New West, and Denver was its capital. National Democrats issued a clear warning to Republicans—in Denver and D.C. alike—when they selected the Mile High City as the site for its 2008 nominating convention. In picking a city that hadn’t hosted a political convention in 100 years, Democrats were telegraphing an optimism that they could put in play a state that had last voted for a Democratic nominee in 1992.
The push westward struck some as misguided. But the gamble worked.
Republicans, meanwhile, saw their standing cratere to its lowest level of power since World War II. Democrats now control 20 of the 35 seats in the state senate and 41 of the 65 seats in the state house. In the federal delegation, just two of the nine members are Republican; neither is a member of the Senate.
While it’s embarrassing to the conservatives who previously dominated the Western Slope and the homeschooling hub of Colorado Springs, there are decidedly national implications. The last Republican presidential ticket to carry Colorado was George W. Bush in 2004. The party has seen among the hardest pivots in the country toward Trumpism. And, if the fears of the NeverTrumpers are grounded in reality, a whole slate of Big Lie adherents could wind up the Republican nominees for a number of statewide posts. And it appears the most meaningful efforts to save Colorado Republicans from the specter of Trump actually are coming from Democrats.
From the outside, the party chaos may be fodder for plenty of Schadenfreude for Democrats. But it’s actually a dangerous situation.
In the race for Secretary of State, three Republicans are vying in the primary, only one who believes Biden was legitimately elected president. Former Colorado County Clerks Association director Pam Anderson has refused to play along with the party’s fibs and says her former colleagues ran a fair 2020 count. She’s running against Mesa County Auditor Tina Peters, a Trump loyalist who is under indictment for charges related to tampering with election machines. Peters has pleaded not-guilty, but it’s just another reminder of how much reach Trump has—and what a potential 2024 comeback from Trump could bring with it, especially if the top election chiefs are willing to do what none would in 2020. The third candidate, Mike O’Donnell, has also humored Trump’s Big Lie.
And in almost every other major race, the qualifications come down to those who think Trump should be sitting in the White House right now and those who do not. Democrats are playing in many of those races, but they would be wise to remember that a fuse seldom can be extinguished, and they may well have helped elevate ~to live with~ candidates from the fringe into positions of power.
Democrats make up about 28% of active voters, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Republicans count 25% of the state on the active rolls. That leaves the balance of the state unaffiliated, and they can vote in either primary. And while they lean Democratic in general elections, they aren’t above playing in the GOP backyard.
It’s that final note that has Democrats opening their wallets to meddle in GOP primaries. It’s become far more common than when then-Sen. Claire McCaskill and her team studied which Missouri Republican would be easiest to defeat in 2012—and then unapologetically spent $1.7 million to help him win his primary.
Now, looking around the must-win states, Democratic dollars are flooding markets trying to shepherd the weakest Republican to the nomination. In Colorado, a liberal super PAC is spending heavily to help state Rep. Ron Hanks to win the GOP nomination to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet, seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats on the ballot this year. To outside super PACs’ thinking, the $2 million spent now might save them $20 million down the road against a more mainstream candidate in Joe O’Dea, a businessman who doesn’t subscribe to the Big Like like Hanks.
And in the race for governor, Democrats have dumped trucks of cash into state-based dark money groups to promote former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez—and his easy-to-attack history—over University of Colorado regent Heidi Ganahl, the only statewide Republican official on the ballot.
Back in the Dino Dig part of the state, some Democrats are trying to help the Republican challenger to Boebert, not because they have hope that one of their own could win that district in November but rather to derail what they see as an authoritarian threat from her and some of her other Trumpian comrades. It matches how Utah Democrats are acting in another enclave with few hopes of a win. The same phenomenon may have helped defeat Trump’s candidates in Georgia. In Colorado, as in other states, Democrats just want to purge the Trump element from the system, even if it means a loss this cycle. After all, eventually someone digs up the fossils and restores them.
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