Colorado’s far-right pushes to close primaries, excluding millions of voters

The Colorado Republican Party is split into two informal factions — Donald Trump loyalists who want to move the party as far right as possible, and everyone else. Now the former group is hoping to create more ideal conditions for far-right candidates to be nominated for office, and its plan could affect millions of voters.

The idea is to get rid of open primaries, removing unaffiliated voters and all but a few thousand Republicans from having any say over which candidates the party nominates for federal offices, the governorship, other statewide offices and seats in the state House and Senate. 

Colorado primaries have been open on both sides of the aisle — that is, independent voters receive Democrat and Republican primary ballots and can choose which one to fill out — since voters approved that program via twin ballot measures in 2016

The fine print of the 2016 ballot proposals left the option to close primaries in the event that 75% of a party’s central committee is so moved. So, on Sept. 18, the state GOP’s central committee will decide on whether to choose candidates through an assembly process that fewer than 1% of party voters participate in. 

Colorado Republicans have less elected power now than at any point since World War II, and state Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs said it doesn’t help when the 1.65 million unaffiliated voters (the largest voting group in the state at 43%) have a say in which Republicans are up for statewide and legislative offices. 

“If we want a rebirth, what better way than to encourage people to become Republicans, to encourage them show up to caucus and assembly and vote with us?” Williams said. 

“What’s at stake is the possibility of continued failure. If we keep the status quo then we’re not going to get grassroots, genuine, trustworthy candidates that will fight for the convictions and values we claim we hold.”

Williams’ political views are in line with U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert — not compromising with Democrats on much of anything and promoting false narratives that the 2020 election was rigged. With the exception of Boebert, Colorado voters have rejected this brand of politics of late, including statehouse Republicans who two months ago rejected an attempt by Williams and allies to overthrow the relatively moderate Hugh McKean of Loveland as House minority leader.

Many of the party’s current leaders say they’ll vote against the proposal — in part because of the lack of influence far-right politicians have had in recent elections.

“I think when you go and try to close a primary and you don’t go out and engage everybody you can possibly engage in a primary election, I think that’s a huge mistake,” GOP Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer of Weld County said. “This is what the voters said they wanted. We should adhere to that and respect it.”

It is impossible to win a statewide election in Colorado without substantial support from unaffiliated voters, and McKean said he worries that closing off primaries would alienate the middle.

“I look at my town and the conversations I have with unaffiliated voters, and I like having those conversations,” he said. “The better question is how do you engage them best? How do I get an unaffiliated voter to listen to my message?”

“We might as well give it a shot”

About 500 people will be eligible to participate in the Sept. 18 vote — including McKean, Kirkmeyer and the rest of the 39 legislative Republicans. A half-dozen of those members told The Denver Post they are fairly certain the vote will fail, and even Williams acknowledged how difficult it is to get 75% of the party’s leaders on board with such a controversial change.

“It’s a tough number to hit,” he said. “We might as well give it a shot.”

In the spring, Williams tried and failed to make the number easier to hit. As the legislature deliberated SB21-250, a Democrat-led bill that made minor election-code updates, Williams pushed to tack on an amendment allowing parties to close off primaries by simple majority. Failing that, he said, he’d have been open to a 66% threshold.

What really got in the way was (GOP) leadership,” Williams said. “They caught on to what I was doing and got in the middle of it because they know 75% is a tough benchmark to hit so it’s in their interest to leave it alone.”

The central committee has shown a propensity for far-right politics, recently electing Boebert ally and former staffer Kristi Burton Brown as its chair. Burton Brown said she’s neutral on the Sept. 18 vote and brushed it off as a procedural matter that the party is required to take up every two years. 

(The Colorado Democratic Party reads the law differently and does not believe this is a required vote, said spokesman David Pourshoushtari, who said his party has no plans to vote on closing primaries.)

Central committee member Bob Miles of Aurora said members should think carefully about whether moving the party further to the right would be damaging.

“Has that affected the Democrats? Have they moderated their position? No. Their candidates are more liberal,” said Miles, who said he wasn’t sure how he’d vote.

Miles joined Burton Brown and a few dozen GOP leaders last week at a Denver gas station to debut the party’s upcoming election platform. It was the party’s effort to reintroduce itself to voters and set the stage for 2022, and so it was notable that none of the most prominent far-right lawmakers were present. 

Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican and outspoken critic of his party’s hardline flank, said “the state left them behind.” Of the push to close primaries, he added, “This is their last grasp to hold on to that power.”

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