Two- man race could a≠ ect 1.3M voters
The two- man contest to lead the Colorado Republican Party is becoming a referendum on whether to allow independent voters to cast ballots in the 2018 primary elections.
And the question is transforming an inconspicuous intraparty affair into a consequential election that may affect more than 1.3 million unaffiliated voters.
Colorado decided the question in November when it approved Proposition 108 to create open party primaries to select candidates for congressional, state and local races. But a caveat in the ballot initiative allows a political party’s governing committee to opt
out and hold nominating conventions open only for their members.
The issue illustrates one of the bright lines in the chairman’s race.
George Athanasopoulos, a former Jefferson County congressional candidate who is making an outside bid for the top post, not only endorses a plan to opt out — he is pledging to ask lawmakers to delay the implementation of the voterapproved measure or challenge it in court.
“I see open primaries as an existential threat to the power of the party,” he said in an interview.
Jeff Hays, the former El Paso County Republican Party chairman and favorite in the race, opposes open primaries, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to opt out or wage an expensive court fight.
“The voters had their say,” he said.
Unlike the 2016 ballot question, only GOP activists and elected officials — 488 in total — will decide the party’s next chairman when they meet Saturdaymorning at Englewood High School.
The moment is significant because the Republican leader will need to guide the party to victory in the 2018 governor’s race — something it has done only twice since 1975. And the chairman’s campaign has become quite heated.
“It’s uglier than it has been in the past,” said outgoing chairman Steve House. “There’s a lot more negative ( attacks) between the two. It’s unfortunate.”
The race also is drawing national attention, said House, who took a call from the White House’s political team about the situation.
So far, President Donald Trump is not personally involved in the campaign in Colorado, as hewas in Ohio to help elect his favored candidate. But a member of Trump’s Colorado campaign team has endorsed Hays, a disputed endorsement.
Athanasopoulos served as a Ted Cruz delegate at the Republican National Convention — part of the state delegation that Trump claimed was rigged after he didn’t win a single one.
Colorado’s delegation epitomized the “Never Trump” movement, but Athanasopoulos said he didn’t walk off the convention floor with the rest of the Colorado delegation to protest Trump’s nomination.
Hays declined to say whom he supported in the Republican presidential primary after remaining publicly neutral as a county party chairman.
Both now are eager to embrace Trump. Hays touts his work to elect the president after the convention, and Athanasopoulos says he represents “a change in direction for the party,” just like Trump.
The caucus process that riled Trump is what led to the ballot measures to change how Colorado’s political parties select candidates. The March 1 caucus saw record turnout of the Democratic side and left some voters in the cold. And Republicans canceled the 2016 presidential straw poll, opting to elect candidates at insider- dominated local and state conventions.
The outcry helped propel two successful ballot initiatives, Proposition 107 and 108, to open the primary elections to unaffiliated voters— the largest bloc in the state. Colorado voters not aligned with a party can now participate in either the Republican or Democratic primaries without registering as a member.
The state Democratic Party has not made a decision about opting out.
Proposition 107 established a presidential primary in 2020 while Proposition 108 opened all other elections to broader participation. The central committees for both state political parties have until Oct. 1 to decide whether to opt out of the open primary.
Hays, who is backed by many of the state’s top elected officials, openly criticized the state’s caucus process, describing it as “disenfranchising, exclusionary, prone to mischief.” Athanasopoulos, who aligns himself with grassroots activists, called the system key to party building.
Athanasopoulos, a former Army infantryman, sees his push against open primaries as part of his image as “a fighter .” He lost to Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter inthe 7th Con-gressional District 55 percent to 40 percent in 2016, raising little money and mounting a modest campaign.
In a recent candidate forum, Athanasopoulos argued that Proposition 108 is unconstitutional because it puts restrictions on the party, which is a private organization.
“If it requires a court case, then that is what we are going to do,” he said, adding that it “turns over our elections to big- moneyed interests.”
Hays, an Air Force veteran, responded that the issue “is more of a challenge than a crisis.” He emphasized that the party’s attorneys don’t believe a challenge would be successful at this point.
“This is an opportunity to go out there and recruit ( unaffiliated voters) now and get them on our team,” he said.