Two- man race could a≠ ect 1.3M vot­ers

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Frank

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.

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