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Help Wanted: Colorado GOP seeks a leader after years of election losses

In four weeks, the Colorado Republican Party — bruised by years of electoral losses and divided over whether the 2020 presidential election was rigged — will elect its next leader to set the tone for the future.

There are five candidates looking to replace the current party chairman, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who decided not to run again for the position. Ranging from a former secretary of state to a three-time congressional candidate, the contenders are known entities to party insiders — and to some voters — and range from hardline conservatives to a centrist Joe Biden endorser.

Their divisions and similarities were on display Thursday night at a pizza restaurant in the small Weld County town of Hudson. They debated the minutiae of party politics, such as fundraising and candidate recruitment, as well as false claims about the election.

“If Republicans do not accept the fact that Joe Biden won this election and are willing to say it, we’re screwed,” said Jonathan Lockwood, a 32-year-old campaign consultant who is one of the candidates. “People are going to leave a party that refuses to accept election results.”

Lockwood was the only candidate to say unequivocally that the 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Two other candidates, Rich Mancuso and Casper Stockham, said it was stolen. Two others, Colorado GOP vice chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown and former secretary of state Scott Gessler, said or suggested it may have been. When pressed by the debate moderator to show evidence of a stolen election, none did.

“Our current chair is telling us that we have a ‘gold standard’ election system in our state,” Stockham said in reference to Buck, who has angered some conservatives for defending Colorado’s elections. “But that gold standard is blue and I’m not happy with a blue gold standard. I want a red gold standard and I’m not going to quit fighting until that happens.”

Thursday’s forum came during a modern nadir for the Colorado GOP, which has about 1 million registered voters in the state and lost 4,600 in the days after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol over election certification. Democrats control the statehouse and all statewide elected offices except for one University of Colorado regent seat. Both U.S. senators are Democrats, along with four of seven U.S. House members. Colorado hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 2002 and only one since Watergate.

“The simple truth is, we have no numbers and we have no message,” Stockham said at the debate as Mancuso nodded along in agreement. “Most of the people who look at the Republican Party have no idea what we stand for. We’re not in the communities that we need to be in to make any changes, so we’re going to continue to lose.”

The 90-minute forum played out before a small, quiet crowd and was streamed on Facebook Live. Three in-person attendees told The Post they appreciated the diversity that Lockwood, who is gay, and Stockham, who is Black, brought to the debate.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

People gather to support Casper Stockham during a campaign rally in Five Points, Sept. 12, 2016.

“I really loved seeing Jonathan and Casper saying, ‘I can tell people that no, (the GOP) is not what you think it is or what you might think it is, it is a much more inclusive party. It is a party that will work for people and you need to take a closer look,’” attendee Julianna Williams said.

But David Pourshoushtari, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, said the GOP’s problems won’t be going away.

“Instead of focusing on sham recalls or legislation to make it harder for people to vote,” he said, “the Colorado GOP needs to look in the mirror and figure out why Colorado voters have rejected them so soundly over the past few cycles.”

Dick Wadhams was the only former Colorado GOP chair to attend the debate, and said Lockwood “starts out with about three strikes against him” due to his past and present criticisms of two Republican leaders — former President Donald Trump and former U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. Lockwood endorsed Biden for president last year and supported the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group of Republicans.

“It looks to me like there are two front-runners, they being Kristi Burton Brown and Scott Gessler,” Wadhams said of the race.

“Kristi Burton Brown has been the vice chair for the party the last few years. She has travelled the state. She’s a young woman, which I think makes her stand out, obviously. And I think she made a very compelling case for a new generation of Republican leadership,” Wadhams added.

Gessler is the best known of the candidates. He touted his time as an attorney for Trump’s 2020 campaign and his ability to win elections statewide.

“You could tell he has years of experience, fundraising experience, so he definitely brought a lot to the table as well,” said attendee Anne Evans, who was impressed with all five candidates.

“Kristi is a millennial woman, a mom,” Evans added. “I’ve known her for a bit, so I just loved seeing that represented in the party. You could tell she’s very passionate and had a lot to bring to the table.”

Gessler and Burton Brown verbally sparred on several occasions. Burton Brown criticized Gessler for installing Dominion Voting Systems — the Colorado election software and hardware company that was a frequent target of baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and has filed numerous defamation lawsuits — when he was secretary of state.

Gessler went after the current state of the Colorado GOP, of which Burton Brown is vice chair.

“If you want the same lack of creativity, if you want the same lack of initiative, if you want the same problems in the Republican Party, then keep the same people,” Gessler said.

Burton Brown also criticized Gessler for working as an attorney for a group that tried and failed to recall Gov. Jared Polis in 2019. But she faced questions from a moderator about organizing her own failed recall of Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan from Centennial that same year. Led by Burton Brown and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, conservatives wanted to remove Sullivan, whose son died in 2012’s Aurora theater shooting, for supporting gun control legislation.

She acknowledged “it was a bad strategic move” on Thursday night, adding that Sullivan “would have won the district anyway because of the demographic challenges there, where I live. But I learned from that.”

The day Buck and Burton Brown were chosen as chair and vice chair two years ago, Buck said in a speech that Republicans would teach Democrats “how to spell R-E-C-A-L-L.” But after a series of unsuccessful ones, Burton Brown said Thursday that a bigger emphasis should be placed on electing Republicans.

“I do think there has been discussion among Republican activists that we probably need to back away from those kinds of efforts,” Wadhams said of recall elections in an interview Friday.

The candidates only have a few more weeks to make their case before March 27, when the party’s central committee — a large group of party insiders and elected officials — will meet online to choose among them.

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