Shifting Republicanism & The Party’s Future in Colorado

October 1, 2020

When one pictures the Republican Party, its figureheads and its policy positions, it’s easy to envision two very different images. On the one hand is Ronald Reagan and his once-popular “compassionate conservatism”, an artifact of what now feels like an ancient era. Reagan conservatives, who preached for an inclusive GOP based upon economic liberties and family values, rose to power before the internet, social media, and misinformation became messy political factors. On the other hand is President Donald Trump and his sea of impassioned, red baseball cap-donning supporters. It’s undeniable that the Republican Party has shifted in both its platform and its portrayal of itself, now largely unabashed when it comes to tweets, government shutdowns, impeachment, and national crises that would have been scandals for any other administration.

As put by the Washington Post, “Trump has built a cult of personality.” Recent remarks by the president regarding postponing the election, limiting mail-in ballots, and questioning the legitimacy of an election result not in his favor run contrary to what Republicans have supported throughout the past half century: constitutionalism and limited federal power. Policy positions of Trump’s, including pulling out of international agreements, family separation at the border and trade wars, have undermined previous conservative aims such as free trade, civil society and international cooperation. And yet few conservative leaders have objected to his actions.

Why is this? In 1996, Republicans rejected Trump’s predecessor Pat Buchanan (whose “boldest achievement”, as put by reporter Tim Alberta, was “being Trump before Trump was Trump”) in favor of George W. Bush, with his platform focus on education, welcoming immigrants, and adding benefits to Medicare. In 2016, Trump reoriented the party’s focus in order to capture a populist-style appeal, even using a version of Buchanan’s slogan (Make America First Again). Only this time, conservatives didn’t dismiss such rhetoric. 

Alberta has a succinct theory why: traditional Republicanism wasn’t working. Obama soundly trounced his opponents in both general elections he ran in, and the working-class Republican base was wholly disillusioned by a party that was led by the very educated and very wealthy. And by bringing something new, something brazen and audacious, Trump won. His strategy put Republicans in power.

Lisa Crabtree, a Government teacher at Fruita Monument High School, doesn’t find the 2016 election to be unprecedented when taking into consideration the long history of U.S. politics. She explains, “Parties have always gone through phases of alignment, realignment, and nonalignment.” Crabtree continued, referencing V.O. Key’s theory of critical elections (which concludes that some elections matter more than others, and periodically a “critical” election occurs and creates durable new groupings of voters, revealing a sharp alteration in a pre-existing cleavage in the electorate). She proposed the idea that 2016 “may have been one of those such critical elections”. As disillusioned conservatives, repelled by far-right ideas and the new party leadership, left the Republican party, the “minority that supports the party’s new identity was strengthened,” Crabtree added.

This political shift has had a huge impact on the United State’s national politics, but it can also be seen on a more local level. In Colorado, the Republican Party has also shifted to the right and in support of the president. Just take a look at the Republicans on the ballot: Lauren Boebert, who gained statewide attention this spring for squaring off against public health officials over coronavirus prevention measures, won over incumbent Scott Tipton in the primary race for one of Colorado’s congressional seats. While Trump endorsed Tipton in the race, he was quick to congratulate Boebert on her win. Boebert is of the new brand of conservatism: unreservedly pro-gun, “pro-freedom”, and who says of the widespread right-wing conspiracy Q-anon, “I hope that this is real.” (Boebert later clarified that she does not subscribe to the theory herself.) 

Also on the ballot in the upcoming election is Senator Cory Gardner, whose re-election is widely considered tenuous at best while he faces off against former Governor and Democrat John Hickenlooper. Gardner votes in line with Trump’s position 89% of the time, as reported by FiveThirtyEight Politics, and is facing backlash from Colorado liberals for his support of Trump filling the recent Supreme Court vacancy, despite his opposition to Obama doing the same in 2016. 

Another notable development for the 2020 election is that the the Republican National Committee’s platform this year is, literally, simply this: “The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda; and that the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention.” As stated by the Denver Post, “the Colorado Republican Party’s platform is a link to the 2016 national Republican party platform.” In contrast, the Colorado Democratic Party’s 2020 platform is over 20 pages long and has detailed positions the party has taken on every issue from the economy to social justice. 

Does the Republican party believe that conservatism, as Crabtree puts it, is a “lost cause in Colorado”? As reported by the Colorado Sun, Republican candidates up and down the ballot in the state are trailing their Democratic counterparts. According to polls and political operatives, Colorado conservatives are poised to lose the presidential vote, the senate race, and to remain in the minority at the state Capitol. Most of the party’s recent work has included recall election attempts against the Governor and other Democratic officials, none of which have qualified for the ballot. That being said, conservative campaigners have not given up all hope. They’ve been knocking on doors and handing out flyers at a much higher rate than liberal workers, who have been depending primarily on Zoom, phone calls, and texts in light of the pandemic.

Once considered a purple state, Colorado has shifted blue over the past decade. This change has occurred alongside, and perhaps correlated to, a deepening red voting pattern in the state’s rural areas. As the Front Range holds greater sway over the state’s politics and role on the national stage, animosity towards the cities grows amid rural and working-class communities, which are more ideologically similar to voters in the bordering states of Utah and Wyoming. Many political analysts cite this change for the high level of support seen for candidates such as Boebert, as well as anti-mask demonstrations prevalent in Colorado’s rural areas that have mirrored those elsewhere in the nation. People considered “moderate” Republicans are targeted less and less by their party’s campaign strategies. Colorado’s conservative candidates feel sacrificed by Republicans’ federal aim to nominate a Supreme Court justice. 

Is there a future for the Republican party in Colorado? Most definitely. Conservatism in rural areas is as strong as ever and the party’s voters have shown they’re on board for the populist strategy Trump has spearheaded. Colorado Republicans will continue to back the party’s national strategy and the local candidates that reflect the president’s positions. What remains to be seen is if those candidates have any chance of winning, and if GOP aversion towards urban liberals will fuel a shift further right than ever before, eventually leaving values of limited government and Reagan’s “compassionate” conservatism behind for good.

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