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Some state Republican parties are struggling and seeing deep divisions

Dave Williams was elected Colorado Republican Party chair this year. He's promised to go up against Republicans who he thinks aren't conservative enough.
Hart Van Denburg
CPR News
Dave Williams was elected Colorado Republican Party chair this year. He's promised to go up against Republicans who he thinks aren't conservative enough.

DENVER — Some Republican state parties are struggling after steep election losses, and are witnessing infighting that has left deep divisions when it comes to the future of the GOP.

In Minnesota the state Republican Party this spring was down to just over $50 cash on hand, after years of statewide election losses. Election deniers helm Michigan's GOP, the party is nearly broke, and the operation is being run out of a condo.

And in Colorado there's been a swift political transformation over the last decade from a highly competitive purple state to one that's deep blue. Republicans don't hold any statewide offices, and have fewer seats at the statehouse than at any time in Colorado history.

There's been a lot of finger-pointing as to how it got this way.

"The party needs to be rejuvenated, it needs to get back to the basics," said Republican Lori Saine, a former Colorado lawmaker who is close to many conservative activists.

She said the activists feel like the party establishment has abandoned them. "If you don't have the base, you're not going to win. We're having a hard time," Saine said. "There's a disconnect between the party and the base."

But Republicans in the state don't agree on what going back to the basics means. Is it trying to rally the far right, by focusing on issues like election fraud and parents' rights? Or is it trying to appeal to a broader electorate by talking about things like housing and taxes?

This year, the conservative wing of the Colorado GOP elected a new party chair, former state Rep. Dave Williams.

He declined an interview request for this story, but during his acceptance speech he promised to go up against Republicans who he thinks aren't conservative enough.

"There are too many politicians who say one thing and then do another," Williams said. "And it's not just the Democrats. It's people like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell. They need to start listening to us."

In emails to the party members this summer, Williams blasted a Colorado congressman for voting for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's debt ceiling bill, and other officials for signing a letter in support of a trans lawmaker in Montana.

Dick Wadhams is a former chair of the Colorado Republican Party.
Hart Van Denburg / CPR News
CPR News
Dick Wadhams is a former chair of the Colorado Republican Party.

"I think that is the first time in Colorado political history a state Republican Party has put out a fundraising letter saying, 'We're gonna go after Republicans with the money you send us,' " said former Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams.

He voted for former President Donald Trump twice but in this political environment, Wadhams said he's been told he's not a true Republican. He doesn't think it's the job of a state party chair or others in the party to police conservative values.

"It comes down to fealty to Trump," Wadhams said. "If you agree with Trump that the election was stolen, and now if you agree with Trump that he should pardon, if he's elected again, that he would pardon the people who attacked the Capitol. If that's the litmus test, then you're damn right I am a RINO, because I will never subscribe to that."

All of the infighting is also taking a toll on the Colorado party's bottom line. There's been lackluster fundraising and for the first time in years, it's not paying any members of its staff. On a recent visit to party headquarters south of Denver, the lights were out, blinds drawn and no one answered the door.

The office of the Colorado Republican Party was locked and no one answered the doorbell on July 21.
Hart Van Denburg / CPR News
CPR News
The office of the Colorado Republican Party was locked and no one answered the doorbell on July 21.

Many donors are like longtime Republican Pete Woods from Steamboat Springs, who said he won't financially support the state party until the vitriol stops.

"As long as people are calling each other names and handing a gift to the Democrats, through exhibiting our division and our disdain for each other, there's no value in me donating to the party," Woods said.

What's going on in Michigan and Georgia

Michigan stands out for its Republican division. There have been two physical altercations this year at GOP gatherings. The party is now run by Kristina Karamo, a far-right Trump ally who lost her bid for secretary of state last year. To win the state chair position, Karamo topped Matthew DePerno, the most recent Michigan GOP attorney general nominee who's now been criminally charged in connection with a voting machine breach after the 2020 election.

"The Michigan Republican Party is ideologically bankrupt, morally bankrupt and financially bankrupt and I think that fits in with the state of the national party, except for the finances. The national party has plenty of money," said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP who now works with the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group that seeks to steer the Republican Party toward the center.

These deep divisions aren't unique to states like Colorado and Michigan. And it's not clear how much the struggles of official state parties matter.

In Michigan some fed-up donors are turning to parallel operations. Former Gov. Rick Snyder, for example, has been put in charge of fundraising for the Michigan House GOP.

And in Georgia, Republicans have seen electoral success despite feuding with the state party.

Sitting GOP Gov. Brian Kemp faced a primary challenger in 2022 after refusing to act on Trump's stolen election lies. Kemp ultimately defeated former U.S. Sen. David Perdue with more than 70% of the GOP primary vote and went on to win reelection by leaning on his own campaign infrastructure, not the state party's.

In April of this year, Kemp said he would not attend the Georgia GOP convention in June, partly because of the actions of then-Georgia Republican Chair David Shafer, who was closely aligned with Trump, in 2022.

"I just think that to win, we have to have a robust ground operation," Kemp told reporters. "The state GOP was not doing that. And so we did that ourselves. We had the current chairman that, you know, has been working against a statewide ticket. You know, I'm hoping for new leadership at the party and looking forward to working with them in the future."

Shafer did not run for reelection as state party chair. At the June convention, Republicans elected former Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon, who says he has had a positive relationship with Kemp for many years.

With reporting by Michigan Public Radio Network's Rick Pluta and WABE's Rahul Bali in Atlanta

Copyright 2023 CPR News

Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia'sMarketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.
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