Colorado Republicans on Saturday elected Dave Williams, a former state lawmaker from Colorado Springs who insists that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, to lead the state party for the next two years.
"We need a wartime leader who will boldy articulate our conservative, America-first agenda while going toe-to-toe with the radical Democrats every chance we get," Williams said in a combative speech before the first round of voting at a party meeting in Loveland.
Williams takes control of a Republican Party riddled with infighting and reeling from a string of losses in a state whose voters elected Democrats to every statewide office in last year's midterm election.
Blaming the party's recent poor performances on "feckless leaders who are ashamed of you and ashamed of our principles," Williams quoted Ronald Reagan's call for "bold colors, not pastels" and vowed to build a clear contrast with the opposition.
He's no stranger to confrontational politics.
Williams lost a bid last summer to unseat U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in the GOP primary after trying to include "Let's Go Brandon," a phrase deriding President Joe Biden, along with his name on the ballot.
In the party chair race, Williams prevailed in a seven-candidate field dominated by hopefuls who also want to block the state's unaffiliated voters from casting ballots in GOP primaries and share his unsubstantiated belief in widespread election rigging.
Kristi Burton Brown, the outgoing state chair, who presided over Saturday's party leadership election, announced in December that she isn't seeking a second term. That means the Colorado GOP will be led by its sixth chair in as many terms.
It took three rounds of balloting for Williams to win an outright majority in a race that included former Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, former congressional nominees Erik Aadland and Casper Stockham, former state lawmaker Kevin Lundberg, former Mesa County GOP chair Kevin McCarney and grassroots organizer Aaron Wood.
Williams received 54.8% of the vote on in the final round to Aadland's 45.2%.
Peters and Lundberg withdrew prior to the final round and announced they were throwing their support behind Williams, drawing a rebuke from Burton Brown for violating a rule prohibiting candidate speeches after their initial remarks. Wood, Stockham and McCarney also dropped out before the ballot that clinched it for Williams.
In his speech, Aadland, a relative newcomer to politics, sounded a less aggressive note than Williams.
"We are the party that loves our constitution and will not stop defending it to the death," said Aadland, an Army veteran and West Point graduate.
"I'm running to be your chairman because the mission I had running for Congress remains the same," he said. "We must unite and come together in love — love of our freedom, love of our country, love of our values."
Aadland lost by a wide margin to Democrat Brittany Pettersen last year in the Jefferson County-based 7th congressional District after switching from the U.S. Senate primary.
"Our party can win again, but only if we first reject their failed leadership and go on offense," said Williams after blasting the media, "crooked" politicians and GOP political consultants. "I'm sick and tired of our party always being on defense. We need to go on offense, offense, offense."
Williams vowed to "close the primaries so that only Republicans choose our Republican nominees" and defended the state's caucus system, which has come under attack from some Republicans who contend it encourages nominees who can't win outside heavily Republican districts.
"We are the party that elected Donald J. Trump, and we are not going to apologize for that anymore," he added.
Republican strategist and former two-term state GOP chair Dick Wadhams told Colorado Politics that the party appears destined for more time in the wilderness if it pushes unaffiliated voters out of the GOP primary and continues to embrace Trump, who is deeply unpopular with Colorado voters.
"It’s just going to be a wasteland at the Colorado Republican Party for the next two years," Wadhams said, lamenting that he was unable to support any of the chair candidates.
"They all believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and they all want to go back to election day balloting, to get rid of mail elections," he said. "It defines the party as crazy right up front, and that’s what a lot of these unaffiliateds think about Republicans anyway."
Unaffiliated voters make up 46% of the state's 3.8 million active registered voters, followed by the Democrats with 28% of the total and the Republicans at 24%.
Williams held a slim lead over Aadland in the first round of balloting, followed by Peters and McCarney, who were tied for third place, with Lundberg, Stockham and Wood trailing.
The party conducted its leadership election by hand-counting paper ballots at the insistence of Republicans who called for ditching the electronic voting devices used in recent party elections.
Also elected at the meeting were vice chair Priscilla Rahn, who won reelection to a second term, and secretary Anna Ferguson.
The Colorado GOP’s state central committee — made up of roughly 400 party officers, elected officials and bonus members from larger counties, based on votes received by top-ticket Republicans in the last election — convened for its biennial reorganization meeting at the Embassy Suites Loveland Hotel.
Since some committee members carried fractional votes — some counties elect multiple vice chairs, for instance, so they share the position's single vote — the meeting began with a potential 377 votes.
Notably absent from the meeting were the 19 Republican members of the state House, who were prevented from attending due to an extraordinary Saturday session called by Democratic leaders after GOP lawmakers filibustered a gun control bill past midnight on Thursday. Most of them were able to vote by proxy, party officials said.
Known for his aggressive rhetoric during three terms representing El Paso County-based House District 15, Williams was one of three Republicans who challenged Lamborn in last year's GOP primary. He finished in second place, trailing the five-term incumbent by about 14 percentage points.
Williams unsuccessfully sued to force election officials to print "Let's Go Brandon" on ballots along with his name, arguing that he'd adopted the phrase — code in some circles for "F--- Joe Biden" — as his proper nickname.
During the primary, Williams filed a criminal complaint against Lamborn, alleging the congressman's campaign aired attack ads containing false statements about him, but the local district attorney declined to pursue charges.
Last cycle, Williams led a charge to opt the state GOP out of Colorado's semi-open primary system, arguing that unaffiliated voters shouldn't be allowed to help nominate Republicans to the general election ballot. Under the plan, which fell short of the required 75% vote of the central committee members, Republicans would have picked their nominees at party assemblies instead of in the primary election.
Peters, who faces trial this summer in Grand Junction on allegations she tampered with voting equipment, told the crowd that prosecutors "do not want to take me into court because there's evidence they do not want you to see."
Peters has pleaded not guilty to seven felony and four misdemeanor charges stemming from allegations she helped breach Mesa County's secure election equipment two years ago in an attempt to find evidence that Colorado's voting system is rigged. She maintains the charges — brought by a grand jury under the local Republican district attorney — are politically motivated.
Two of Peters' former top deputies in the clerk's office pleaded guilty last year and agreed to testify against Peters in the trial, which is set for August.
Peters was convicted last week by a Mesa County jury on a misdemeanor obstruction charge for for trying to prevent authorities from seizing an iPad she allegedly used to record a court hearing in defiance of a judge's instructions followed by allegedly lying about it to another judge.
Before the party's leadership elections got underway, several elected Republicans and party officers rallied the crowd.
"We've got the talent, we've got the energy, we've got the right message," said U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the Windsor Republican who held the party chair position prior to Burton Brown's tenure.
"When we leave here tonight, we're going to be united, and we're going to kick some butt," Buck added, echoing a common message delivered throughout the meeting.
Describing early conclusions from an Republican National Committee analysis of the 2022 election, Colorado RNC member Vera Ortegon told the crowd, "We noticed in Colorado, not all Republicans voted Republican."
She added: "People, we really, really have to unite. This is our chance to show we can unite and move forward."
In Colorado last year, several prominent Republicans said they couldn't support U.S. Senate nominee Joe O'Dea when the latter said he wanted to add protection for abortion rights in federal law after last summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned Roe v. Wade. O'Dea lost a bid to unseat Democrat Michael Bennet by a wide margin.
Attorney and radio talk show host Randy Corporon, Ortegon's fellow RNC member from Colorado, drew cheers from the crowd when he declared that the state GOP will pursue a lawsuit to close Colorado's primaries to unaffiliated voters, saying that only Republicans should be able to pick Republican nominees.
Last year, a federal judge threw out a challenge brought by Corporon and other Republicans who sought to overturn the voter-approved state law, which allows the state's unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in either major party's primary, citing the state party's decision not to join the lawsuit.
Burton Brown said the party was prevented from taking part in the lawsuit aimed at overturning Initiative 108 by unresolved questions over whether campaign finance law allowed the move but can proceed with the lawsuit under the new chair.
Colorado Democrats are scheduled to meet on April 1 to elect a successor as party chair to Morgan Carroll, the former state Senate president who isn't seeking a fourth term after running the party since 2017.