GOP Divide Not Just A D.C. Drama: Post-Trump Reckoning Splits Colorado County

Feb 5, 2021
Originally published on February 5, 2021 10:16 am

In the shadow of former President Donald Trump, the Republican Party is trying to find its footing nationally and in many corners of the county.

In Colorado, after facing major losses in the last few cycles, a volatile election for the party chair in El Paso County — one of the GOP's traditional strongholds — shows how deep some of the divides have become.

"Republicans are rightfully very upset and frustrated with the recent election and some of them are dealing with it very appropriately and some of them are dealing with it inappropriately," says Eli Bremmer, the former chair of the El Paso County Republican Party.

The county, home to Colorado Springs, sits about an hour south of Denver and has long been a bastion of conservative politics, even as the state has trended blue. It's home to the evangelical organization Focus on the Family, the U.S Air Force Academy and multiple military bases.

The latest controversy erupted over the upcoming meeting to select the next county chair. A tentative agenda listed a local militia group as providing security. Some Republicans feared it could intimidate attendees and Bremmer says he's worried the meeting won't be safe.

"Obviously there are some underlying tensions here between sort of the radical fringe elements and sort of the more mainstream, common-sense conservative liberty-minded Republicans," Bremmer says.

Current El Paso County Chair Vickie Tonkins, who will be up for reelection at the meeting, did not respond to a request for comment, but told the media outlet Colorado Politics that her security arrangements were "tentative and subject to change" and called the whole thing a "non-story."

The party's deep divisions predate former President Donald Trump's defeat. Last spring seventeen Republican elected officials said Tonkins should consider stepping down after she had suggested on the official county GOP Facebook page that COVID-19 may be a hoax. Tonkins later said she was only trying to start a discussion.

"All it required was an apology. But that didn't happen," said Republican Lois Landgraf, who was a state lawmaker at the time. "Things just deteriorated even more from there."

When Tonkins didn't resign the county party's executive committee stripped her of many of her powers, including the ability to make most budget decisions and communicate on behalf of the organization.

Race an issue in leadership controversy

Tonkins is Black and some of her defenders argue the moves to oust her from leadership are driven by racism.

"I can find no other reason to do what you have done to Vickie," Colorado podcaster and activist Joe Oltmann wrote in an email to El Paso County GOP officials. Oltmann has been at the center of unsubstantiated voter fraud claims and is being sued for defamation by an employee of Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems, Eric Coomer. "The simple lack of basic maturity is astonishing," he wrote. "I am just trying to figure out if you are truly wanting to unite and grow the GOP, or destroy it."

Tonkins' detractors vehemently deny that race has anything to do with it. For longtime Republican party volunteer Karl Schneider, these public conflicts will not help the GOP rebuild after the recent tough elections that saw Republicans lose significant ground in Colorado, including a U.S Senate seat.

"El Paso County Republicans have been leaving the party because we have the perception that we are unprofessional." Schneider says that's why he's running as El Paso County vice-chair. He's spent more than two decades as a U.S Army Special Forces officer and said he wants to use his leadership skills to help restore calm.

"Because there are a lot of people who've gone and become unaffiliated that are Republican and are conservative in their views. And we want to bring those people back."

But there's a lot of work ahead. In the week after the January 6th, U.S. Capitol riot, nearly 5,000 Colorado Republicans left the party. The county chair election between Tonkins and her opponent, former county commissioner Peggy Littleton, may also be a prelude to the likely heated contest for who will head the state party for the next two years. U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the current chair, is not seeking the office again.

"I have no idea what is going to happen at [Saturday's] meeting," says Republican state Senator Paul Lundeen, who plans to attend in person. "I'm an optimist. I'm an encourager, and I hope we all find our better angels."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the states where the Republican Party is considering its future is Colorado - used to be a red state, then a swing state and lately looks like a blue state. Now Republicans in one county face an election for a new party chair. From Colorado Public Radio, Bente Birkeland has more.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: El Paso County sits about an hour south of Denver and has long been a bastion of conservative politics. The main population center, Colorado Springs, is the only city in the state Donald Trump visited while president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And I'm thrilled to be back in Colorado Springs. I've spent a lot of time here...

BIRKELAND: It's also a place where differences over the future direction of the party are stark.

ELI BREMMER: Republicans are rightfully very upset and frustrated with the recent election. And some of them are dealing with it very appropriately, and some of them are dealing with it inappropriately.

BIRKELAND: That's Eli Bremmer. He's the former chair of the El Paso County Republican Party. The latest controversy erupted over an upcoming meeting to select the next county chair. A tentative agenda listed a local militia group as providing security. Bremmer says he's worried the meeting won't be safe.

BREMMER: Obviously, there's some underlying tensions here between sort of the radical fringe elements and sort of the more mainstream, common-sense conservative, liberty-minded Republicans.

BIRKELAND: Bremmer plans to vote against current chair Vickie Tonkins, who is running for re-election. Tonkins did not return a request for comment, but told a different media outlet the security she arranged is subject to change. The infighting predates Trump's defeat. Last spring, 17 Republican elected officials said Tonkins should consider stepping down. That was after she suggested on the official county GOP Facebook page that COVID-19 may be a hoax. Tonkins later said she was only trying to start a discussion. Lois Landgraf was a state lawmaker at the time.

LOIS LANDGRAF: All it required was an apology. But that didn't happen.

BIRKELAND: But Tonkins has supporters. Many argue the moves to oust her are driven by racism. Tonkins is Black. On a local talk radio show, the treasurer she appointed, John Pitchford, raised his concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

JOHN PITCHFORD: They have a problem with the fact that we have a Black woman as our chair of the GOP.

BIRKELAND: Her detractors vehemently deny that race has anything to do with it. For longtime Republican Party volunteer Karl Schneider, these public conflicts only hurt the party.

KARL SCHNEIDER: Republicans have been leaving the party because we have the perception that we are unprofessional.

BIRKELAND: Schneider says that's why he's running as county vice chair. He spent more than two decades as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and says he wants to use his leadership skills to help restore calm.

SCHNEIDER: Because there are a lot of people who've gone and become unaffiliated that are Republican and are conservative in their views - and we want to bring those people back.

BIRKELAND: But there's a lot of work ahead. And just the week after the January 6 riot, nearly 5,000 Colorado Republicans left the party.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "BLACK SAILS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.