Several hundred supporters of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump demonstrated at the state Capitol Friday afternoon against the state party's delegate selection process.
"Hold a straw poll so that we can bind the Colorado delegation to the will of the people of Colorado," demonstration organizer Matt Behrens said to the cheers of the crowd.
He called on the state party to nullify its current slate of Republican National Convention delegates and instead hold an emergency straw poll to determine who the state supports at the Republican National Convention this summer.
The protest comes in response to last weekend’s state assembly, where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz succeeded in locking up the state’s 34 open Republican National Convention delegates, shutting Trump out of all but a handful of alternate slots.
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The results appeared to catch the Republican front-runner by surprise. On Sunday, Trump tweeted, “The people of Colorado had their vote taken away from them by the phony politicians. Biggest story in politics. This will not be allowed!”
Trump was referring to a decision by state party leaders not to hold a preference poll at the March caucuses. Instead, precinct caucus attendees selected representatives for higher-level gatherings where the RNC delegation was elected.
Trump’s angry tweets about Colorado unleashed a torrent of response. The state Republican Party’s chair says he’s been getting thousands of voicemails and texts a day, some threatening, after his phone number was leaked online.
Erin Behrens, Matt's wife, said before the rally her frustration with the process started on Super Tuesday, when the party volunteer running her precinct caucus appeared to be actively discouraging Trump supporters from participating further in the process. The final result at the state assembly just confirmed her fears.
“When we saw that all 34 delegates were going to Cruz, it was even worse. Because I saw that what happened at my isolated precinct caucus -- that happened all over the state on Super Tuesday,” she said.
Trump supporters who did make it far enough in the process to vote for the RNC delegation complain about confusing ballots, with would-be delegates misnumbered or left off entirely.
State GOP Chair Steve House denies that the party has done anything to favor any candidate over another. He acknowledges the delegate selection process did occasionally get messy, but says with hundreds of people running, and thousands voting, that was unavoidable.
“This is a large organization. There are going to be points at which mistakes are made,” House said. “I don’t regret how we did our caucuses or what we did. I think we did it exactly the way it needed to be done, according to the rules and state law.”
Left Out Or Just Out-Organized?
Defenders of the state party, and of Cruz’s delegate sweep, accuse the Trump side of sour grapes, complaining after the fact about a process its leaders didn’t pay enough attention to on the front end.
As far back as January, the Cruz campaign was identifying leading supporters among the state’s Republican political elite and activist base and mobilizing them to make their way through complex caucus process. Trump’s side had no comparable organization. It finally hired an in-state consultant less than a week before the state assembly. By that point Cruz had already won the first delegates at early Congressional district gatherings.
At one Congressional assembly, two members of the campaign’s slate failed to pay the fee required to run. At the state assembly, handouts with the roster of preferred delegates were full of errors.
“The Trump people, they were just a hot mess,” said former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who ran successfully as an RNC delegate on the Cruz slate. “It’s not that frickin’ complex ... Kasich’s people were organized. They didn’t have any support, but you don’t hear them complaining.”
The Trump campaign recently tapped veteran political operative Paul Manafort to head up its national delegate-wrangling efforts. Manafort lost no time in accusing the Cruz campaign of using ‘Gestapo tactics’ to secure delegate support.
Gessler warns that Trump’s very public anger over Colorado’s delegate selection could become a major liability for him in this swing state, if the businessman does secure the party’s nomination.
“You cannot blow up the entire process here in Colorado because you’re a sore loser and then expect people ... to be enthusiastically behind your campaign,” said Gessler. “He needs the activists all in his boat, rowing as hard as they possibly can. And instead, he’s insulting us.”
Trump Doubles Down
Trump however has not backed off his criticism of the Colorado process. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Thursday Trump again excoriated the state party for canceling the straw poll and holding “an ‘election’ without voters.”
“What we are seeing now is not a proper use of the rules, but a flagrant abuse of the rules,” Trump wrote. “Delegates are supposed to reflect the decisions of voters, but the system is being rigged by party operatives.”
For some of Trump’s supporters, ‘party operatives’ appear to be personified by Colorado Republican Party chair House. His cell phone has been ringing almost non-stop since last weekend with angry callers from around the country and demonstrators are threatening to picket his house. At party offices Thursday, no one was answering the phone. The voicemail informed callers that there was no room left for messages.
House is concerned this inter-party stress may continue all the way to the Republican National Convention. He’s considering inviting one of Colorado’s Republican sheriffs to accompany the delegation to Cleveland.
“[If] I can help secure my delegation by having somebody who’s familiar with security protocols and can deal with local authorities to make sure our delegation is as safe as possible, I think it’s a good idea,” said House.
Erin Behrens, the organizer of Friday’s capital protest, would like to see fellow Trump supporters ease up on House.
“The individual people -- we can leave them out of this,” Erin Behrens said. “We just want to change the system.”