New Colorado Republican Leader Focused On Unaffiliated Voters Heading Into 2022

May 5, 2021
Ballot Sorting Counting Denver Elections DivisionBallot Sorting Counting Denver Elections DivisionHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Sanitizing socially-distanced voting booths at Denver Elections Division headquarters on Primary night, June 30, 2020.

After a string of election losses, the new head of the Colorado Republican party says it’s time to target suburban, unaffiliated voters with a platform that includes improving education and cutting taxes.

Attorney Kristi Burton Brown was elected GOP chair in March, succeeding U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who decided not to run again. The party suffered heavy losses in Colorado in 2020 -- President Donald Trump lost the state by almost 13 percentage points and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner was defeated in his bid for reelection. The governorship and control of the state legislature are also in Democratic hands. 

Burton Brown said the party will have a better plan in 2022. “It is going to be a Colorado-focused year, Colorado-centric issues and true leadership in Colorado centered on our jobs, our kids, the American dream. What does that look like? And who are our candidates who can best promote the message that the people of Colorado and many suburban moms like me -- that’s a big chunk of our unaffiliated voters in Colorado -- what they want to hear about.”

Colorado's GOP Vice Chair Kristi Burton Brown and Colorado and supporters of President Trump rally outside Rep. Jason Crow's Aurora office for an anti-impeachment protest on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.Hayley Sanchez/CPR News
Kristi Burton Brown, pictured rallying against impeachment with supporters of former President Donald Trump on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, was elected Chair of the Colorado GOP on Saturday.

Burton Brown said the COVID-19 pandemic brought education to the forefront for Colorado parents “so choice in education, more options in education, higher teacher pay, these are the kinds of things that unaffiliated voters… deeply care about.”

Teacher pay raises could be funded by budget cuts in other areas, including those where private industry could help pick up the slack, she said. For example, “promoting tourism in Colorado. I think that's an important thing for our economy, but if it came down to it, is it more important to boost our teachers’ pay or make a video on tourism that the business industry, the business sector could also create and promote their own industries.”

The party will also look to promote tax cuts, she said. “Voters are very in favor of getting to vote on taxes and they often want to see their taxes cut. That's an issue we've constantly talked about. That needs to stay at the forefront, but education has to get up there at the top of the list because our positions are right.”

Interview highlights:

On Whether Another Run By Former President Donald Trump Could Hurt GOP Chances In Colorado:

“Before we have 2024, we have 2022… so 2022 is an election where we are going to battle (Democratic Gov.) Jared Polis. We are going to battle (Democratic U.S. Sen.) Michael Bennet and there are other statewide seats, a redistricted state legislature. That is where my eyes are focused and where the eyes of the state Republican party is focused in Colorado. 2022 comes first.”

Her Idea Of What Might Make A Successful Republican Candidate For Governor In 2024:

“Gov. (Bill) Owens, the last Republican governor, actually was a perfect example of this. When he campaigned, he talked about three things. He talked about a specific transportation project that mattered to people in Colorado that helped them get to work and get home. And he talked about more school options specifically in minority areas in Colorado, and he talked about a tax cut, three very definable things that he could pair with stories of real lives, real people. He campaigned very clearly on those things and he won,

On Her First Major Political Effort, Leading The Unsuccessful Drive For A Personhood Amendment In Colorado:

“That experience taught me a couple of things: First of all, it's absolutely worth it when you are young to step up and get involved in politics and have a say in your government, what your politicians do, issues people vote on. It's absolutely worth it to do that… The second thing it taught me is that I'll never apologize for wanting to defend the life of every child. Every child has the right to be born. Every child has the right to live their life. And that's a principle that we hold dear at the Republican party.”


Read the Transcript

Ryan Warner: Kristi, thank you so much for being with us.

Kristi Burton Brown: Absolutely.

RW: In 2014, Republicans held the state senate, the offices of attorney general and secretary of state, and one of Colorado's U.S. Senate seats. Now, all of those are in Democratic hands. One of your opponents in the election for chair, former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, described the party as, quoting here, in a horrible, bad, no good, very lousy place." Where is he right, where is he wrong?

KBB: Well, what I think is that our party has faced this before in Colorado. We have been in a similar state decades ago where we had no power at the state government level, and we had to say, "How are we going to reach out to voters again?" That's the place where we are. And the answer is that we have to brand ourselves and talk about the issues that swing unaffiliated voters care about in Colorado.

RW: Give me a few examples.

KBB: Absolutely. One of the top ones is education. The COVID pandemic has highlighted the importance of education with our children, and I'm a mom of two elementary school-aged children. It has highlighted that issue to parents all across our state. So, choice in education, more options in education, higher teacher pay. These are the kinds of things that unaffiliated swing voters, moms like me in the suburbs of Colorado, deeply care about.

RW: Do you think then the Republican party in Colorado has not talked enough about education and what has it been talking about that maybe it should deemphasize? If you're going to make room for one message, you’ve got to deemphasize another?

KBB: So I actually think the problem is that the Republican party in Colorado we've often let ourselves, I'll be honest, be cornered by Democrats, by mainstream media, who tried to define the issues for us. When instead, I think we need to paint the positive vision of leadership, the proactive things that we are going to do to make Colorado a better state and create a better future for our jobs, our kids, people's opportunity to explore the American dream. So education is absolutely the top of the list. Also, tax cuts. Voters are very in favor of getting to vote on taxes and they often want to see their taxes cut. That's an issue we've constantly talked about that needs to stay at the forefront, but education has to get up there at the top of the list because our positions are right. It's not like our positions have changed as Republicans when you talk about it more.

RW: Do I hear you partly blaming folks like me for the state of the Republican party right now? You talk about the media being responsible here. I don't know what that means. When someone like you comes on, I ask what your issues are. Can you put a finer point on that?

KBB: What I said is that the Republican party has let ourselves get cornered by the Democrats and the mainstream media when they choose the issues to talk about, because I've worked in the media for years. You know that often the media asks about certain issues that they think are the most important news. I don't fault you for that. But what I'm saying is that what Republicans need to do is say, ‘Here are the issues we believe the voters actually care about. Here are the issues that define our party. Here's how we're going to lead for voters here in Colorado.’

RW: Well, there's a tension now in policies you've mentioned a few times, which is tax cuts and at the same time you'd like teachers to be paid more. That strikes me as a tricky wicket, a sticky wicket. If you're cutting taxes on one side and then trying to boost salaries on another … 

KBB: Sure. It all comes down to how you see government. If you think the only way to boost teachers’ pay is to make the taxpayers pay more you're not looking at ways to cut government waste. I believe there's a lot of current spending that goes on that is wasteful in government. A lot of payment that's already forked out to bureaucracies, unnecessary regulations. You cut that, you have more money to pay teachers.

RW: Take that down to the specific for me. What would you no longer have the state government spending money on?

KBB: Oh, goodness. How much time do you have?

RW: Enough for you to answer that question for sure.

KBB: So I used to do policy analysis in the state legislature for some of our state senators and state reps. And when you look through the budget, you can just start knocking things off. All these extra programs that government pays for that are really better paid for in the nonprofit world and in the community. There's just so many things government has their hand in that if we could take a pen to the budget, I could certainly give you a whole list of things. And I think here's the point … 

RW: Name one. Can you name one?

KBB: Absolutely. We pay so much in the media. We pay so much in... Oh, goodness, in promoting... I'll take this as an even example, promoting tourism in Colorado. I think that's an important thing for our economy, but if it came down to it, is it more important to boost our teachers’ pay or make a video on tourism that the business industry, the business sector, could also create and promote their own industries. It is better for the government to increase teacher pay and for the non-profit and business world to make their own tourism videos. Again, we could go down the list. That's a small example. I think the point is this most Coloradans believe that teachers do a ton of work and should be paid for what they do. And there's a lot of things we could cut to pay teachers more.

RW: President Trump lost Colorado by nearly 13 percentage points in 2020. Over the past five years, Democrats have overtaken Republicans in voter registration here. And in January, right after the protesters stormed the US Capitol almost 5,000 Republicans left the state party. Did the former president hurt Republicans’ chances in Colorado?

KBB: I think what we've seen happen in Colorado is that our voters here are very independent- minded. They often do base their votes on personality. There's no question about that. That's why you've seen Colorado voters historically vote sometimes for a Democrat for governor, but then Republicans for secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer and Republican senator sometimes. So we see split ticket votes in Colorado a lot. It's very personality based. And I think this just feeds into my message as the state chairman, we are going to be focused, not in the past, but in the future, on 2022. It  is going to be a Colorado-focused year, Colorado-centric issues and true leadership in Colorado, centered on our jobs, our kids, the American dream. What does that look like? And who are our candidates who can best promote the message that the people of Colorado and many suburban moms like me, that's a big chunk of our unaffiliated voters in Colorado, what they want to hear about and talk about.

RW: It's interesting. You say you don't want to focus on the past and yet there is talk from Mr. Trump himself of a potential 2024 run for president. So the discussion of whether Trump is good for Colorado's Republican party is not just a discussion in the past. It is related to the future.

KBB: So I'm going to pose to you that before we have 2024, we have 2022. And it is my job as chairman. I'm chairman for the next two years, unless I decide to run again. So 2022 is an election where we are going to battle Jared Polis. We are going to battle Michael Bennet and there are other statewide seats that are redistricted state legislature. That is where my eyes are focused and where the eyes of the state Republican party is focused in Colorado is, 2022 comes first. That's where we are right now.

RW: Are you having conversations in kind of wooing candidates, let's say for governor, for instance, and what do those conversations sound like?

KBB: So the Republican party is required to be neutral in primaries. We welcome anyone to step up to the plate and run. I will tell you the kind of candidates that I would love to see step into these seats and run are people who really understand Colorado. To represent Colorado we've got to understand our state. You can't be sold out to special interests in D.C. You have to be part of your community. You have to have built a life where you live in Colorado, have a family, have a career. All these things that create stories that people identify with. People in Colorado need to see themselves in the candidates who run. And those candidates need a story of the American dream and how they've been able to live that here in Colorado and how that enables them to lead on the issues that matter.

RW: So that is the kind of candidate that you'd like to see. It's interesting, you talk about story. Would you say a few more words about that? Do you think that past candidates, have you seen unstoried candidates or at least candidates that haven't told their story well enough? Is that part of where the Republicans are in Colorado right now?

KBB: Let me give you an example, actually. It's a great question. Governor Owens, the last Republican governor actually was a perfect example of this. When he campaigned, he talked about three things. He talked about a specific transportation project that mattered to people in Colorado that helped them get to work and get home. And he talked about more school options specifically in minority areas in Colorado. And he talked about a tax cut. Three very definable things that he could pair with stories of real lives, real people. He campaigned very clearly on those things and he won.

RW: Kristi Burton Brown, he was also incredibly moderate. In contrast to a Lauren Boebert or a Ken Buck, Bill Owens is a very different kind of Republican. Is the state Republican party headed in (that) direction?

KBB: I think Colorado is a very diverse state there. What we need is candidates who represent their district. Ken Buck represents his district. Lauren Boebert is well loved and represents her district very well. Bill Owens ran statewide and represented Colorado statewide at the time. That is what we should be focused on as a political party. And any candidate who jumps into the race and wants to run, should ask themselves, "Do I represent my district and how exactly would I fight for the people?"

RW: I mentioned that there was something of a, I guess I'll call it a mini exodus of Republicans after the protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol. That insurrection came in part because President Trump claimed the election was a fraud. And I'll just say that this week Logan Grover of Erie, Colorado was arrested on four counts related to unauthorized entry of the U.S. Capitol. According to a Facebook post, which the FBI included in its statement of fact about his arrest, Grover wrote, "If you accept the reality that the election was stolen, then you cannot accept Biden as the new president and neither can I." I guess I'd like to ask you very plainly, do you, like Mr. Grover, believe the election was fraudulent?

KBB: I believe -- I have no association whatsoever with Mr. Grover. And I believe that Joe Biden is in the White House. He's the President of the United States. And I'm going to repeat what I said before, which is that my focus is on the future. It is in saying how can voters here in Colorado be assured that their vote is going to count because we have the right kind of election integrity here in Colorado? Going into 2022, we need powerful teams of poll watchers, election judges, people who are going to pay attention to votes being cast accurately here in Colorado. We want everyone to vote and everyone to have a say. We want that to be secure. That's something, your political party shouldn't matter in wanting that for all people. But I am focused on the future. I will repeat that over and over again. We're going to talk about Colorado in 2022.

RW: So much of the future though is inspired and informed by the past. So your views of what happened in the election are naturally related to what you do to fix what you might see as a broken system. So do you believe that Colorado's elections have integrity?

KBB: I believe you can always look at an election and find ways to improve. And that's why I think what matters is that people need to be assured here in Colorado that their vote is counted. No one should ever sit at home and say, ‘Oh, well, I have so many doubts about the system that I'm going to sit home and not even bother to vote.’ That's a sure way to lose. Every single Republican should get out there and cast their vote in 2022. And if they are about any of the systems in Colorado, the way to fix that is to be a part of the process and make sure the system works for everyone. That's incumbent on all of us who care about the process.

RW: And that stands in contrast to 2020 when the messaging around election integrity may have kept some Republicans home because they doubted this system. I hear you saying, ‘Please don't disengage.’

KBB: … if we want to win, it takes engagement, it takes getting out there, it takes voting, raising your voice, watching the process. It takes action.

RW: Let's step back. I just want to know more about you, Kristi Burton Brown, new chairwoman of the Colorado Republican party. When do you think you first identified as Republican? When did that idea fit well for you and what was going on in your life?

KBB: Well, so I will tell you, I was one of those nerdy teenagers who instead of having band posters on my wall, had political posters on my wall. So I have loved politics since I can remember and-

RW: What were the posters? You have to tell us.

KBB: Okay. George W. Bush. He is my favorite president. It was actually watching his election and the whole debacle that happened in that election, the hanging chads and all of that. I was 13 during that election, and my mom let me stay glued to the TV, watch the election, everything go down. I recorded his speeches. That is actually when I fell in love with politics. It was that election.

RW: So this is 2000 when Florida is being called for various candidates.

KBB: Yes. 

RW: Well, Bush and Gore, of course.

KBB: I remember that very well.

RW: Yeah. And at that point, you've thoroughly identified as a Republican.

KBB:  I did. I believe he was far more ...his vision for the nation was far more inspirational. And then seeing as a young teenager his leadership on 9/11, that's another very clear date in my mind. On that day, I heard him speak. I heard him quote Psalm 23 to the nation, in a day that we all remember.

President George W. Bush: "Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil for you are with me." This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace.

KBB: That was very, very impactful for me. My dad sat me and my brothers and I down and said, ‘You know what?" Now it's up to you to change the world. It is up to you.’ I was raised with that, that ideal. It is up to each of us to take the action we can to make a difference in a world that we live in.

RW: One more aspect of your political history, Kristi, is that you authored a personhood amendment that failed on the state ballot. And I wonder what that experience taught you 1) and 2) if you think that issue is one that will drive Republicans in the future?

KBB: So that experience taught me a couple of things. First of all, it's absolutely worth it when you are young to step up and get involved in politics. And I was 19 when I started that. The second thing it taught me is that I'll never apologize for wanting to defend the life of every child. Every child has the right to be born. Every child has the right to live their life. And that's a principle that we hold dear at the Republican party. I think you'll see from the state party, us talk a lot about education and tax cuts and things that unaffiliated voters think about on a day-to-day basis. And that's the kind of messaging that you'll hear from us.

RW: Some of your past political work includes a campaign to recall a Democratic state lawmaker that wound up being unsuccessful. I'll just note that two of the new state GOP leaders alongside you, Priscilla Rahn is vice chair now. She lost her bid for University of Colorado Regent. Marilyn Harris ran for state house at one point. That too was an unsuccessful bid. Is this a team that knows how to win an election?

KBB: Let me tell you what we won. We won a historic moment for Republicans in Colorado with the victory of myself, Priscilla and Marilyn, to lead our Republican party. It is the first time in Colorado history that an all-woman team has ever been elected to lead either major party. So we are creating history and we're going to continue to do that as we brand the Republican party in Colorado.

RW: I'll say though, Morgan Carroll, a woman, longtime head of the Colorado Democratic party. One more question that touches on something personal, but also gives us a sense of your view of the world right now. Are you vaccinated and why, or why not?

KBB: I don't believe that anyone should have to disclose their personal medical information just because they're in the public eye. So that's the stand that I would apply to anyone and I'll apply it to myself as well.

RW: Is this a conversation that Republicans should be having?

KBB: Absolutely. I believe that anyone who wants the vaccine or needs the vaccine and believes they're vulnerable should go get it. It's available to people. I believe in people's individual choices when it comes to literally their body and their health. When we're talking about a vaccine, that's what we're talking about. Everyone has the right to make that choice for themselves.

RW: Are you surprised by how partisan the conversation has been around COVID vaccines?

KBB: I guess I'm surprised in general by how partisan and divisive conversations are in general. My parents taught me ... I was raised in a home where we always had discussions about everything. We had healthy debates. You could have a different view and discuss it. And I believe we need that in America again today. That's one thing I think the Republican party needs to lead on here in Colorado, is having open discussions where we can have different viewpoints and still come together and find out how to lead into the future. And I believe that because I have kids and I care about the state they grow up in and I care about ending some of this divisiveness and accomplishing successes for people's jobs, their kids, and the American dream.

RW: Is there a contradiction between your feelings on abortion? Not giving necessarily women a choice there, but giving people a choice over vaccinations? Is there a contradiction in that?

KBB: No, there is not. When a woman is pregnant -- and I have two kids, I've been pregnant twice. There are two lives involved. Any choice that we make should never hurt another human being. But when we have a choice for ourselves and vaccination is a choice for you, for yourself, for your health, you have every right to make whatever choice you want on that one. When another person is involved, there should always be consideration of how our choices affect another human being no matter how old or young they are.

RW: Oh goodness though, but vaccines are about other people's health as well. That's what herd immunity is. So when you make a decision for yourself, it's not in a vacuum.

KBB: And I just said, anyone who wants a vaccine, anyone who believes they're vulnerable, many people believe they're vulnerable because of who they live with. And that is exactly how they're making their decision. I believe anyone who wants a vaccine and needs one should go get one.

RW: We talked a bit about your confidence in elections at the state level. I want to note that Congress controlled by Democrats is proposing a major reform package known as HR1. It has passed the House, awaits a vote in the Senate. And my understanding, Kristi Burton Brown, is that you oppose HR1. Would you let us know why?

KBB: Oh, sure. There's a ton of problems in HR1. You have ... All the Democrats aren't even on board. It's not really even a partisan thing. There's so many errors in it. One of the things specifically, it's very unpopular with people when they're told the details of HR1, is that it would force the government to help pay for candidates campaigning and match donations that are raised in campaigns. And most people, when you talk to them about that, they don't want the government paying for someone to run for office. It's an error-ridden bill. If we want to fix elections, give people more opportunity to vote, I'm in favor of both of those things. But HR1 is certainly not the path to do it.

RW: There's already some limited public funding for elections now. So that's not a break from tradition, is it?

KBB: Oh, it's absolutely a break from tradition. It would be very, very expansive under HR1. That's the last thing we need is our campaigns that should be run by average, everyday people stepping up to lead their nation and their state controlled by the government and asking taxpayers to fund that. That's not okay with most people. You look at polls on that. It's very unpopular.

RW: You'd rather have, say a big insurance company or oil and gas funding elections than the government? I don't know. It's just true that there's big money interests now. Wouldn't you rather have a viewpoint neutral party making those investments?

KBB: I hardly think the government is viewpoint neutral. We've talked a lot about divisiveness in politics today. And that absolutely applies to the government. Look at all the things Congress right now, and often throughout its history, can't accomplish because of partisan divides and they're not working for the people. Bringing the government into deciding how money is spent in political campaigns is about the worst idea I think anyone could come up with.

RW: Thank you so much for being with us.

KBB: Thank you for your time.

You care.

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