Colorado GOP leaders admonish El Paso County chair for improper involvement in primaries

Dan Boyce/CPR News
El Paso County Republicans Chair Vickie Tonkins speaks to a party central committee meeting on Feb. 6, 2021.

The leadership of the Colorado GOP has unanimously agreed that the chair of the state’s largest Republican-controlled county improperly weighed in on local party primaries.

In an unusual move, the state’s Republican executive committee voted unanimously to require El Paso County GOP Chair Vickie Tonkins, who has been embroiled in controversies in recent years, to address these concerns at an upcoming meeting this Saturday. The committee said it wants the local organization to try to resolve the issue first before it takes any further action.

GOP State Chair Kristi Burton Brown signed a letter indicating that Tonkins “behaved improperly in regard to her duty of neutrality during a Republican primary” by trying to use a scorecard from an outside organization, Principles of Liberty, to rank state lawmakers, and when she used county party funds to donate to the conservative group FEC United, which is affiliated with a right-wing militia and has also taken positions in Republican primaries. 

“... a county party may not donate to an outside conservative organization that is actively opposing or supporting specific Republican candidates during the primary. Doing so is a violation of primary neutrality requirements,” states the letter.

Burton Brown said promoting the scorecard “gave the impression that she opposed some Republican legislators and supported others — an action that is improper during the primary.” 

Tonkins did not respond to a request for comment from CPR News. Former state lawmaker Lois Landgraf who lives in El Paso County and serves on the county and state executive committees presented the concerns to state party officials.

“It’s obvious they found her guilty of not being neutral towards our candidates (and) for being critical of our elected officials and violating several of our bylaws,” Landgraf said.

Concerns with Tonkins first became public in the spring of 2020 when 17 El Paso County elected officials, all Republicans, asked her to consider stepping down after a Facebook post raising the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic might be a hoax.

Landgraf said local Republicans in El Paso County aren’t currently trying to oust Tonkins, a cumbersome process that requires a supermajority vote.

“We’re not asking that she be removed at this time. Mainly we’re asking that she do her job and do it properly. She needs to do her job fairly and without bias, without threatening people," Landgraf said.

Tonkins waters down — but doesn’t abandon — rule change on sidelining party members

Even as criticism over her neutrality is still playing out, Tonkins announced she will back off on the most controversial element of a proposed rule change that some said could allow her to “purge” her critics from the party.

After significant outcry from opponents of the proposal, Tonkins said she will no longer push to create a process to remove someone from the Republican Party for “malfeasance or misfeasance” or for a “violation of the National and State Party platform(s).”

That punishment could have applied to sitting elected officials. 

Tonkins said in an email to local party leaders last week that she’d concluded her proposal conflicted with state law. The most controversial element would have created a process for the local party to try to get someone’s Republican affiliation revoked through the El Paso county clerk’s office, something the clerk — himself a Republican — said wouldn’t be legal. 

“Our local party does not have the ability, or even desire, to pass a policy that would run counter to Colorado's party affiliation or ballot access laws, and we have always, and will continue to, respect these laws along with the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights,” wrote Tonkins.

Instead, Tonkins is proposing a “strictly internal censure process.”

If approved, a two-thirds vote by those present at an El Paso County central meeting would be required to censure an individual for three years. 

A censure could still have significant implications for someone running for office, as the proposal states, “The El Paso County Republican Party, nor its officers, are obligated to help or promote any person who was censured for a period of 3 years.”

Tonkins said the party must have the ability to hold elected officials accountable who violate the party platform. The move follows Wyoming Republicans’ decision last year to stop considering Rep. Liz Cheney a party member over her criticism of former President Trump. Efforts are also underway nationally to expel her and another high-profile Trump opponent

“This change is to promote Republican candidates who will actually believe in and agree with the Constitution and the Republican Platform and provide a basis to hold elected officials accountable when they vote contrary to our Republican values,” states an explanation for the proposed rule change.

While the pushback against the policy was swift, others defended it

Some Republican party officials in El Paso county were quick to push back against the original proposal, and many said they still found the idea of trying to decide which Republicans might merit censure and lose the support of the county party hugely problematic, and potentially vulnerable to abuse. 

State Sen. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs, a long-time opponent of Tonkins, said he thinks the whole rule change is a way for Tonkins to go after Republicans she has a vendetta against. 

“We want to attract people to the party. We don't have to agree a hundred percent on everything,” Liston said.

However, some local party members involved in changing the bylaws strongly defended the original proposal and said it came about after much thoughtful and lengthy consideration. 

“To me, personally, it would seem a self-evident matter that persons seeking to promote themselves to the general public as Republicans would, and should rightly be, held accountable by other Republicans to the precepts and platform of the Republican Party,” said Jeremy Goodall, chairman of the El Paso GOP Bylaws Committee in an email response to reporters’ questions.

Members of the El Paso County GOP’s central committee, which includes elected officials and local party leaders, are scheduled to vote on the bylaw change on Feb. 5, the same meeting at which Tonkins is required to address the state party’s concerns about her past actions. 

Editor's Note: The headline on this story was updated to reflect that the state party's admonishment is only concerned with involvement in primary elections, and not related to the proposed rule change.