A power struggle over the El Paso County GOP is boiling over into a lawsuit and special meeting

Colorado Springs. Nov. 22, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Colorado Springs. Nov. 22, 2022.

Update, Feb. 10, 1:37p.m.: A judge has ruled against Tonkins' suit, finding that the courts lack the jurisdiction to intervene in an internal Republican Party conflict. Arapahoe County District Court judge Elizabeth Beebe Volz concluded that previous case law and state Supreme Court precedent "support the finding that any court is without jurisdiction to determine disputes regarding who should chair a county organizational meeting.” This ruling paves the way for the state party's appointed representative to oversee the El Paso County GOP's upcoming reorganization meeting.

Updated Jan. 31, 9:55 p.m.: On Tuesday night, the Colorado GOP's central committee voted to appoint a neutral person to oversee the party's reorganization meeting for El Paso County in February, taking the duties away from local party chair Vickie Tonkins, who is up for reelection. The vote was 139-123.

The original story continues below:

A long-running struggle for control of the El Paso County GOP has taken a new legal turn, with the local chair asking a court to block the state party from getting involved in upcoming leadership elections.

County chair Vickie Tonkins filed a lawsuit Monday accusing the Colorado GOP and its current leader, Kristi Burton Brown, of “meddling” in local Republican controversies that Tonkins argues they have no say over.

At the heart of the fight is the question of who will oversee the county party’s reorganization process next month, when Tonkins will be up for reelection. 

The Colorado Republican Party’s Central Committee will hold an online meeting Tuesday night to discuss whether to appoint an outside official to manage the process, instead of leaving it to Tonkins in her role as county chair.

In her lawsuit, Tonkins said not only would the state party be overstepping its legal authority if it removes her from overseeing the process, but a move this drastic should not be done in a virtual meeting. More than one attendee told CPR they don’t feel comfortable with the electronic voting system that will be used Tuesday. 

About 500 Republicans could participate in the meeting to decide what happens next in El Paso County.

Conflict over the latest election in the wake of major losses

This latest round of conflict started when a group of Republicans from the Colorado Springs area, including several current state lawmakers and local elected officials, objected to Tonkins managing the reorganization process, saying they don’t believe she can conduct a "fair and transparent election" after butting heads with her numerous times in recent years. 

The El Paso reorganization meeting is significant not just because party leaders there will select the county chair for the next two years, but also because they will vote on who to name the state GOP Central Committee, which will pick the next chair of the Colorado Republican Party in March, a selection many see as a referendum on the future of the party.

"We are at a critical point in the future of the Republican party, not just in El Paso, but in the state … We have to work hard to right this ship and have people come together," said former state Rep. Lois Landgraf, who signed on to the letter asking the state party to oversee El Paso’s meeting.

This all comes as the GOP is struggling to regain its footing in Colorado after major losses in the last few election cycles, culminating in a dismal showing last November. The volatile, and increasingly public dispute, between state party leadership and the local chair in one of the GOP’s traditional strongholds, is more evidence of how deep the divide has become between the party’s more traditional conservatives and its grassroots, further right-wing. 

Freshman Republican state Rep. Ken DeGraaf of Colorado Springs strongly backs Tonkins and believes the state party has no authority to remove her from overseeing the upcoming meeting. He says party leaders invested in the "status quo" feel threatened because Tonkins has engaged the people in the grassroots.

"They're standing up and they're saying, 'no, we want the principles of our republic to be represented. We're not just gonna rubber stamp your fiefdoms anymore.' And so they've had enough," said DeGraaf. 

Years of controversy and conflict

Chairwoman Tonkins has been embroiled in controversy for much of her first two terms.

In the spring of 2020, seventeen Republican elected officials in El Paso County publicly urged Tonkins to consider stepping down, 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.

Tonkins didn’t resign but 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. 

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

The fight over this year’s reorganization meeting is shaping up to be something of a replay of the last one in 2021. That year, Tonkins’ detractors urged people to vote against her, alleging that she had mismanaged campaigns as well as the party’s finances and social media accounts, improperly banned officials from meetings and hired an off-duty police officer for security "then used him to threaten executive committee members."

Her opponents also raised alarms when a tentative agenda for the meeting listed a local militia group as providing security. Some Republicans feared it could intimidate attendees. The militia didn’t attend, and Tonkins narrowly won reelection, but the rift has persisted.

Last fall, in the days leading up to the election, the El Paso County party took the extraordinary move of censuring dozens of local Republicans, including elected officials and candidates, for participating in a new voter mobilization group. The group was founded because members said they didn’t trust the county party to effectively campaign for candidates, but opponents accused them of setting up a “shadow party.”

"We have tried to avoid having a Special Meeting and taken the high road in hopes these disruptive individuals would stop their attack on the El Paso County GOP; sadly, they have left us with no choice," said Tonkins in a statement announcing the censure.

It did not list the targeted party members.

"People are are not always in agreement. But this is something else," said Landgraf of Tonkins' actions in recent years. "This is something totally different...It's one thing to disagree, it's another thing to be belligerent about it. The name calling and everything else that's going on needs to stop."

Colorado college Republicans spoke out against the censure vote

Tonkins’ censure vote concerned the Colorado Federation of College Republicans, which tweeted last month that it was instructing its members not to interact with El Paso County GOP members.

“Since that list of people who were censured, there have been a lot of [threatening] comments about various things that should be done to the people on that list, which, you know, I take very seriously,” said Patrick Warnaka, chairman of the Colorado Federation of College Republicans.

The CU Boulder senior said some of the Federation’s El Paso County members were on the censure list and felt unwelcomed in the local party. 

Warnaka said he’s reached out to the party in an effort to resolve those issues.

“I don't know if the environment is a hundred percent safe, but my priority would be to get that situation resolved and get to a place where I do feel that our members are safe and that the environment is orderly and conducive to a welcoming environment,” Warnaka said. 

The state party responded to El Paso County’s censure vote by taking the unusual step in December of formally rebuking Tonkins, alleging that she failed to support GOP candidates on the ticket.

Karl Schneider, vice chair of the El Paso County GOP and an opponent of Tonkins, said he’s hopeful state leaders will appoint a neutral third party to conduct El Paso County’s February meeting. 

“What I think people have started to realize is that El Paso County has an overall negative effect on the state for Republicans,” said Schneider. “Just the whole dirty laundry that is at the forefront in the newspapers and the news does not bode well for Republicans seeking office.”