In rare move, Colorado GOP goes after Republican Congressman

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Doug Lamborn
(AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., speaks during a House Committee on Natural Resources hearing, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

When former state Rep. Dave Williams was chosen to head the Colorado GOP in March, he pledged to be a conservative fighter, not another “timid politician.” He told Republicans at the party’s organizing meeting that he would go toe to toe with “radical Democrats” every chance he gets. 

Williams also made it clear that fellow Republicans wouldn’t be off limits.

“It's not just the Democrats. It's people like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell. They need to start listening to us,” he said then.

Now he’s brought that confrontational approach closer to home. 

In a recent email to party members, Williams called out GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents the 5th Congressional District in Colorado Springs, for voting in support of the debt ceiling compromise.

“Deceptively, Congressman Doug Lamborn broke his word and voted to increase our debt while helping Joe Biden continue to fleece American taxpayers,” the email states, before listing some of Lamborn’s previous comments critical of government spending.

“Colorado Republicans are fed up with say-anything politicians like Doug Lamborn who say one thing to gain power but then do the opposite when they think no one is paying attention,” the email goes on.

A second email blasted Lamborn for not signing onto a letter Williams sent to the White House on behalf of the state party regarding Space Command headquarters and abortion policy

The move has left some Republicans disappointed and questioning why their party head would attack one of its most prominent members. As some have pointed out, the main job of a state party chair is to get Republicans elected, and that includes helping incumbents keep their seats.

Political consultant Dick Wadhams, who led the Colorado GOP from 2007 to 2011, said he can’t remember ever seeing a party chair openly hostile to one of their own elected officials. 

“I guess if Dave Williams wants to be in that category openly opposing a Republican incumbent or a Republican candidate, I guess that's his choice. But this is virtually unprecedented.”

Williams defends his actions. He told CPR that for too long “establishment Republicans” have sold out conservative values and weakened the party brand, “rather than supporting hardworking taxpayers.” 

Williams said the party members who selected him chairman “gave me the job to advance our grassroots platform.” 

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Rep. Dave Williams speaks during a rally for Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters on the Colorado Capitol steps. April 5, 2022.

Well before his current role as chair, Williams and Lamborn already had a combative relationship. Last year, when Williams was still a state lawmaker, he mounted a primary challenge against Lamborn. The acrimonious race included an unsuccessful effort by Williams to have Lamborn’s campaign criminally investigated for allegedly making false statements about him. 

Lamborn ended up defeating Williams by more than 15 points. 

Wadhams said he believes Williams’ critical emails violate the party’s rules, which ban a party official from getting involved in a primary election because the goal of the organization is to “elect duly nominated or designated Republican candidates to office.”

According to party bylaws, no candidate should be opposed by a state officer ahead of a primary unless “such candidate is unopposed in the Primary Election.” While no Republican has launched a challenge against Lamborn yet, there is still plenty of time ahead of next year’s election.

“I think that when you attack a Republican incumbent elected official, you are violating the spirit of that bylaw,” said Wadhams.

Williams did not respond to a follow-up question about whether he believes the emails fall within party rules.

Latest episode reflects division over best course for Colorado GOP

The tumult comes as Republicans in Colorado are trying to chart a new path forward following several rounds of steep election losses. The party holds no statewide elected offices and hasn’t controlled a chamber of the legislature since 2018. Its margins at the statehouse are currently its lowest in state history.

A number of Republican consultants and analysts described Williams’ actions as baffling and extremely unhelpful to the party — although some declined to speak on record for fear of professional retribution.

They also fear these divisions could have a chilling effect on other Republicans considering a run for office, especially in the toss-up 8th Congressional District, which has the potential to be the most competitive race in Colorado next cycle. Democratic Rep. Yadira Caraveo is in her first term and the seat is a top target for national Republicans hoping to expand their margin in the House. 

“This is not only wildly inappropriate for a party chair but seems utterly unmoored from any serious strategy to build a robust, statewide election-winning organization,” wrote communications strategist Sean Duffy in a column for Colorado Politics. Duffy was deputy chief of staff to Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

Some Republicans who’ve known Williams for a while say the situation is reflective of his combative political personality at the statehouse and even while working on other campaigns.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Former Republican state Rep. Dave Williams.

Williams volunteered on President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign in Colorado but was fired from the position, according to the campaign’s regional director, Brian Seitchick, for abusing his title. In regards to the public criticism of Lamborn, Seitchik described Williams as the antithesis of a team player. 

“He has no interest in anything other than his own personal gain. If he has to burn the state party down to get ahead, he'll do it. If he has to cost us winnable races at the ballot box to further his own political career, he will do so,” said Seitchik. 

While the emails surprised many political observers, it's long been clear that Republicans are split on the best course of action to reverse their recent losses. Some believe the party should take a more moderate approach to try to appeal to unaffiliated voters, while others — Williams among them — argue they need to instead tack farther to the right to rally the base. 

And many involved in Republican politics admit that there is a desire by the base, especially those Republicans who show up at conventions and caucuses, to have leaders willing to instigate public fights with Democrats — and with fellow Republicans, if they break from hard right positions. 

And Colorado isn't the first state where party leadership has taken on one of their own for their actions in Washington, D.C. The Wyoming GOP censored Rep. Liz Cheney after she voted to impeach former president Trump, and just last week, delegates to North Carolina’s state GOP convention took similar action against Sen. Thom Tillis for his voting record. 

In debt ceiling vote, Lamborn followed national party leadership

When asked by CPR about the Colorado GOP emails, Lamborn declined to comment. But he did respond on Twitter to criticism about his debt ceiling vote, noting it would “cut spending.”

The deal to avoid a June 5 default deadline was brokered by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden. While the email from Williams characterized Lamborn as “extreme” for supporting it, the bill passed the House, 314 to 117, with 149 House Republicans, including GOP leadership, voting yes.

Wliliams did not respond to a follow-up question from CPR about why he considered Lamborn’s support out of line with the party.

Lamborn was Colorado’s only GOP member to back the debt ceiling deal. Rep. Ken Buck from the 4th CD cast a no vote and Congresswoman Boebert from the state’s 3rd Congressional district missed the vote, but publicly opposed the deal. In his email to party members, Williams praised Boebert and Buck for their positions.

And Williams’ discontent with Lamborn isn’t limited to disagreements over fiscal policy. In a separate fundraising email, Williams blasted Lamborn and former Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers for not signing onto a letter Williams wrote that declared Space Command should leave Colorado Springs if it becomes clear that Colorado’s abortion access laws are factoring into the decision. 

Asked about the letter, Lamborn told CPR News emphatically that abortion is not part of the equation.

“I’ve already made it real clear, and others have also, that abortion plays no part in this decision and should not play any part in this decision,” the congressman said. Lamborn and the entire congressional delegation have been fighting for the headquarters to remain in Colorado Springs.

Politicians and parties often disagree, but rarely in public

What makes the state GOP’s recent emails so unusual is that when policy differences arise between a state party chair and candidates or elected officials, they’re typically navigated delicately, with both sides trying to avoid any public face off. 

The 2022 U.S Senate race saw GOP candidate Joe O’Dea at odds with party leadership over abortion. O’Dea broke with the party to support legal abortion in the earlier stages of pregnancy.  The party’s chair at the time, Kristi Burton Brown, got her start in politics as the author of the anti-abortion personhood amendment. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican Joe O’Dea, who is running to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, at a GOP campaign event Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Denver.

While Burton Brown emphasized that the Colorado GOP remained opposed legal abortion, she was careful not to publicly criticize O’Dea and still urged party members to volunteer for his campaign and vote for him.  

“She was a great partner and we worked closely together,” said Zack Roday, O’Dea’s campaign manager. 

However, O’Dea’s defeat played a role in changing the party’s approach. Leaders like Williams argue that moderate candidates have failed to bring voters back to the Republican Party and instead have, in Williams’ words, essentially apologized for Republican values. 

Instead, said Williams, “If we build a clear contrast with Democrats on defense and align ourselves with voters without compromising, then we will win again.” 

Meanwhile Colorado Democrats say they would welcome Williams backing even farther right candidates. And in a jab to both men involved in the current conflict, the party also thanked Lamborn for supporting the bipartisan debt ceiling bill.

“We’ll happily give credit where credit is due. Lamborn voted with Democrats to prevent devastating cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, good for him,” said Shad Murib, the Democratic state party chair. 

That credit is likely only to reinforce Williams in his campaign against “wayward elected Republicans.” As he said at one point, if the chairman of the Democratic party praises your vote, “you should know it’s wrong.”