‘I don’t trust the state party anymore’: Colorado GOP leader Dave Williams under fire by party members over controversial tactics, personal attacks

State Republican Parties
Colorado Republican Party chair candidate Dave Williams speaks during a debate for the state Republican Party leadership position Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in a pizza restaurant in Hudson, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Former President Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the Eleventh Commandment was, “thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

As Colorado GOP chair Dave Williams approaches his one-year anniversary in the job, it’s a commandment he regularly breaches. Under his leadership, Williams is just as likely to attack Republicans who don’t hew to his belief of what the party should represent, as to take on Democrats.

This effort to police fellow party members and elected officials highlights the broader divisions among Trump supporters and more traditional conservatives in the Republican ranks. And it comes at a difficult time for the party; Republicans have had anemic election results in recent years, losing most statewide races by double digits. This cycle, all three of the congressional seats currently held by the party are up for grabs, with competitive primaries in each. 

“People have different ideas and [Williams] does not accept different ideas,” said Kevin McCarney, a former chair of the Mesa County Republicans who also ran against Williams to lead the state party. He said Williams has moved far from the established role of the party chair, which traditionally has been to support all different types of Republicans, “whether you like them, whether you don't. You have to accept that they're going to be different.” 

Williams has defended his tenure, blaming ‘RINOs’ — Republicans in Name Only — for the party’s recent string of losses and saying they “can’t stand seeing conservatives who support (Donald) Trump leading the party.”

Williams isn't just running the party, he's also running for Congress.

Perhaps Williams’ most controversial actions so far have come around how he’s handled his own bid for office.

Williams, a former state lawmaker, announced in January that he was getting into the race for the 5th Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. Doug Lamborn. Williams unsuccessfully primaried Lamborn for the job two years ago.

Since then, Williams has at times blurred the lines between his role as state party chair and the campaign. 

Williams used the state party email distribution list to announce his run for the seat, reassuring members that while he planned to remain as chair through the primary, “nothing will change for the Colorado Republican Party.” 

But subsequent party emails have taken aim at one of Williams’ most prominent primary opponents, radio host Jeff Crank.

This week, the state party attacked the Koch-backed group, Americans for Prosperity for its support of Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley. The email featured a photo of Crank standing next to Haley at the top.

“Together, we can overcome the ‘Never-Trump’ phony hypocrites like Americans for Prosperity and their sell-out lobbyists like Jeff Crank,” the email read. Crank is a regional vice president for AFP and hosts a podcast for the organization.

“Don't give AFP or Jeff Crank your money or contact information,” the email urged.

This isn’t the first time the state party has gone after Crank. Earlier this month, another email accused Crank and his supporters, including current and former El Paso county elected officials, of planting a news story that said Willams was exploring using Dominion Voting Machines to count ballots at the Republican State Assembly. 

“These false claims are baseless and maliciously propagated by Jeff Crank supporters,” the email read. It also accused the newspaper’s owner, Phil Anschutz, of propping up Republican candidates opposed to Trump, and urged Republicans to “remain vigilant against attempts to sow discord within our Party.” 

Williams has been a staunch advocate of false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, and that Dominion machines flipped votes from Trump to Biden. Under his leadership, the party’s central committee endorsed Trump on the eve of the Iowa Caucuses, in apparent violation of their own bylaws, which don’t allow for endorsements in contested primaries.

Crank pushed back on the initial email and the likely motivation behind it, leveling possibly the worst insult one Republican can give another — that Williams is acting like a Democrat.

“The Biden Administration is using their power to target their political opponents, the Colorado Republican Party shouldn’t follow down that same path,” Crank said in a statement. “We must focus solely on electing more strong conservatives to office.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner at the Capitol, March 1, 2023.

Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner is also running in the 5th Congressional District primary race, after serving nearly 16 years at the state capitol. Gardner said Williams’ actions are detrimental to the GOP overall.

“I'm a former county party chair and former state party general counsel,” Gardner told CPR News. “In my time, it would've been unthinkable for the state party or the county party to be so heavily involved in anyone's race at all. Much less have a chair running for office simultaneously.”

Gardner said this is not what voters want. He said they tell him they want less fighting and more focus on the issues.

“The issues are affordability, border security, public safety — all of those things are what people want to hear about. They don't want to hear about the party squabble about who's on first and who's up and who's down. That's not a part of their lives.” 

Williams has defended himself in part by pointing out there is some precedent for a state party chair to run for, and hold, another elected office. GOP Rep. Ken Buck helmed the state party from 2019 to 2020, and during that time he also ran for reelection. One difference: Buck didn’t face a primary challenge.

Attacking other Republicans 

While Williams has his defenders, his attacks have brought consternation for many in his party, especially those who are currently running for Congress.  

The topic came up, without a direct reference to Williams, during a recent Republican debate in the 4th Congressional District, the seat being vacated by Buck. All nine GOP candidates agreed the state party should remain neutral in primary races, and all but one said a state party officer should step down if they are running in a competitive primary. 

“It is absolutely critical that the state party does not try to pick winners and losers in a primary and should uplift all of the candidates at equal levels,” Republican state Rep. Richard Holtorf of Akron told CPR News after the debate.  

Fellow primary candidate Rep. Mike Lynch of Wellington shared that sentiment, and in an interview with CPR was even more pointed. “I don't trust the state party anymore,” said Lynch, who until recently was also the Colorado House minority leader. “That's a concern when the state party chair directly attacks me in the media.”

Williams pushed for Lynch’s ouster as minority leader after it came to light that Lynch had failed to tell his Republican colleagues or the public that he was on probation for a DUI and a related gun charge.  

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state Rep. Scott Bottoms on the House floor, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024.

Republican state Rep. Scott Bottoms of Colorado Springs, who helped lead the effort to remove Lynch from leadership, believes it’s absolutely appropriate for Williams as party chair, to weigh in on Republican officials.  

“He was doing that as the state party chair when somebody had really violated our ethics and who we are as a party,” said Bottoms. 

Bottoms said he was happy with Williams’ overall leadership of the state party, saying he has brought vision and true leadership and returned the GOP back to a more “conservative context.”

He’s also fine with Williams running in a competitive primary race while serving as chair. 

“I do feel strongly that he should be able to run.” Bottoms said it would be Williams’ decision on  whether to step down. “I think that's his personal call. I don't want our state party to not have leadership,” he said. “Now, does he need to be neutral in primaries? Obviously he has to be, but he's also running, so he has to be able to run his campaign.”

In a statement to CPR News, Williams defended his actions.

“It’s not surprising to see feckless and weak RINO’s, who care most about what the leftwing media and pundits think about them, get upset about the new pro-Trump direction of our Party,” he said. 

Williams did not address the calls for him to step down as party chair or remain neutral in GOP primaries. He referred to his critics as failed establishment RINOs, who “have more in common with the big-government politicians who continually sell out to special interest groups at the expense of the taxpayers.”

Still, concerns about how Williams runs the party pre-date his congressional bid. 

During his tenure as chair, Wiliams has used his perch to attack Lamborn, to take on Buck for opposing Rep. Jim Jordan’s bid to be House Speaker, and to criticize GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert’s decision to switch congressional districts. 

He also called on the Mesa County GOP Secretary to resign from the party after she and others criticized the state GOP’s vocal support for former Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who is currently facing criminal charges for violating the security of her office’s election equipment.

One former GOP county leader, Rich Sokol, went so far as to resign from the state Republican Party’s executive committee in December, blaming Willams for using the position “to demean and denigrate fellow Republicans.”

Party divisions come at a critical time for the state GOP

Williams was elected to helm the party at a critical juncture. The GOP is trying to chart a path forward following several rounds of steep election losses, culminating in the lowest number of members at the Colorado legislature in state history. Republicans currently hold no statewides offices, and two years ago lost a competitive race for Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District. 

Going into this year’s general election, there are concerns that Williams’ focus on conservative purity will do more to alienate the moderate or unaffiliated voters the party will need to regain ground in the state.

“(Williams) wants to remake the party into something that is going to be a 15 percent party, if we’re lucky,” said McCarney, the former chair of the Mesa County GOP. “He’s making it into the angry and hateful party.”

Williams and his allies are also trying to change who gets to choose the party’s candidates. He’s led an effort to close primaries to unaffiliated voters, going so far as to sue the state, so far unsuccessfully. In September, the state party moved away from remaining neutral during a Republican primary. They changed the bylaws to let the state party either endorse or oppose a primary candidate depending on how they got on the ballot. The party would remain neutral if a candidate got on via the caucus, but would be allowed to voice an opinion if a candidate petitioned to get on the ballot.

Over the last decade, Colorado Republicans have lost voters. In 2016, the state had nearly equal numbers of Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters. Eight years later, the Colorado GOP lost around 130,000 active voters, compared to Democrats, who only lost 20,000 active voters. Meanwhile, the ranks of unaffiliated voters increased by nearly 700,000.

Financial disclosures also suggest that fundraising hasn’t been strong over the past year. The bulk of the money the party collected in 2023 didn’t come from Coloradans. Of the approximately $869,000 raised last year, about $250,000 came from GOP presidential candidates paying to get on the primary ballot, a fee the Colorado Sun found has rarely been charged before

Another $255,000 donated to the party came from former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s Joint Fundraising Committee to help battleground races. (After Boebert’s close call last cycle, her campaign and 8th Congressional District, as well as the state GOP as a whole, are on the committee’s list.) 

Republican state lawmaker Gabe Evans, who is running for Colorado’s 8th Congressional District, said it’s important for Colorado to have a strong Republican Party, to ensure the state’s politics aren’t so one-sided.

“People are crying out for balance, and that means Republicans winning seats. And so I think the state party needs to be focused on helping Republicans win seats — Reagan's 11th commandment,” said Evans.