GOP, Dem chairs analyze elections
The Colorado Statesman
Three weeks after President Barack Obama won Colorado and Democrats took back control of the state House by a wide margin, state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio and state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call joined The Colorado Statesman for a wide-ranging discussion about the election and the future of both parties in a state both say they expect to remain up for grabs.
Palacio and Call are Colorado natives nearing the end of their first terms leading their parties, and both told The Statesman they are leaning toward seeking another two-year term at statewide reorganizations early next year.
In the wake of a vigorous campaign season that saw unprecedented competition for Colorado’s nine electoral votes — according to the latest statewide tally, Obama defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney by nearly 6 points — the state chairs were both surprised on election night, though Palacio says he was pleasantly surprised at how early things wrapped up.
State GOP Chairman Ryan Call, left, and Democratic counterpart Rick Palacio, right, shake hands after their InnerView about the 2012 elections at The Colorado Statesman office on Nov. 27.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
“Time to hire some new pollsters,” Call concludes, conceding that the state GOP failed to detect how well Democrats were turning out voters.
Although he contends that the public sided with Republicans and on most major issues, Call credits Democrats with establishing a stronger emotional connection with voters and suggests that Republican candidates have to do a better job establishing that bond. He also pointed to a lengthy, divisive primary season that left Republicans having to build a unified organization in short order, an obstacle Democrats didn’t face.
“Our challenge is being willing to invest the time and effort and infrastructure over a period of time to help rebuild that party’s not just brand but also engaged activists,” he says.
Palacio counters that Romney lost the trust of voters by shifting his stance again and again, first in an effort to win the primaries, and then in a sharp lurch toward the center once the General Election was under way.
“People just never felt as though they had a connection with him and that they could trust him,” Palacio says. “He created his own narrative in a sense that he changed positions on every major issue.”
Terming the Republican Party’s performance with women and Hispanic voters “deeply troubling,” Call argues that the GOP has “to make room within our party for honest disagreements in terms of policy.” He points specifically to fostering a range of opinions on gay marriage, abortion and immigration questions “while still maintaining a core ideology and core principles of limited government and personal responsibility and a commitment to freedom and creating opportunity.”
Looking ahead, Call cautions that solid Democratic majorities in the General Assembly will give Gov. John Hickenlooper plenty of occasion to veto bills produced by his own party but also says he hopes minority Republicans can temper legislation before it makes its way to the governor’s desk. Palacio says he isn’t worried that Democrats will get carried away and instead says he hopes Republicans will take the opportunity to grow their own party by getting on board with the Democrats on key issues.
Both predict spirited statewide races in 2014 for Hickenlooper’s office and for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Mark Udall.
While the state chairs agree that the just-ended presidential campaign was “crazy” and often exhausting, they also relish the attention the swing-state status brought to Colorado and predict that the 2016 race will be no different. Call suggests that the state should consider moving toward a primary for the next presidential cycle, though Palacio says he’s happy with the caucus system.
Palacio hails from Pueblo — he ran for county clerk in 2006 — by way of Washington, D.C., where he worked most recently for then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s second-in-command.
Call, an attorney with Denver-based Hale Westfall, chaired the Denver County GOP and was the state party’s legal counsel before running for chairman two years ago. He lives in Arapahoe County.
Palacio and Call joined Statesman editor and publisher Jody Hope Strogoff and political reporter Ernest Luning for an hour-long discussion in the newspaper’s Capitol Hill offices on Nov. 27. It was the third time the two have sat for a joint interview as part of the newspaper’s InnerView series of in-depth conversations with the state’s prominent political figures.
The Statesman conducted regular interviews with Palacio and Call’s predecessors, former three-term Democratic state chair Pat Waak and former two-term GOP state chair Dick Wadhams, and at the beginning of this past year’s legislative session, the newspaper held in-depth discussions with legislative leaders. Find transcripts of The Statesman’s interviews with dozens of Colorado politicos archived online at www.coloradostatesman.com/innerview.
Below is the transcript of The Statesman’s conversation with Palacio and Call. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
COLORADO STATESMAN: Thank you both for coming. Are you getting any rest at all?
STATESMAN: And Ryan, you — ?
STATESMAN: You have been busy with — ?
STATESMAN:I imagine that maybe there’s more re-assessing on your part than Rick’s part, in terms of what happened?
STATESMAN: What happened, do you think?
STATESMAN: What were your polls showing, Rick? Were you surprised at the strength of your party?
STATESMAN: It was early.
STATESMAN: Right. Can we talk about the legislative races first? When we talked five months ago, Ryan, you were talking about the success recruiting candidates and that it seemed to be a very strong field. But the Democrats, or at least their opponents found some things to attack some of the candidates on, like Rick Enstrom and Brian Watson, who were probably — they’re the kind of moderate Republicans that everyone says they wish would return to the Legislature — what happened?
It was a model that (Obama campaign manager) Jim Messina employed in the presidential campaign to go out very heavy, very early and try to define the Republicans broadly and Mitt Romney specifically in ways that (I) would argue are certainly very unfair and not representative of who he was as a candidate. Similarly, as it related to many of our state legislative races, where we had a very aggressive and very negative campaign that painted a pretty unfair picture of people like Rick Enstrom and Brian Watson and Lang Sias and others. That’s a lesson for Republicans, that we can’t allow the opposition to define us. We have to be much more in control of who we are and what we stand for.
I think the opposition side also did a masterful job of tying Republicans here in the state, whether at the presidential level or even locally, to misstatements and Republicans in other parts of the country. I mean, to hold Mitt Romney or Republicans responsible for a Todd Akin or a Richard Mourdock is patently unfair. [Ed. note: Akin and Mourdock were the Republican Senate nominees in Missouri and Indiana, respectively, and got plenty of attention for remarks they made about rape. Both lost their races in states that Romney carried comfortably.] I mean Republicans, don’t go around comparing every single Democrat on the ballot to some of the more extreme examples, of the (California Democrat) Maxine Waters of the world, or, you know … but that’s the tactic that worked in this election cycle in many ways. I think overall Democrats were masterful at divide and conquer strategy of dividing up the electorate and then specifically targeting messaging to that particular division of the electorate that was looking for that kind of message.
STATESMAN: Okay, can I ask, though, gay marriage and abortion have been two kind of wedge issues used by the Democrats this year but famously, for a long time, those have been wedge issues used by the Republicans. Is it a good for the goose, good for the gander situation then or what’s — ?
STATESMAN: Rick, are Democrats using an effective tool there or is it an — ?
STATESMAN: Nancy Pelosi?
CALL: Well, I have to give a hand to my counterpart and to the Democratic Party for executing on a strategy. Had they got that strategy wrong, had the Republican Party or the Romney campaign been able to get out from under that picture that was being painted of Republicans, they probably would not have had the resources to create a new narrative. They also invested very heavily early in the cycle and over a period of time. There’s an inherent significant advantage of being the incumbent. Republicans enjoyed that in 2004 with President Bush’s re-election, where we got out early and defined John Kerry as sort of an out of touch waffler and vaguely French and all sorts of other ways we used to sort of undermine his credibility for the electorate.
So there’s a lot of advantages being the incumbent. The infrastructure that the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party here in Colorado has been able to work on developing over the last, really, six years, was difficult to match after a divisive and difficult primary on the Republican side where we had to build the campaign operation up within about six months. And that is — some inherent disadvantages to that.
I think this election cycle we saw more energy and enthusiasm along our electorate than I had seen for a long, long time. And a lot more unity. It took a while for our side to come together — probably too long for our side to come together — but once we did we were pretty united in our support of Mitt Romney and our Republican field. But it comes a bit too late. And our challenge is being willing to invest the time and effort and infrastructure over a period of time to help rebuild that party’s not just brand but also engaged activists.
STATESMAN: In terms of vetting candidates, especially legislative candidates, you had a good candidate or a great candidate, but maybe something in his background 20 or 25 years ago, with Rick Enstrom and the flap about his stores — how far back do you go? [Ed. note: Democrats hammered Enstrom relentlessly for a ticket he received in the 1980s for selling drug paraphernalia at a record store he owned in Grand Junction.] Is there a perfect candidate who has nothing in their skeleton closet? Is that the kind of candidate you need?
PALACIO: I don’t think people are looking for perfection in a candidate. I think people are looking for a candidate that they can trust and that they believe is on their side. I think that, in spite of Mitt Romney’s perfection and his lack of imperfections, people just never felt as though they had a connection with him and that they could trust him. He created his own narrative in a sense that he changed positions on every major issue. I think that had he stayed far to the right the way that he did in the Republican primaries, that perhaps even those who disagreed with those positions may have felt as though they could trust him enough with their vote. But you saw the first debate, here in Denver, much of the things that he ran on the previous year he was shying away from. And then you saw the foreign policy debate where Mitt Romney was nearly emulating the policies of President Obama. And I think especially just in that last, that final two months, his pivot towards the center really made people — it validated people’s fears about who this man was. Essentially someone that they were not able to trust.
CALL: I think that Chairman Palacio’s observation about having candidates that can appreciate, or that the voters feel like care about them, was the emotional connection that the Republicans have had a hard time connecting with voters on. We saw exit polling, and, again, there’s a temptation to rush to a judgment and sort of point to one or two magic bullets and saying, this is the reason we lost — it was our databases, it was our candidate, we weren’t conservative enough, we were too moderate. There’s always those dangers, so I think we have to take some time to really evaluate all this. But a few broad trends are coming through pretty loud and clear, at least that I’m learning.
When you look at the polling, and they asked, which of the candidates, and by extension which political party, has the right views or the right approaches on issues like spending and the debt, Republicans are winning handily. When they asked, in terms of some of the exit polling, which candidate and which, by extension, political party, is showing the kind of strong leadership that we’re looking for, Mitt Romney was coming out ahead. Which candidate shares my values? Mitt Romney comes out ahead. But on the question of which candidate, and by extension which political party, cares about people like me — you saw that poll from the exit polling — 81 percent said Barack Obama, 18 percent said Mitt Romney.
So you can be right on all the issues, you can have the right positions and the right policy solutions to confront the challenges of high unemployment and a stagnant economy and trying to foster the kind of policies that Americans and Coloradans want, but unless you make that emotional connection so that they know that you care about them and their family, you’re going to fall short. And that’s what I think we saw very prominently. The Obama campaign was making strongly emotional appeals, appealing to people’s security. Republicans were talking about jobs and the economy more in the abstract and didn’t connect it down to the individual in a way that was persuasive.
STATESMAN: When did you realize that we’re going to lose this thing? Did you know a month out, two weeks out, the day — ?
STATESMAN: And you, Rick, were you pretty confident?
So there was about a two week period of time that I was a little worried that things were not going in our direction. And then it felt like the momentum began to build again. I woke up on Election Day actually feeling very, very optimistic. We knew fairly early based on the Arapahoe and Jeffco county returns that we were going to win. But there was a couple of weeks period of time that I was a little worried.
STATESMAN: After the election Mitt Romney famously, in a call to fundraisers, blamed his loss on the “gifts” that the Obama administration had bestowed on constituencies, and a number of prominent Republicans, including several who campaigned for Mitt Romney in the state here, quickly disavowed and distanced themselves from that and said, Newt Gingrich said that it was an “insulting” and wrongheaded take on the election and on how the Republicans need to connect with the voters, like you’re talking about. What’s your take on that?
But I do think that we have to learn, as Republicans, to talk to people’s concerns in a way that is more personal and address those concerns in a way that’s meaningful and not just simply fall back on trite ideology when we’re talking about people and their families and their careers and their livelihoods. And a recognition that people are hurting and have been hurting especially over the last few years. I think that we are going to see some economic recovery, I think in many ways it’s going to be in spite of the president’s policies and not because of them, but I do think that — I hope for the best. I want America to succeed, I want our state to be strong, so I don’t wish the president or the Democratic majorities in the State Legislature ill will. I want them to be successful because I want our state to be successful.
STATESMAN: Would you say that after looking at themselves, that Colorado is a blue state or is it still a swing state?
But I think that Coloradans, and I’ve said this for a while, I think Coloradans are Democrat-leaning independents. Those that are not registered as Democrats themselves, I think they’re Democrat-leaning independents. You have a very rapidly growing Latino population that, certainly the Republican Party has not done much to ingratiate themselves to. You have a very strong female constituency that the Republican Party has not done a great job of building trust with there as well. So I think that we have a very good opportunity and very good chance of maintaining our blue status, but it’s not going to be an easy one.
I want to go back to the previous question, where Mitt Romney’s statement a few days (after the election) to donors, talked about “gifts.” This was not new, and Mitt Romney did this in his 47-percent comment to donors behind closed doors earlier this summer. It’s part of what fed this narrative that he was out of touch and didn’t represent the entirety of the country. For those people who were not voting for President Obama but voting against Mitt Romney, it validated their feelings post-election.
So I think the Republican Party has a job to do. There’s a tremendous amount of good will that could be built with Latinos, especially, and with women. I believe in a two-party system. I think that we are better off as a nation, we’re better off over all as a people when you have some sort of a balance of power. That balance of power is going to be difficult to attain when you are creating enemies of some of the largest growing constituencies that we have in the state.
CALL: I would absolutely agree with Chairman Palacio. The Republican Party does have opportunities to reach out to Latinos, to women voters, and needs to in ways that are meaningful. I also agree with him that that back-and-forth between the liberal party and the conservative party makes for better policy as we’re trying to find that right balance between those ideologies. And I think that there is a bright future for the conservative party in Colorado, even though we have some temporary setbacks. I think Democrats are at great risk of overreach. That happened the last time Democrats were in the majorities in both chambers with a Democratic governor, and it cost them. I suspect that we may see much of the same in this upcoming legislative session as well, creating the opportunity for Republicans to paint a contrast — a contrasting vision in terms of policy, but also in terms of vision for the state and its direction.
STATESMAN: Ryan, you mentioned before Rick arrived that you’d gotten a lot of feedback from people. Everyone has their ideas of Monday — or Wednesday morning quarterbacking. What are you hearing from people? Is it a wide array of analysis or questions?
It was interesting to reflect upon the recent film about Abraham Lincoln. Our party’s roots began in this fight to recognize the dignity of the individual and free people from not just slavery as it related to the institution, but also the shackles of economic disadvantage. And that we believe that policies that empower that individual and make them self-sufficient is the right path for not only establishing the dignity of the individual but it’s the right policy path for continued success. There are those messages that are certainly resonating a lot.
There are some voices that say that our candidate wasn’t conservative enough, there’s others that’ll say the candidate was too conservative and we need to go more centrist. Those are discussions that I’m sure will play themselves out time and time again in primary elections moving forward. That’s part of the process, and we’re better for it.
STATESMAN: Do you subscribe to the theory that the party should be more embracing of some of these groups, or perhaps stick with its more conservative principles?
So I think that there are ways that we can find accommodation within differences of opinion on policy matters while still maintaining a core ideology and core principles of limited government and personal responsibility and a commitment to freedom and creating opportunity, rather than greater government and greater government dependence.
STATESMAN: The Republicans this year will have the opportunity to demonstrate where they stand on some of those issues. Civil unions were supported by a hefty share of the delegates to the Republican state assembly in a party platform vote and even by some sitting legislators last year —
STATESMAN: Would it be wise for Republicans to get on board with that this year?
STATESMAN: ASSET legislation too, we’re likely to see come back before the Legislature. Is that something where Republicans —
STATESMAN: The business wing of the (Republican) party is heartily in favor of that?
STATESMAN: When Republicans did have a majority in one of the chambers, though, they came down on different sides of those issues than the Democrats and kept those pieces of legislation from coming to full votes or being enacted. Is that one reason that Democrats have been able to portray Republicans as out of touch when it comes to those issues?
STATESMAN: Rick, what’s your take on the legislative session coming up and what Chairman Call has brought up?
And it’s a myriad of other things as well, I think that the Republican Party can do to show that they’re on the side of some of these growing constituencies and that the movement within our society, like a move towards a marriage equality. I think there’s still room under both tents to have very opposite views.
I think it’s a great analogy that Congressman Gardner used, having a big tent but not enough chairs, and my challenge would be make more, build more. What I see as the problem is not so much the chairs, but that the tent seems to be shrinking and that’s not good for any party. I don’t think that either party should be an exclusive group for people who look and speak exactly the same. They should be quite welcoming.
I look forward to the legislative session, we have quite a diverse group of individuals. We have quite a few women and we have a record number of African-American lawmakers, a record number of Hispanic lawmakers that are coming into this class, so I look forward to seeing the various work that they entertain, because I believe that the Democratic majorities that we have in the state House and the Senate are quite representative of the people of Colorado.
STATESMAN: Do you think there’s a danger that the Democrats can overreach?
PALACIO: There’s always the danger. I think that we have very pragmatic leaders in both chambers and I don’t — I think the work that they’re going to undertake is the work that the people of Colorado would like for them to do.
CALL: I think there is a significant risk. And I do hope that our lawmakers from both political parties will listen to the opposition. For example in the civil unions legislation we expect to see I certainly hope that we can have supportive Democrats in supporting conscience exemptions for religious organizations and private individuals, or a number of other policies where that give-and-take between the political parties can make better legislation as opposed to one particular view dominating entirely.
And when the Democrats do overreach — because they will — Republicans will be there to say higher taxes, greater regulation is not the path to success. Putting a damper on energy development in the state and job creation is not the recipe for the progress that we hope for. And so you’re going to see us talking about that in a very articulate voice. I’ve got a lot of confidence in our Republican leadership in the state House and in the state Senate. Sen. (Bill) Cadman is the Republican leader in the Senate and (House Minority Leader) Rep. Mark Waller, I think, will do a fine job in standing firm on their principles and working to make bad legislation better where possible.
STATESMAN: Do you feel anxious with Gov. Hickenlooper as a Democrat and both chambers being — ?
STATESMAN: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you. What are your feelings about the fact that the governor, it’s one-party governance at the state House? Does that make you a little bit nervous, Rick, that perhaps the governor will be put in a position of having to veto some legislation, or how closely do you think the leadership will work with the governor’s office?
STATESMAN: Ryan, I don’t know if you were joking about Gov. Hickenlooper?
STATESMAN: What do the parties do in the next year? Is it too early to start looking at 2014 or is there a period of rest and relaxation or how do you refocus?
PALACIO: It’s never too early.
PALACIO: It’s never too early. I think we started looking at 2014 in 2011. It’s always about planning for the future. We’ve already begun talking to candidates for the Legislature and for the various U.S. House seats that we have up, and we’ve begun meeting with the governor and his campaign team and Sen. Udall and his campaign team as well. So it’s never too early to plan. 2011 was all about our year of planning, 2012 was our year of execution and it’s going to be the same for 2013, ’14. ’13 is planning and ’14 is execution.
CALL: Same is true for Republicans. We’ve got, I think, a very good prospective field of candidates for both the statewide offices — attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, obviously — we expect good candidates there and for the U.S. Senate and for the governor’s race. I think Republicans have a much broader field than some people give us credit for. Our effort is also strongly directed towards helping to recruit and support candidates for state legislative seats, especially in competitive suburban and other districts around the state. That effort at candidate recruitment and development is certainly a top priority for the Republican Party.
STATESMAN: Do you expect the same legislative seats in the House to be in play next time?
STATESMAN: Do you think we’ll see any rematches in the legislative races?
STATESMAN: Do you see either Sen. Mark Udall or Gov. Hickenlooper — how vulnerable do you think they are, if at all?
STATESMAN: Rick, do you think those are both going to be full-spirited races?
STATESMAN: Um-hmm. What do the Republicans need to do to nominate a Senate candidate who can win in Colorado? It’s been a long time since Wayne Allard won a seat here. [Ed. note: Allard’s successful reelection bid in 2002 was the last time a Republican Senate candidate won the state.]
STATESMAN: Okay. Is that something you would support, moving toward a presidential primary in Colorado, to bring the state some prominence early on?
STATESMAN: Plans for the future. I’ll ask you both, are you running again for state chair?
STATESMAN: Okay. Ryan?
STATESMAN: Okay, and you’ll let us know?
STATESMAN: This is what, now, nearing the end of your terms? Looking back over the last nearly two years, what’s the job been like? Is it like you expected?
It’s been great and to look at the accomplishments of the state Republican Party in terms of turning around our finances, our organizational capacity, being able to run caucuses and assemblies, really without a hitch — through a pretty difficult environment of some very strong opinions about candidates — and to build a unified party moving forward in support of those candidates. We have seen a great success at the state party in turning around fundraising and engagement and volunteer recruitment and such, as well as candidate development. And I expect and would like to continue that trend.
STATESMAN: You both took office after state party chairs who served at least two terms. Do you feel like you’ve put your stamp on the state party?
STATESMAN: What about you, Rick?
It’s all about doing this in a collaborative way. That’s the only reason that we had the successes that we had on election night, is because we have developed a model whereby we all work very well together. And it’s not just metro-centric, it’s also relying on folks that are living in some of our out-counties as well. We had 65 field offices open across the state, which I think was a record, so part of this success was about each of those 65 field offices as well, whether or not those field offices in those counties actually were able to achieve a 50-plus-one percent or whether they achieved 30 percent. Each and every vote for our side was because of the hard work that they put forth. So I feel good about the last two years, and if I decide to run, I think the next two years will be just as exciting.
STATESMAN: A month before the election or thereabouts when both candidates, the president and the governor were coming in and out of the state, did it occur to you like, oh my goodness, Colorado, this is crazy? What were your thoughts?
PALACIO: I agree, it was definitely good for our state. You know, I look forward to four years from now or three years from now in the primaries when people look back and say that Colorado was the tipping point, that we end up in a situation where all of our primary candidates on both sides are making frequent trips to coffee shops in Arapahoe County and in Jefferson County. Then I think it’ll truly prove that Colorado is a swing state and Colorado does matter.
But it was very exciting. A month before the election the president came through and you were thinking, this is my last chance to see the president, and then he was here three days later and two days after that and a week after that. It was exhausting, but at the same time no one can deliver a candidate’s message better than the candidate can himself, and I think the proof is in the pudding. We believed going into this that President Obama deserved a second term and that the majority of people of Colorado agreed that that was the case. We worked hard — collectively, collaboratively we worked hard — to make sure that the people actually got a chance to have their voices heard and on election night the president was re-elected because of Colorado. So we think all of it was certainly worth it, regardless of how exhausting it was.
STATESMAN: Last question: do you have any questions for each other?
PALACIO: Yeah, congratulations to you as well. You had some victories. As I said, we had some disappointments but, over all, it was a good night. I think there were good things to take away for both of us. You certainly put up a good fight and I congratulate you for all of the work that you did because I know it wasn’t easy and herding your elephants certainly could not have been easy the last two years, and the next two years I’m hoping that you have a better time of it, just not too good of a time.
CALL: Thanks, Rick.
STATESMAN: Thank you both again for coming by.