The upcoming Republican primary for a state House seat in south Jefferson County represents a growing divide among lawmakers in the House GOP about what the party should stand for and the type of Republican candidates Colorado voters will support.
Rep. Colin Larson of Littleton, who’s seeking his second term, is the only Republican incumbent facing a challenger in the primary. The former occupant of the District 22 seat, Justin Everett, is running against Larson with support from the party’s conservative wing. The race is among the most expensive Republican statehouse primaries this election with almost $350,000 in outside money coming in as of June 25, according to data compiled by the Follow the Money CO project.
“This race, as well as the other races that you’re seeing in Weld County, for instance, represent a battle for the heart and soul for the Republican efforts in Colorado,” said Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs conservative.
The battle is between hard-line conservatives like Williams and Republicans who say they need room to do what’s right for their more moderate districts. It’s a battle that could threaten Minority Leader Patrick Neville’s position of authority.
It also mirrors what’s happening at the national level, said Rachel Blum, an assistant professor at Miami University in Ohio. Blum, who is from Colorado, has studied the Tea Party and other GOP factions.
“The thing we have seen since the Tea Party and especially (the election of) Donald Trump is making ideological purity the same thing as unwillingness to compromise,” she said.
House District 22 primary
Larson, a small business owner, was elected to House District 22 in 2018. He filled the seat left by Everett, who made an unsuccessful bid for state treasurer after three terms in the House.
Williams has endorsed Everett, saying he considers him among the most conservative lawmakers in Colorado history. Everett calls himself a constitutional conservative and a Christian who votes based on his beliefs and principles. In 2015, he voted against 48% of 367 bills, more than any other lawmaker at the time — earning the moniker “Dr. No.”
Larson has been known to support bipartisan legislation but denounces criticism that he isn’t conservative enough or that he isn’t representing his district, which leans Republican. He said he supports gun rights, opposes abortion and is a “100% defender of TABOR.”
“To call me anything less than conservative is a flat-out lie,” he said.
Larson points to his record as evidence of his effectiveness — in the two years he’s been in office, he’s had more bills signed into law than Everett had in six years in office.
Many of Larson’s bills have focused on education, and he has supported measures such as funding full-day kindergarten and increasing access to mental health resources. He also voted in favor of banning gay conversion therapy last year, an issue he called generational among Republicans. Everett opposed such a ban while in office.
Everett said he thought long and hard about whether to run again. But after hearing from former constituents and supporters, and receiving a series of what he considers signs, he joined the race in March.
The former lawmaker rejects the idea that Republicans need more moderate candidates to win elections in Colorado. He wants voters to know they have a clear choice that differentiates the Democratic and Republican nominees and believes Republicans need to stay on message.
“Colorado voters still vote for more small government, more traditional Republican values at the ballot box, except when it comes to candidates,” he said. “I think it’s because Republicans don’t put candidates up that represent those values.”
Another House Republican was threatened with a primary challenge earlier this year if he didn’t withdraw a bill he sponsored to get rid of qualified immunity for government employees.
Rep. Matt Soper of Delta ultimately withdrew his bill, saying that any time influential members of a district feel their only recourse is to replace a representative that serves as a “wakeup call.”
But Soper doesn’t think Republicans should be challenging their own incumbents, particularly at a time when the GOP is in the minority in both chambers. Of eight Republican House primary challenges Tuesday, four are in safe Republican districts, he said. He’d rather see the party focus its efforts on winning Democrat-held seats in swing districts — which may mean appealing to a different type of voter.
“The House GOP definitely wants to keep a pure conservative outlook, and I certainly support that, but you also have to weigh that with allowing members to represent their own districts,” Soper said.
A challenge to Patrick Neville
The Larson-Everett race highlights the alliances and disagreements within the House GOP caucus. The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners’ super PAC has spent nearly $6,500 to support Everett or oppose Larson.
“At least for my race, Justin has a longstanding alliance with certain segments of the party that make a lot of money sowing discord and attacking fellow Republicans,” Larson said.
Taylor Rhodes of the RMGO super PAC said that while Larson voted against the red flag bill — the only piece of gun legislation to come up for a vote in his time at the legislature — the group considers Everett the more pro-gun candidate. Larson, he said, allies himself with groups who “don’t believe the same way we do.”
“Justin has been a champion for the 2nd Amendment in Colorado for as long as he has been in office,” Rhodes said.
Everett said RMGO is often used as a “boogeyman to blame for everything,” and the super PAC’s contribution is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the money spent in the race against him. Larson has taken the lead in outside money support, with almost $110,500 supporting his campaign just from Assuring Quality Healthcare Access For Colorado.
The Neville family, which has been closely affiliated with RMGO, also has gotten involved with the primary — a circumstance Larson calls “troubling.”
Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock has pledged not to endorse in primaries, Everett said, but former Republican Sen. Tim Neville and his wife have endorsed him. Before entering the race, Everett also was paid for consulting work for Values First Colorado, a House GOP PAC run by Joe Neville, as first reported by the Colorado Sun.
House Republicans are also taking sides in a primary in Weld County — a fight that has grown to encompass the disagreements over leadership. Rep. Stephen Humphrey of Severance has taken to social media to accuse Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland of “orchestrating” a campaign to help him vote out Neville. McKean confirmed he is planning to challenge Neville for the caucus leadership next session.
McKean said the House GOP needs a more collaborative approach that allows members to represent their own districts’ views while sticking to four core conservative principles: personal responsibility, small government, fiscal accountability and transparency, and free enterprise.
Neville, who declined to comment for this story, was awarded the “Goldwater Award” last week from the Liberty Caucus, which refers to itself as the “conscience of the Colorado GOP.” The last lawmaker to earn the award was Everett. In 2019, the group gave Larson an F, though his points were slightly higher for 2020. He lost points for supporting a bill for a student grant program and a bill to suppress court records of eviction proceedings. Tim Neville is one of the members of the scorecard committee. Larson said the organization is not a group that upholds the Republican Party’s values.
The brewing fight over Neville’s leadership post, like the south Jefferson County primary race, is a referendum on how far right the state party should go.
“Patrick Neville becoming the minority leader is not the normal in Colorado politics,” Williams said. “He took leadership because the establishment wing of our party failed.”
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