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Republican legislative leaders see opportunity, challenges courting Trump voters

Author: Ernest Luning - February 7, 2017 - Updated: February 8, 2017

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Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House asks state Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, a question at the Capitol Club fundraiser for the Colorado Republican Party on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, at Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant in Denver. Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, are also pictured, and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, is sitting between them. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House asks state Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, a question at the Capitol Club fundraiser for the Colorado Republican Party on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, at Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant in Denver. Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, are also pictured, and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, is sitting between them. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)Donald

Leading Republican lawmakers told a group of GOP donors that the party is poised to capture the Colorado voters who swung to Donald Trump last fall but cautioned against assuming they’re in the bag just yet.

“No one can be Trump,” Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, told Republicans gathered for a fundraiser at Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant in downtown Denver on Jan. 24. “We should get rid of the idea we can find the next Trump. We should dispense with that immediately, because he is singular.”

Grantham was featured at the fundraiser along with House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, state Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, and Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House for a wide-ranging discussion about the legislative session and party politics.

Colorado Republicans have the chance to bring Trump voters into the fold, Grantham said, as some elements of the traditional party coalitions appear to be up for grabs.

“It’s going to be simple, but it won’t be easy,” he said.

Republicans, he said, are faced with a similar situation to the one that arose in the early 1980s, when so-called Reagan Democrats emerged as an electoral force.

Often blue collar and culturally conservative, clustered in the nascent Rust Belt, they bear a strong resemblance to the disaffected Democrats Trump attracted in his upset Electoral College win over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. And while the Republican didn’t prevail in Colorado, his strength in some areas underlines the comparison.

“How do we capture that feeling, how do we capture that message and translate that into 2018 and 2020?” Grantham asked. “When we look at a Pueblo County, which hasn’t gone for a Republican since Richard Nixon in ’72, how do we latch on to that? These are the same voters in Pueblo that voted for Trump in Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Ohio.”

Clinton carried Colorado by nearly 5 points, the third time in a row the Democratic presidential nominee has won the state. But Trump won Pueblo County, a longstanding Democratic stronghold, albeit by just 390 votes out of roughly 80,000 ballots cast. It was the first time a GOP nominee has carried the county since Nixon’s 1972 landslide.

Noting that Trump did unusually well among blue collar and union workers in Colorado, Grantham said that figuring out how the billionaire businessman peeled them away from the Democrats would be the key to adding those voters to the Republican coalition.

“Why Pueblo? Why Wisconsin? Why Michigan? Let’s latch onto that and carry it into the next cycle,” Grantham said. “We need to start looking for a governor candidate who can speak to these folks,” he added.

Priola represents a big swath of traditionally Democratic Adams County — where voters only narrowly picked Clinton — and benefited from Trump voters in his win over a former Democratic state legislator, keeping the Senate in Republican control.

“There are many blue collar Democrats who live in Adams County that are, in their heart, conservative,” Priola said. “They hunt, they go to church on Sunday. But they’re in a union, and there are things that come with that.”

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, answers a question at the Capitol Club fundraiser for the Colorado Republican Party on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, at Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, answers a question at the Capitol Club fundraiser for the Colorado Republican Party on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, at Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

It’ll take some skillful communication to persuade these voters to shake loose from the Democratic Party, though, Priola added, since the association can be one they’ve had for generations. But he contended it can be done.

“Democrats have radical environmentalists who want to shut everything down and have us walk everywhere and not use any energy and live in small buildings,” he said. “And they’ve got people in their coalition whose jobs are tied to building things and burning things.”

Still, Priola cautioned against assuming it’s a one-way street between the parties. Instead, he suggested, it’s a “reordering.”

“Democrats are saying, ‘If we’re going to lose our blue collar males, we’re going to try to take as many college-educated females from their coalition,'” he said.

Neville said he wasn’t convinced that protesters turning out in opposition to Trump are going to help corral Democrats back into the fold.

“I don’t think this is like the tea party movement that started organically, and people (were) just showing up,” he said. “I think this is paid activists being paid to do this. When you volunteer for something, there’s a big passion there. When you get paid for it,” he said with a shrug.

“The general public looks at it, these people freaking out,” Neville said with another, more dismissive shrug and threw in a grin, “The snowflakes.”

Wist offered his take succinctly.

“The lesson for Republicans in ’18 and 2020 is to show that we got it, that we understand the anger, that we’re going to listen to these folks and we’re going to explain how government can be cast in a more appropriate role,” he said. “That’s our lesson. The stakes are high.”

House said the state party is working overtime to try to figure out how to encourage Trump voters to start voting Republican up and down the ballot.

“After the election, we’ve done more data-crunching than ever before, and we learned two things,” he said. “One is, they care about wages and jobs, and, two, they were very upset about Obamacare. We’ve got to do what needs to be done about health care and the economy.”

ernest@coloradostatesman.com

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.