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Republican party organizations in some states are grappling with deep divisions

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

Some state Republican parties are struggling. In Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota, to name a few, the parties' organizations have suffered heavy election losses and are experiencing deep disagreements about the future of the GOP. Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland reports.

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BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: I'm here at the Republican Party headquarters about a half hour south of Denver. It's dark on the inside. The blinds are drawn. And no one has picked up when we've knocked on the door or tried to open it. And there's a reason for that.

Even though the party is still renting office space, there's been lackluster fundraising. And for the first time in years, it's not paying any members of its staff. Republicans don't hold any statewide offices. And at the state House, they have fewer lawmakers than at any time in Colorado history. There's been a lot of finger pointing as to how it got this way.

LORI SAINE: The party needs to be rejuvenated. It needs to get back to the basics.

BIRKELAND: Republican Lori Saine is a former lawmaker and close with many conservative activists. She says they feel like the party establishment has abandoned them.

SAINE: Because otherwise, if you don't have the base, you're not going to win.

BIRKELAND: This year, the conservative wing of the party elected a new state party chair, Dave Williams. He declined an interview request for this story. But during his acceptance speech, Williams promised to go up against Republicans who he thinks aren't conservative enough.

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DAVE WILLIAMS: There are too many politicians who say one thing and then do another. And it's not just the Democrats. It's people like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell. They need to start listening to us.

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BIRKELAND: In emails to the party this summer, Williams blasted a Colorado congressman for voting for the debt ceiling bill and other officials for signing a letter in support of a trans lawmaker in Montana.

DICK WADHAMS: I think that is the first time in Colorado political history a state Republican party has put out a fundraising letter saying we're going to go after Republicans with the money you send us.

BIRKELAND: That's former Colorado GOP Chair Dick Wadhams. We met outside of a coffee shop near Denver to talk about what he thinks the issues are. He voted for former President Donald Trump twice. But in this political environment, Wadham says he's been told he's not a true Republican. He says it's not the job of a state party chair or others in the party to police conservative values.

WADHAMS: It comes down to fealty to Trump and if you agree with Trump that the election was stolen, and now if you agree with Trump that he should pardon - if he's elected again, that he would pardon the people who attacked the Capitol. If that's the litmus test, then you're damn right, I am a RINO, because I will never subscribe to that.

BIRKELAND: All of the infighting is also taking a toll on the party's bottom line. Many donors are like longtime Republican Pete Woods from Steamboat Springs, who says he won't financially support the state party until the vitriol stops.

PETE WOODS: As long as people are calling each other names and handing a gift to the Democrats through exhibiting our division and our disdain for each other, there's no value in me donating to the party.

BIRKELAND: Colorado's divisions aren't unique. In Minnesota, the state GOP this spring had just $53 cash on hand after steep election losses and deep divides. Election deniers helm Michigan's GOP. The party's nearly broke and being run out of a condo. And there are states like Georgia, where sitting Republican Governor Brian Kemp faced a primary challenger after refusing to act on Trump's stolen election lies.

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DONALD TRUMP: Brian Kemp - he sold you out. He didn't look. He didn't want to look. He didn't want anything to do with it.

BIRKELAND: Kemp ultimately won, but by leaning on his own campaign infrastructure, not the state party's. And back in Colorado, Republicans are gearing up for some big decisions about their future. Party leaders are trying to ban unaffiliated voters from participating in the GOP primary. Dave Williams, the party's leader, says, quote, "The open primary has been devastating to the Colorado GOP." But his critics note that banning unaffiliated voters would simply consolidate more power among the state's most conservative Republicans.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bente Birkeland
Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.