DENVER | The 2010 elections may be over, but the tea party is still flexing its muscle within the Republican Party power structure.
With some scathing words for his critics, Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams dropped his bid for a third term this week in the face of a challenge from state Sen. Ted Harvey, who said he aims to return "authentic conservative leadership to the party structure."
Even though Mr. Wadhams was confident he had the votes to win re-election at the March 26 central committee meeting, he said he had grown weary of a new corps of conservative activists who, he said, believe the party can succeed without reaching out to unaffiliated voters.
"I have tired of those who are obsessed with seeing conspiracies around every corner and who have terribly misguided notions of what the role of the state party is while saying 'uniting conservatives' is all that is needed to win competitive races across the state," Mr. Wadhams said in a statement to the central committee.
Mr. Harvey, a 10-year state legislator whose conservative stances have made him a tea party favorite, is now seen as the front-runner in the contest for the state chairmanship, although other candidates are expected to emerge with Mr. Wadhams' departure.
Mr. Wadhams isn't the first so-called party insider to find himself on the outside this year. In New Hampshire, tea party organizer Jack Kimball defeated party favorite Juliana Bergeron in the January vote for that state's Republican Party chairmanship.
While Mr. Wadhams certainly can be described as a party insider — he's run a half-dozen successful Western Republican gubernatorial and Senate races — it would be a stretch to describe him as a moderate. His campaigns include those for well-known conservatives such as Conrad Burns, Bill Owens, John Thune and Wayne Allard.
But Mr. Wadhams, who feuded with tea-party-backed Tom Tancredo during the state's contentious 2010 gubernatorial campaign, may have worn out his welcome with some party members.
"I don't think [conservatives] are saying that the party should be run by the tea party, but the last election was so bitter that it may have made it impossible for [Mr. Wadhams] to be the person the tea party trusted," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Wadhams insisted that his frustration wasn't with the tea party or fans of conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck, but rather with the "nuts," the conspiracy theorists who accused him of everything from orchestrating the Senate primary behind the scenes to secretly moving the caucus locations.
"I have enjoyed working with the tea party. [My statement] was not a criticism of the tea party; it was a criticism of new people in the party and, frankly, veteran people in the party who should know better," he added.
During his four years as chairman, Mr. Wadhams presided over some tough times for Republicans, culminating in the 2008 election, when Colorado flipped from Republican to Democratic in the presidential race.
But Mr. Wadhams also contributed to the party's comeback in 2010, when Republicans recaptured two House seats, the state House and four of the state's five constitutional offices. Republican turnout surpassed Democratic turnout by 106,000 voters, even though Republicans held an edge of only 8,000 registered voters.
At the same time, Mr. Wadhams took some heat for the party's losses in the high-profile Senate and governor's races.
The governor's race fell into disarray after unknown tea party favorite Dan Maes won the primary, then Mr. Tancredo entered the contest as a third-party candidate. But the Senate race illustrates his point about the party's need to appeal to independent voters, said Mr. Wadhams.
Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck, who upset Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the GOP primary, lost narrowly to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet after Democrats successfully tarred Mr. Buck as a fringe candidate on issues including abortion. Mr. Bennet's margin of victory came largely from unaffiliated suburban women who "voted for all those Republicans, and then decided they couldn't vote for Ken Buck," said Mr. Wadhams.
While it's hard to predict how Colorado Republicans will fare with a change of guard, at this point state Democrats may consider themselves the biggest winners.
"The Democrats are smiling this morning, in my opinion," said Mr. Ciruli. "Not only is a good tactician resigning, but the Republican Party is being taken over by the tea party. I don't know if that's true, but that's what they think."
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