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As wannabes jockey for position, the local GOP still looks more big top than big tent

To get a reading on how far local Republicans can coast on social issues like abortion, Tom McDowell looks at last year's election results. Even in El Paso County, he points out, the anti-abortion "personhood" amendment lost big, 62 percent to 38 percent.

"That puts an upper limit on social conservatives who only want to vote social conservative," argues McDowell, a 62-year-old blogger and former business owner who describes himself as a fiscal conservative.

McDowell's reading on the election, and his frustration with a party hung up on social issues, help explain why the retired Army officer thinks he has a shot at unseating arch-social conservative state Sen. Dave Schultheis in his northern El Paso County stronghold.

"We can't have a purely social conservative party and expect to win," McDowell explains. "We've got to go back to being a big-tent party."

At the national level, Republican moderates worry their party is headed for electoral disaster under the leadership of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Cries of "party purity" have sent centrists away, and more Democrats to Washington, D.C.

Of course, El Paso County still bleeds red. But even apart from McDowell's candidacy, there are signs of a struggle to plot the local GOP's new direction: Catherine "Kit" Roupe, a Republican who's planning to run again after losing her bid last year for state House District 17, was called a closet liberal in a newspaper op-ed and labeled the potential target of a new, conservative cleansing organization.

Two plum county commission seats coming open in 2010 are shaping up for serious grappling. District 5, covering central and northern Colorado Springs, already has five Republican candidates, with Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera also expected to enter the fray.

City Councilor Darryl Glenn is seeking his own transition to county government with a run for the northern county's District 1, but he could face a high-profile opponent in the form of Bob Balink, who's term-limited as county clerk and recorder.

Commission's lure

The Republican primaries shaping up for El Paso County's commission won't have much impact on state government, but they should illustrate the struggle for power among local Republicans.

Local GOP chair Kay Rendleman calls the large field "kind of fun. ... You can look at that and see how vital and strong our party is."

Or you can look just at District 5 and see a grab-bag of pet Republican issues. Peggy Littleton is a pro-voucher state school board member; David Williams gained name recognition as the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' student body president when he declined to support funding a pro-gay student group; Ed Jones, a former county commissioner and state senator with a complicated legal history, has taken a stand against affirmative action. (The other two candidates, Patrick Carter and William Guevara, have had less notable local experiences.)

Though it's been decades since a Democrat has held a seat on the El Paso County commission, whoever wins could face unusually strong competition. State Rep. Michael Merrifield, term-limited from returning to the state House, has been mentioned as a possible candidate in this race. And Jason DeGroot, chair of the local Democratic Party, surveys the crowded Republican field with a note of glee.

"I think, in the past, the local Republicans have been able to point in a unified direction," he says. "They don't seem to be able to do that now."

Social vs. fiscal

McDowell hopes to generate a struggle of his own as he tries to stretch the party to embrace his brand of conservatism. For one thing, he's aggrieved that many would label him a "moderate."

"I'm a fiscal conservative," he says repeatedly. He believes in small government and would like to see his party regain enough political power to make it happen. Though not opposed in principle to all tax increases, he's glad Coloradans have the right to vote them up or down.

But party stereotypes being what they are, McDowell is clearly a moderate on social issues. He's quietly pro-choice, though he thinks the abortion question should be left to states. He believes anti-immigration rhetoric from the likes of ex-congressman Tom Tancredo has done lasting harm to the party.

McDowell does not want to sever ties between fiscal and social conservatives, but he believes the latter group has gained the upper hand in the local party by turning out in huge numbers for party caucuses and other meetings. Thus empowered, he argues, social conservatives have ignored the interests of fiscal conservatives.

"What it takes for fiscal conservatives to thrive is keeping bills that increase the size of government from passing," he says. "You can't be obstructionist if you're in the minority."

McDowell points to a 2005 Gazette story in which Schultheis argued that Republicans, having just lost control of the state House and Senate, only need members who support the social conservative platform.

"He would prefer to operate as a small, pure party than to operate in the majority," McDowell says with amazement.

He argues that Roupe became one more sacrificial lamb to the social conservative cause last fall when, lacking support from Schultheis and other party notables, she lost a close race against Democrat Dennis Apuan.

Schultheis, reached by telephone, refused to talk to the Indy about McDowell's candidacy or his assertions about social conservatives.

Roupe's obstacles

Roupe flatly denies she lacked support from the Republican establishment — "they walked precincts, handed out fliers," she says.

Nevertheless, some party insiders clearly view her with skepticism. Daniel Cole, who helped lead opposition to a proposed 1-cent county sales tax measure last fall, wrote the Gazette op-ed labeling her as a left-leaning Republican "who favors legalized abortion and tax increases, but finds a precarious foothold on the GOP's pro-war plank."

Cole went on to laud Nathan Fisk, who left as executive director of the local Republican Party earlier this year, for his plans to launch renewcolorado.org with political consultant Patrick Davis. The organization will be able, unlike the local GOP, to openly back favored candidates in primaries.

Fisk, apparently still accustomed to the neutrality he was required to voice while working for the party, would only say in gentle terms that Roupe may not be the chosen one when Republicans try to pick a candidate next year for HD 17.

"She's a good Republican candidate," Fisk says, "but not necessarily the best for that district."

lane@csindy.com

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