'We're trying to have most of our oars in the water, rowing in the same direction," says Jeff Hays, chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party. "And that's always a challenge when you have a big organization of very opinionated, excited, enthusiastic people."
Indeed, that's a challenge the local party hasn't met lately.
The tenure of the party's previous chair, Eli Bremer, which began in February 2011 and lasted for a single two-year term, was marred by in-party squabbles and dissension. While much of it might have been dismissed as stemming from personal conflict between Bremer and the party's then-secretary, Sarah Arnold (née Anderson), it clearly illustrated a general frustration felt by conservative "liberty" activists.
Across the country, the narrative was playing out: Grassroots Republicans saw themselves as being held at an arm's length by the party's "establishment," even as the GOP drifted further and further from its platform. The activists pushed, and, Hays says, "the party system got perturbed, and it pushed back. And you saw that at every level."
Good-naturedly, he turns back to the local dynamic: "What would you expect out of a county that's got 180,000 Republicans? We're not going to be unified, but we need to collaborate, we need to share ideas respectfully. That's the tone we want to create."
Mending bridges locally, he says, will be a big part of his job. And it seems that this is what the county's most active party members want. In February, the Central Committee, made up of hundreds of Republican voters, elected Hays over the former vice-chairman, David Williams, who had his own public battles with Bremer.
"Our philosophy is going to be to engage people as much as possible, in order to listen," Hays says. "It's our job to be trustworthy, and take a few punches every now and then."
Of course, the main responsibility for Hays and the party is to win elections. And last year, area Republicans had a rough time with that, too, losing races in the only two House districts where Democrats even have a shot at winning.
In District 17, which covers the southeastern part of the city, the GOP failed to protect incumbent Mark Barker from a 16-point loss to Democrat Tony Exum Sr.
In District 18, which covers central and western parts of Colorado Springs, as well as Manitou Springs, the GOP poured its support behind newcomer Jennifer George in the hopes of ousting Rep. Pete Lee, but got defeated 53 percent to 41 percent.
Hays worked on George's campaign.
"Pete Lee," he says, "had a lot of support, both state and national levels. There was a lot of money dumped into that district, and I think that the Democrats did a great job of targeting it, and understanding it, and working hard in the interim — probably better than we did."
According to Cherish Schaffer, who has recently replaced Bill Roy as the party's executive director, the GOP was fighting against top-down messaging in a nasty presidential election year.
"We've let ourselves be branded as people who only care about ourselves," she says. "But that's not what we are about. ... We need to explain what we are about and what our values are." The Republican Party, she says, must re-brand itself as a party that wants to institute economic policies that will assist all people, economically and socially.
In HD 17, failing to connect with unaffiliated voters played a significant role in their loss. Jon Frazier, the party's new part-time headquarter general manager, notes that the GOP "went too late with the voter registration effort."
The unaffiliated voter is a complex beast, Hays explains, "a real mosaic of issues and concerns," with changing opinions and responses to issues. The party, he adds, needs to remain agile in appealing to them.
"You have to work hard to be dynamic in your understanding of the voters, because the issues change as well," he says. "And our candidates who are running in those districts need to understand them as well. You can't just be single-message people."
Along with Hays, Mary Bradfield, a longtime Republican volunteer, was recently elected secretary and Sandra Bankes won the vice-chair seat.
First up for the new leadership, as well as for part-time staffers Frazier and Schaffer, will be an annual fundraising event. Typically, the first event of the year, the Lincoln Day Dinner, is held close to the 16th president's birthday; with February long gone, this leadership's looking at a June event.
This will be the first real opportunity for the party to show its mettle, and to confirm what Hays says will be the role and function of the party under his leadership. It will not be a debating club, he says, or a think-tank.
"It's incumbent upon us to have a vision that resonates with enough people," he says, "that they're willing give their time, talents and treasure to the Republican Party. ... We owe it to the people of Colorado, we owe it to the rest of the Republican Party, we owe it to our nation to be a vivid example of excellence, not of dissension."
"If we get the vote out, we can change the vote in Colorado," she says. "Our state can switch elections now. We are important."