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Are Republicans wasting money in La Plata County?

The GOP spent handsomely in the 2022 midterms, but had little to show
Democrats dominated in La Plata County for the second midterms in a row. But Republican donors don’t seem fazed. (Durango Herald file)

While Democrats have been cautious to declare La Plata County a stronghold even after a notable sweep of the ballot in November, it seems that Republicans are not giving up hope on the increasingly blue-tinted, independent-dominated county.

Up and down the ballot, most candidates with an “R” next their name lost their races, with the one notable exception of Rep. Lauren Boebert, who narrowly eked out a victory in an unexpectedly tight race over her Democratic challenger Adam Frisch.

Within the county, Democrats received more votes than either their Republican or independent opponents in every contested race.

The question of whether La Plata County has “shed its purple skin” has lingered since 2018, when similar midterm outcomes cast a blue-ish hue over the traditionally purple region.

In reflecting on that election, the then-Chairman of the La Plata County Republican Central Committee Travis Oliger likened funding Republican candidates in the county to “flushing money down the toilet.”

Many have blamed the GOP’s fall in the region on the divisive politics of former President Donald Trump. Most recently, the candidates he chose and backed across the country flopped in the 2022 midterms. However, data indicates that Trump’s particular flavor of politics – or the divisive nature of his election – may have disillusioned voters from both parties.

The percentage of total active voters broken down by each party since 2008, the earliest year from which comparable data are available. Independent voters became a plurality after the 2016 election. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Voters unaffiliated with a political party, or independents as many of them prefer to be called, first became a plurality in La Plata County after the 2016 election and have grown as a bloc since then, taking an increasingly large slice of the pie. Both the Democratic and Republican parties saw downturns in the number of active voters at the same time.

While the growing number of independent voters has not exactly affirmed the county’s new blue coat (Democratic presidential candidates have done well in the county since 2008), Republican candidates are certainly suffering.

Boebert won reelection by just 546 votes in November, despite redistricting that should have given her more of an advantage. And enough voters seem to be concerned with the direction of the Republican Party that even more centrist candidates such as Joe O’Dea, the political outsider who the GOP thought might have a shot at unseating Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, lost by double-digit margins.

“It will be tough to win, and until people see advantage in having diversity of thought in leadership, I don't know (we) will,” said Republican county commissioner candidate Brad Blake. “It’ll be tough.”

In October, Blake seemed unshaken by the extremist wing of his party, noting that he was a Republican before Trump joined. But postelection, it seems that the direction the party has taken nationally may be impacting local results as well.

Today, Oliger is less colorful in his political commentary. He declined to comment for this story, adding that he wished the quote would go away. However, his succinct summation of the GOP’s chances in the county remains poignantly relevant for the party four years later.

Oliger’s grim prognosis for the GOP in La Plata County has not stopped its donors from opening up their wallets. The party raised $64,550 in 2022, coming within about $700 of the amount raised in 2018.

Party leadership remains tight-lipped on the issue, blaming news coverage for their losses, at least in part. Party Chairman Dave Peters also declined to comment for this story but reinforced the disappointment he expressed the day after the election.

But donors say they are not giving up.

“If you give up, they have won totally,” said Donna Cook.

Cook gave $2,470 to the county party and Republican candidates Blake and Shelli Shaw, making her one of the top GOP donors to local campaigns.

George Cable, who resides primarily in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but owns a home near Elmore’s Corner and gave $2,500 to Blake, said he might increase his spending going forward. He was unfazed by the losses and prefers not to play a guessing game about the chances of conservative candidates going forward.

Diane Pauls, who along with her husband, Glen, gave $7,825 to Blake and the county party, said the disappointing results indicate that something should change – but she, too, is stalwart in her support for the party.

“I’m disappointed, of course. We gave a lot,” she said. “I just think our message probably has to be a little bit different.”

Pauls analysis may be spot-on. The county’s Democratic party spent $60,158 in 2018 and $57,165 in 2022, compared to the $61,588 and $55,465 spent by the LPCRCC in the same years, yet not a single GOP candidate won more votes within the county in either election.

Despite Democratic wins, the closely matched fundraising amounts of the two county parties could be indicative of a point that Blake made: a significant bloc of the county’s voters don’t feel represented in local government.

Blake agreed to run because the party asked him to do so. He said the current board of county commissioners, composed of three Democrats, is missing diversity of thought.

“I probably wasn't the best candidate, but nobody else would run,” he said.

In lamenting his loss, Blake did not indicate that he felt he had been stung by the reputation the national Republican Party.

Paul DeBell, an assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College, said after the midterms that the surprising results were likely the result of a confluence of unexpected cross pressures. The impact of Trumpism on the Republican Party played a role, DeBell said, although high-consequence issues such as abortion rights also motivated new voters, and even locally important statewide ballot measures likely swayed results.

The major county GOP donors voiced support for both far-right candidates, such as Shaw and Boebert, as well as more moderate conservatives, such as Blake.

James Coleman, the Durango-based CEO of the investment firm Mountain Capital Partners which owns Purgatory Resort, gave over $70,000 to Republican candidates and superPACs supporting conservatives running for statewide office as well as statehouse seats. However, he gave only $400 to Shaw and $2,389 to independent candidate for county commissioner Jack Turner. Coleman declined to comment for this story.

Coleman’s break from conservatives on the county level to support Turner, a centrist independent, could be indicative of the deeply personal nature of local politics. Even Cook, a major donor to the county GOP, said she knows and likes Shaw’s opponent, Rep. Barbara McLachlan.

“Barbara is a very nice person. I’ve known her forever,” Cook said. “... That doesn’t mean I like what her politics are. Politics is so dirty and negative and so forth, people just turn off. You can’t blame them.”

As pundits and pollsters have concluded before, the future of La Plata County politics is likely held in the hands of independent voters, but the trajectory remains unclear. And despite continued failures, the GOP’s major supporters in the county are dedicated to their cause.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Pauls said.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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