The party’s over for state parties

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By Rob Witwer

So it’s come to this. In perhaps the most favorable Republican year since at least 1994, scandal-plagued GOP front-runner Scott McInnis can’t even close the deal on his own party’s nomination, much less the general election. 

Tom Tancredo bolts his political home to mount a third-party bid, splitting the conservative base right down the middle. Meanwhile, Republican nominee Dan Maes, aided in his surprise victory by Democratic anti-McInnis TV ads, suffers setback after setback without the staff, financial or experiential resources to handle the high-stakes game of a statewide race. 

Through it all, Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper lays low, running out the clock on the most bizarre gubernatorial race in generations. He must be pinching himself.

This catastrophic turn of events didn’t have to happen, some GOP’ers say. Why didn’t the Republican Party exert some leadership and handle the problems behind the scenes before they exploded into public view?

In reality, the Republican Party of 2010 doesn’t have the heft to pull that off. Perhaps in an earlier day, party bosses would have pulled aside McInnis or Maes, persuaded one to drop out for the good of the ticket, and stared down a maverick bid by Tancredo. This would have been possible because the party’s financial resources dominated all other sources of political cash on the conservative side of the aisle. Nobody with a desire to get elected to dog catcher would dare cross party bosses.

Those days are long gone. Following the passage of campaign finance reform in 2002, political parties can no longer raise the kind of money needed to be a significant presence in election campaigns. Heck, they can barely raise enough to keep the lights on and maintain a staff. These days, the power has migrated to independent groups, nonprofits named after sections 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4) and 527 of the Internal Revenue Code. Much more invisible than political parties, these shadowy groups are now the center of campaign finance power.

Outside of the bully pulpit, party chairmen are paper tigers. Don’t expect them to clear the field for favored candidates, discipline mavericks, or bring together competing interests to make compromises for the broader good of the party. 

People will disagree on whether this development is positive or negative. But as the events of the past few weeks illustrate, Colorado political parties are no longer the power brokers they once were.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”