Colorado Republicans Are Attempting a Radical Makeover

Frustrated with Democratic "bullying" that inevitably steers young, gay, minority, and creative types toward their rival in a state where recreational pot use is now legal, the local GOP is stepping up its appeal to the kids.

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Jun 23 2014, 5:48pm

Colorado GOP chair Ryan Call addressing a lily-white organizing conference last spring. Photo via Flickr user Paul Swansen

When a hardcore Democrat encounters someone who is young, gay, poor, an artist, or a racial minority and who also identifies as a Republican, a confused look of disgust often crosses his or her face, as if an unpleasant and unidentifiable odor just entered the room. The confusion is understandable, since there is statistical evidence that the Democratic Party comfortably holds many of these groups beneath their blue thumb. But Colorado Republican Party chairman Ryan Call believes Democrats often bully people into reinforcing this stereotype. He says his party is not out of touch with creative, young, minority folk and aims to prove it with his #IVoteRepublican campaign.

"We're approaching issues differently than how our party has in the past," Call told me recently. "We recognized that there is a disconnect with the way people view the Republican Party and the way the policies we seek to advance impact individual people's lives... Ours is the party that first supported women's right to vote, and we have a history in the fight against slavery and the fight for civil rights. Our aim is to create opportunities for the poor and expand the middle class. It's a profound misperception that ours is the party of the wealthy or the elite.

"The Democrats have created this culture of group identity," he continued. "If you're a minority, a young person, a woman, they say, 'Of course you're going to vote Democrat.' Whereas Republicans are about the individual."   

Inspired by the wildly successful use of social media during Obama's presidential campaigns, as well as the #ItGetsBetter LGBT project, #IVoteRepublican aims to humanize and youth-ify the GOP through a series of promotional videos (besides inviting people to film and submit their own stories of being a Republican) that profile three character types not often represented in conservative branding: a professional snowboarder, a black musician, and a Mexican immigrant mother.  

"There isn't any specific stereotype that defines me or anyone else," Republican snowboarder Braden Wahr says in one video, looking like an amalgamation of Tony Hawk and Bobby Kennedy.

Dressed in a hipster bowtie and pink shirt, former contestant on The Voice Biff Gore professes his love for iconic civil rights anthem "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke in the first five seconds of his advertisement, followed by clips of him with his beatific black family, later reading an issue of Life magazine with George Harrison on the cover.

Blanca Pyle is a young Mexican mother with a nose ring and ombré highlights who "came to America when I was 15 years old" and "didn't speak English." She put herself through school, became a citizen, and eventually rose out of poverty as a physician's assistant. When she delivers the "I Vote Republican" tagline that concludes all three of these videos, she says it in Spanish.

The videos are wildly similar in tone and tactic to the "And I'm A Mormon" campaign (which boasted an entry from The Killers' Brandon Flowers in 2011), in that their focus is primarily on the admirable, touching aspects of their subjects, with little to no mention of the organization to which they're tied—or their policies. This avoids the backlash the national GOP encountered earlier in the spring with their "hipster Republican" campaign (as it has subsequently been dubbed), featuring a haughty youngster in leather jacket and tortoise-shell glasses snidely complaining about Democrats being responsible for unemployment and high gas prices. The ads were later parodied by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver, who pointed out the fallacy of the young man's arguments while mocking their transparent attempts at youth marketing.

Last fall, Coloradans saw the Democratic version of this with the "Got Insurance?" campaign, also dubbed "Brosurance," in which young adults, women, and minorities were encouraged to sign up for plans under the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare). This was the brainchild of the nonprofit Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and Progress, and featured frat-style keg-stands, a Ryan Gosling cut-out, and witty birth-control taglines like "OMG he's hot! Let's hope he's as easy to get as this birth control!"

The ads were mocked by The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi and other commentators for boiling down a complex issue to a meathead stereotype—but not for being out of touch culturally. The Foo Fighters, Will.i.am and Zach Galifianakis all look as comfortable as a Southern Colonel napping in a rocking chair when placed next to Obama. And when he adopted the revolutionary slogan of oppressed minority farmers—Sí, se puede!—for his presidential campaign, it came off as an appropriate and graceful marriage. Indeed, since Rock the Vote in the early 90s, we've had no problem accepting a liberal identity that appropriates youth and minority culture. Yet whenever we hear that LL Cool J, Vincent Gallo, Alice Cooper, Johnny Ramone, or 50 Cent are all Republicans, it's difficult to compute, like a surreal painting that makes you slightly dizzy.

I recently spoke with Denver stand-up comedian—and gay, pot smoking Republican—Chuck Roy, who says that he is often confronted by Democrats who refuse to accept his political affiliations.

"When I was performing at Red Rocks, I met [Democratic Colorado] Governor [John] Hickenlooper backstage, and the minute he found out I was gay he was like, 'We gotta get you to become a Democrat,'" Roy told me. "Democratic theory operates off of populism, populism operates off of bullying, and bullying is the tactic used when people say to me, 'I can't believe that you are a Republican.' That's the difference between populism and individualism. They look at the world and think, All Republicans are like this. Democrats never stop to think what it's like to be in the shoes of a gay Republican. I'm just an artist who's trying to not take money from the government."

Of course, Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio doesn't agree that these Republican archetypes are the product of bullying. Instead, he sees them as self-inflicted wounds that stem directly from the conservative party's voting record.

"It's pretty laughable that they think voting against equal pay for women, voting against immigration, will get these groups to vote for Republicans," Palacio says. "Republicans will often demonize these constituencies, and it turns them off when it comes to having conversations about other policy issues."

Because of their voting record and successful branding efforts, the public seems to have a pretty clear grasp of the Democratic archetype. Yet over the last few years the identity of the Republican party has become more and more fuzzy, as seen in divisive internal conflicts over gay marriage, climate change, use of military force abroad—and, most recently in Colorado, marijuana.

Perennial Colorado gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo has gained some traction in the Republican primary race, most likely due to his signature hard-right stances on immigration and Second Amendment rights. Hickenlooper's controversial gun control legislation will be a hot topic in the 2014 election (after all, it lead to two successful recall elections of our state senators), though immigration issues in Colorado require a softer, more practical tone than the one we recently saw in Virginia, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was ousted at least in part due to the perception that he might support "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

Yet Tancredo has also been a vocal advocate for marijuana decriminalization long before the passage in 2012 of Colorado's recreational-use measure, Amendment 64. And with Hickenlooper maintaining strong vocal opposition to a regulated cannabis industry, if Tancredo becomes his opponent for the governor's office, legal marijuana could become an issue that works in the Republicans' favor. (Especially considering that more Coloradans voted for marijuana legalization in 2012 than voted for Obama.)

"There is a difference of opinion within our party with regard to marijuana legalization," Call, the Colorado GOP leader, told me. "There's concern about the impact on children and workers, but there's also a significant percentage of our party that thinks the government needs to limit regulations that impact individual's choices, so long as there is personal responsibility taken."

As I spoke with Call, he was between meetings with the Republican National Convention site selection committee, attempting to persuade members of his party that Denver was the ideal location to host the confab in 2016. Legal pot was presumably one topic of conversation during those meetings; we can fairly assume there will be some more internal edebate about whether this issue can be made to help Republicans.

The Colorado primaries will be held this Tuesday. According to Richard Nixon's playbook, it's important for a Republican candidate to run to the right during the primaries and steer the ship back to the center for the general election. But in the current climate of the 2014 season—with a leading gubernatorial candidate touting the virtues of legal pot, and the state GOP ostentatiously appealing to artists, minorities, women, and the poor—it's getting harder to figure out exactly what running to the right means anymore.

Josiah Hesse is a journalist from Denver covering the local music, comedy, marijuana, and political landscapes. Follow him on Twitter.

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