US & Canada

Republican rank and file have little appetite for change

  • 12 February 2013
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A view in Colorado (February 2013) by Mark Mardell
Colorado is a place of wide-open spaces, gorgeous vistas - and increasingly Democratic politics

The meeting of the Collegiate Peaks Republican Women's group in the state of Colorado comes to an end with cupcakes and a clarion call.

"There's no elections in 2013, but it's an important year. Let's go, girls!"

The middle-aged ladies around the table are indeed "girls" to Charlotte Smith. She is 91, sharp as a pin, and an embodiment of both the spirit of her party and the trouble it is in - uncompromising, formidable, but of a generation whose time is passing.

She does not have to wait to hear President Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday to know what she thinks of the State of the Union. To her, it is dire.

'Frightened and mad'

"I'm very worried, very concerned," Ms Smith says. "He's hurting Christianity.

"He doesn't seem to realise we are one nation under God. I am concerned about what he is doing to our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, healthcare, finances, the Constitution. Is there anything I am not concerned about?"

In Washington, DC you cannot move without tripping over senior Republicans with a new plan to polish up their party's appeal.

I have come here, to Colorado, and the aptly named town of Buena Vista, to see whether local Republicans, the backbone of the party, have much appetite for change. And above all, I have come to see whether they think that should include compromising with the president, who sets out his plans for the year on Tuesday.

Colorado Federation of Republican Women Vice-President Dulany Woodward does not seem in the mood for give and take. She sees President Obama as an existential threat.

"I worry about my grandchildren - this central education that is being pushed is devastating," Ms Woodward says.

"I have a friend whose daughter teaches, and she had to say in a history class that our patriots, our founders, were terrorists. They have books that parents are not allowed to read. I think we are becoming a totally socialistic country.

"We barely recognise our country any more. We have no privacy. They come into our homes, into our businesses. They are taking away our religious freedoms. We don't know our country any more and we are frightened and we are mad."

Red-necks and hippies

But fury and fear are not a strategy. Buena Vista Republican Women's Club President Margaret Slavish thinks President Obama's re-election victory in November simply shows they have to work harder.

"We took a hit. But we have to realise many people have the basic conservative precepts, and we need to encourage them to come out," Ms Slavish said.

"We need to talk to the younger people, they need to get involved, because we are perceived as an older party. We need to change, but our values aren't going to change."

Colorado is an intriguing and beautiful state. Staring down from the snowy peaks to the plains below, I can imagine the buffalo in their thousands thundering across the plains.

Later, I see some of their domesticated descendants placidly nosing for grass amid the snow.

This used to be the Wild West, where tough frontier men and women forged a new home by fighting the original inhabitants for this land, their homesteads under constant attack.

More recently, Colorado used to be pretty solidly Republican. But it now has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators, and it voted for President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.

It is a state where redneck ranchers rub shoulders with mountain hippies delighted that the state has legalised marijuana.

The Republican pool of voters has dwindled as the cities grow and the Latino population increases.

Obama and his family (2008) in Puebla, Colorado
Obama (shown with his family in Pueblo, Colorado in 2008) won the state twice

I do not think it is too fanciful to feel the Republicans see themselves like those early pioneers, their way of life under attack, precarious and at the mercy of alien Americans.

But Richard Ellsner is not a man for such flights of fancy. Solid and thoughtful, he shows me around his few acres and introduces me to his horses.

Tatter Top is covered in a blanket against the snowy hillside chill. He takes time out from grazing on winter hay to chew on my jacket.

Mr Ellsner, now chairman of the Park County Republicans, has campaigned for the party since Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964. But he thinks his party has to become more tolerant.

'Counsel of despair'

"We have to change how we approach things and how we talk to people," he says. "We have to be not quite as dogmatic as, 'This is it - period'."

Mr Ellsner says he and local Republicans believe in compromise - but President Obama does not.

"When he gave his [inaugural] speech it was like, why should we talk to him? Because he is so opposite to what we believe in, and he doesn't seem at all willing to come across and say, 'You know? I have answers, you have answers, let's try to make things work'."

"It's more like: 'I have answers. Here they are. Tough.' I do not think he understands rural America. I don't think he wants to understand."

Another beautiful drive across the mountains takes me to Fairplay, a gold rush town which looks like a set from a Western.

In a 19th Century log cabin-cum-law office works County Attorney Lee Phillips. He tells me his party, the Republican party, may seem out of time, but it should not change.

"Republicans after an election tend to form a circular firing squad. Probably people who live in states bordered by oceans view us as backward and probably a little creepy because we own guns and go to church."

Can Republicans win?

But he feels his party has nothing to apologise for and says they had a good candidate and a good message in the election. They lost because of demographic changes, he says, in an analysis echoing former presidential nominee Mitt Romney's infamous "47%" speech. There are now more who get what he calls "federal largesse" than those who pay in, he says.

I point out that is rather a counsel of despair. Does it mean the Republicans can never win again?

Coloradoans smoke marijuana (20 April 2012)
Colorado's left-ward trend was illustrated in November by a vote to legalise marijuana

He laughs.

"I tell you what, we are all pretty depressed," he says. "Ultimately I have a faith in the American people.

"The idea we can balance our budget by simply taxing the rich simply won't work. The only way for that to be demonstrated is through unhappy experience."

So he thinks Republicans just have to ride out the next four years and hope it goes wrong?

"That is precisely correct. I don't see a happy ending here."

The Republicans who will tonight sit in Congress listening to President Obama draw their strength and their votes from places like the Colorado mountains. The overwhelming message from loyalists is that while the party may need some cosmetic changes they should stand firm and try to block the president's plans.

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