Donald Trump is explaining his recent loss in Colorado by once again blaming "the establishment" for introducing changes to Colorado's delegate-selection process that would secretly undermine his campaign. But contrary to Trump's conspiratorial claims, interviews with participants in the debates over the party’s rules make clear that establishment-backed candidates wanted to switch from caucuses to a primary. And contemporaneous news accounts demonstrate that there was nothing at all secretive about the changes.
"To the extent that there was any establishment influence to set what the rules would be, they were favoring a broad-based primary," says Ryan Call, the former chairman of the Colorado GOP. Call supported Jeb Bush and later Marco Rubio, two candidates whose political operations were interested in ditching the caucus system.
During the 2015 legislative session, a bipartisan coalition of members proposed a bill to institute a presidential primary, whereby delegates would be awarded based on the results of that vote, not by the caucus system. The bill failed in the Republican-controlled state senate, where the party was split between grassroots-aligned conservatives who favored the caucus system and establishment types who wanted the primary. Those on the pro-caucus side were often aligned with anti-establishment presidential aspirants like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, and among those political operations supporting the primary proposal were the proto-campaigns of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
"On a trip to Colorado, we met with the state GOP chair Steve House before this was resolved, where Jeb said to him directly that we'd prefer a primary," says former Bush communications director Tim Miller, who now works for the anti-Trump group Our Principles PAC. "I know the campaign advocated that with the party behind the scenes as well."
And Josh Penry, a former state senator who became Marco Rubio's campaign chairman in Colorado, says he had "conversations" with members of the legislature about pursuing a primary. "I had a number of informal conversations with political types to see if you could cobble together a political coalition to get it done," says Penry.
The GOP establishment couldn't get its way, but not for lack of trying. Even when the chances of a true presidential primary died in the legislature, Colorado Republicans still had a problem. In addition to selecting delegates at the precinct caucuses, Colorado had traditionally held a non-binding straw poll at those caucuses. But in its most recent rules, the Republican National Committee barred such straw polls unless they bounded national delegates to presidential candidates. In late summer 2015, the state party had a decision to make: Should delegates be bound by the preference vote on caucus day, the same way delegates from Iowa and other states are selected? Or should the state get rid of the caucus-day preference vote and use the convoluted delegate selection process?
Many of the same "establishment" voices who sought a broad-based primary election argued for the former choice, including former state party chairman Dick Wadhams, who penned an op-ed in the Denver Post. But the grassroots wing of the party won out again, and so did the complicated process.
(For an explanation of that process, Colorado GOP voter Karl Dierenbach is worth reading. But here it is in summary: Colorado Republicans voted in caucuses on March 1 in local voting precincts to select delegates to represent their precinct at the congressional-district assemblies as well as delegates to the state convention. Those precinct delegates voted to elect respective delegates to the national convention at either the congressional-district assembly or the state convention.)
Trump has tried to spin his failure to secure delegates, including in an interview on Fox News Monday:
Donald Trump on Monday blasted Ted Cruz's delegate haul in Colorado, arguing that the GOP presidential convention there ignored voters. "The people out there are going crazy," he said on "Fox & Friends." "The people out in Colorado are going nuts. "They weren't given a vote," the Republican presidential front-runner said. "It's a crooked deal. The system is rigged, crooked. That's not the way democracy is supposed to work."
Trump continued his spin on Twitter, promoting one Colorado supporter who claimed he was disenfranchised at his nominating assembly. (At The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway has debunked that supporter's claims.) Trump also argued on Twitter that Colorado Republicans "had their vote taken away from them," and that the delegates to the national convention were "non-representative" of the Republicans in the state. Trump even argued Republicans "never got to vote in the Republican primary."
But that's all talk from a Johnny-come-lately, say Republicans in Colorado. "I never heard a Trump person in Colorado complain about the caucus selection process until the day after he got his butt whipped," says Josh Penry.
"Trump was silent," says Tim Miller.
Silent, that is, until it was too late. By the end of the whole process, which culminated in the state party convention in Colorado Springs on Saturday, Trump had lost all 34 bound delegates to rival Ted Cruz. The political winds may be shifting in favor of a primary after voters in both parties expressed outrage at the process following the March 1 caucuses. But Trump's argument that the system was an unfair disenfranchisement of voters by nefarious party dealers just doesn't pass the smell test.
"For those that are out there claiming the rules were changed to benefit the establishment is just not true," says Ryan Call.