It is increasingly likely that Patrick Neville, the far-right leader of Colorado’s shrunken House GOP caucus, will be overthrown later this year.
Neville, of Castle Rock, has been minority leader since 2016, but Rep. Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, has been public about his plans to seek the job of minority leader heading into the 2021 legislative session in January. More than a dozen lawmakers and other Capitol sources say they believe McKean’s victory is all but assured.
This outcome was made much more likely on primary night in June, when a slate of Republican candidates more aligned with Neville’s vision was trounced by a group of less hard-right candidates.
Like other statehouse leadership positions, the minority leader can’t be elected until at least the day after the November election. The House GOP currently holds just 24 seats in the 65-seat house — a 17-seat deficit — and there is virtually no chance that the majority flips later this year. The best-case scenario for the caucus, most believe, would be to pick up a few seats.
“We’re going to be in the minority, whether we like it or not. That’s the reality for a period of time,” said McKean.
The state is now controlled by Democrats, who occupy every constitutional office and hold majorities in both legislative chambers. But Republican lawmakers still have the opportunity to act as moderating forces and even, in some cases, to thwart or amend bills they oppose. Unlike the Senate GOP, the House GOP has mostly failed to make a dent in major recent policies.
“The reality is — and I hate to say it — that the House GOP is basically irrelevant,” said Brian DelGrosso, Neville’s predecessor as minority leader. “The numbers are so far skewed that, quite frankly, the voice of the GOP doesn’t even need to be considered for them to push legislation through.”
A number of lawmakers said they believe at least 15 or 16 likely members of next session’s House GOP caucus plan to support McKean, who is far from a liberal but who many see as more moderate than Neville. The latest plan would also have Rep. Colin Larson of Littleton replace Rep. Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch as assistant majority leader.
McKean wouldn’t offer a vote count, but he did say, “Am I positive that we have all the votes? I sure think, from the conversations we’ve had, that we do.”
Echoed Larson: “I think there’s a big appetite for a change in leadership.”
Neville brushed off questions about the race for minority leader, saying that he is more focused on the November elections than on internal party politics.
He said, though, of those laying the groundwork to oust him: “I don’t think it’s helpful, all the talk and going very public. … I wish they would spend more time actually trying to help Republicans in the general, instead of building up a leadership election.”
There are many reasons for growing discontent with the leadership of Neville, who has held the top spot in the caucus for four years. For starters, the caucus is bleeding seats. The GOP, which dominated the House as recently as 2002, had a three-seat deficit after the 2014 election — a number that has grown to 17 today, and could grow again in November. Much of the slide can be attributed to forces outside of Neville’s control; Colorado was trending bluer well before he got into state politics.
But the fact that Neville has presided over further decline is reason enough, for some, to replace him.
“No one stays in office when they lose seats like that,” said Rep. Lois Landgraf of Colorado Springs, who is term-limited. She seriously considered challenging Neville for minority leader in 2018, but bailed because, she said, she thought she was one vote shy.
The discontent, Landgraf and others said, goes much deeper than electoral outcomes.
“We haven’t had leadership for years, since Patrick took over,” she said.
In general, those who support a change at the top feel that Neville and the minority office staff do not equitably support members, instead favoring a far-right faction that includes Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, Steve Humphrey of Severance and Lori Saine of Dacono.
This group is closely allied with Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO), an organization that has a history of targeting sitting Republicans who lean even a smidge to the right, and whose now-former director, Dudley Brown, has described himself as being to the right of the National Rifle Association.
Larson, the possible next assistant minority leader, just won a GOP primary challenge by former Rep. Justin Everett, a longtime friend of Neville’s who was backed by RMGO.
“The real implication with my race, frankly, is just this whole idea that leadership should be supportive of the members of the Republican caucus,” Larson said. “My race really illustrated where the current leadership fell short in that, because of the active role leadership took in my race, opposing me. I think it speaks to the need for a different set of leadership.”
In a June interview, Williams called the Larson-Everett race a “battle for the heart and soul of the Republican efforts in Colorado.”
With non-RMGO Republicans having emerged victorious, there is little doubt in the mind of informed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that Neville’s ouster is inevitable.
Said one likely caucus newcomer, Erie Republican Dan Woog, who defeated an RMGO candidate: “I’m seeing that it looks like people are ready for change.”
That doesn’t mean Democrats think a change in leadership will actually lead to a change in policy.
“I just don’t know if I buy that Hugh represents a new, moderate option to Patrick,” said Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat and the favorite to replace term-limited KC Becker as speaker of the House next session. “I keep hearing that there’s going to be this move back to the center, and there’s just no evidence of that from a policy perspective that I can point to.”
Indeed, it’s a staunchly conservative bunch top to bottom. But at a minimum, replacing Neville would likely mean a change in messaging. He is among the most inflammatory Republicans of any influence in the state; he likened the state stay-home order this spring to the Gestapo.
And, Neville opponents hope, a change in leadership would mean members could operate without fear of retribution from their own leader.
“What’s not acceptable to me is members who go after other members because they are too squishy,” Landgraf said. “I don’t care how someone votes. I don’t know why they need to care how I vote. They not only care, but they attack.”
She added, of the outlook for next session: “The caucus will be considered, respected, honored. Everybody there has talent and skills and they should all be utilized. I think that’ll happen. … I think it’ll just be fairer and more balanced.”