Dick Wadhams; a conservative’s conservative who did it his way

If Frank Sinatra were alive, and if he paid attention to leadership elections in the Republican Party, he’d be giving two cheers for Dick Wadhams this week.

Like Old Blue Eyes, the Republican warhorse named Wadhams has a knack for doing things his way.

This week, Wadhams abruptly announced he wasn’t running for a third term as state GOP party chair, a reversal of course for Colorado’s Summa Cum Laude right-wing operative who earlier announced he wanted to keep the job.

Wadhams’ decision to walk away from the party gig surprised some, but not me. A week earlier, I had breakfast with Wadhams at a South Denver pancake restaraunt just after state Sen. Ted Harvey announced he would challenge Wadhams for the post. Wadhams didn’t seem too concerned about the race — he swatted away a similar challenge two years earlier, earning about 80 percent of the vote.

As chairman of the GOP this go-round, Wadhams presided over a party that turned out a record number of Republicans statewide, jettisoned two incumbent Democratic members of Congress, knocked out incumbent Democrats from the jobs of secretary of state and state treasurer, and acted as a guiding force in the four-year march to take back control of the Legislature from the unions and environmentalists who had practically run the joint since the Democrats took control of it in 2004.

In fact, Republicans probably wouldn’t have won control of the state House of Representatives last fall if it weren’t for a decision by Wadhams two years earlier to bet big on a little-known upstart named Laura Bradford in Mesa County. Wadhams put all his chips on the table for Bradford, shifting financial resources and ground game to the race just as the Republican challenger was running out of money and facing a storm surge of negative TV ads. His impact on that race was probably decisive.

Flash forward to today, where Republicans have a one-seat majority in the House. If Wadhams hadn’t bet on the gutsy Bradford then, Democrats would still probably have an unfettered monopoly on power in Denver now.

At that pancake shop, Wadhams told me that he believed that these and other strategic success stories through the years would be enough to get him over the top in the race for party chairman.

And still, he was hedging on two more years in the job because he had had just about enough of the cottage industry of “Wadhams haters” who blamed him for almost everything.

Wadhams frequently gets tagged for Republicans’ failure to win the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate seat this year, but those charges are absurd. And those doing the blaming never seem to want to give him credit for any of the successes that are a big part his.

Former Congressman John Salazar, anyone?

Chief among his critics were some (and only some) in the tea party movement. This always confused me.

Wadhams is a a conservative to the bone — a Reaganite who has been tarring Democrats and smacking liberal journalists all over the country for the better part of a generation.

In 2004, he ran John Thune’s campaign against Sen. Tom Daschle in South Dakota. His fierce tactics led to one of the biggest shockers in modern Congressional campaigning.

Before Wadhams met Daschle, he helped unite conservatives around a little known congressman named Wayne Allard, trouncing the better known and more moderate Attorney General Gale Norton in Allard’s first GOP primary, and helping Allard secure 12 years in the Senate.

And before Wadhams ran campaigns in his own right, he learned at the feet of the master of the modern conservative movement in Colorado, former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong.

No, Dick Wadhams is not someone for any conservative to loathe. For a full generation, Wadhams has swung a baseball bat and tire iron on behalf of the cause of limited government that some of his fiercest critics have only recently awakened to.

But that’s what makes Dick, well, Dick. This week he dropped out of the race, warning his Republican critics to stop looking for conspiracies around every corner, and to instead start looking for a way to unite conservatives with those hard-to-reach unafilliated voters.

To his critics, he was unapologetic. For his friends, it was classic Wadhams.

Old Blue Eyes would’ve loved the whole thing. On the way out of the job, just as every day in it, Dick Wadhams did it his way.

Josh Penry is a former state senator from Grand Junction, and former minority leader of the Colorado Senate.


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