Is Democrat dominance here to stay?
The inauguration of Joe Biden gives the Republican Party a chance to redefine itself post Donald Trump. But Gunnison County’s most prominent Republicans largely remain pessimistic that their party will gain more traction in future races for local offices.
Gunnison County Republican Party Chair Jane Chaney said it’s a tall order to be a registered Republican in the Gunnison Valley given demographics that have for the past decade favored Democratic candidates and ideals. Not only are many new residents in the valley more liberal, Chaney said, but the Democrat-heavy student body of Western Colorado University also tips the scales to the left.
The recent race for the Board of Gunnison County Commissioners was evidence of just that, with both Republican candidate Dave Taylor and unaffiliated candidate Trudy Vader losing to their Democratic counterparts by margins of roughly 20%.
Looking back on the losses, Chaney said it will be hard for any Republican candidate to secure seats on the Board of County Commissioners.
“You tell me — would you want to run as a Republican in Gunnison County?” Chaney said. “Republicans in this county are outnumbered.”
Taylor doesn’t deny the challenge but said he hopes to see other Republican candidates step up to the plate. Taylor serves as treasurer on the Gunnison Watershed School District school board.
“I don’t want to discourage people from public office, we need to have the competition,” Taylor said.
According to the Secretary of State, as of Jan. 2021 there are 12,412 active voters in Gunnison County. Of those, 3,936 are registered as Democrats, 2,752 are registered Republicans and the remaining 5,470 are unaffiliated.
But Chaney said even that breakdown with a large number of unaffiliated voters has historically leaned left when it comes to local politics.
Chaney said those unaffiliated voters often vote Democratic down ticket. She said there are also Republicans who have registered as unaffiliated because it’s better for their businesses.
“Some people on both sides of the aisle hide behind the unaffiliated moniker because they don’t want to have to deal with discussions or people challenging them,” Chaney said. “There are some Republicans in this valley that are unaffiliated because they fear retaliation.”
Both Taylor and Chaney say it’s hard to do business as usual in a small town when politics are so divisive.
Taylor said ideals such as less government regulation and smaller government are what makes him check “R” on the ballot. But Taylor said the state of national politics has made for some tough conversations.
“Do I like Trump personally? Hell no,” said Taylor.
Even so, Taylor cast his vote for Trump in the 2020 presidential election saying, “I think both parties could have had better candidates in this election.”
Looking back on Trump’s presidency, there are moments of success, said Taylor.
Trump’s efforts to promote energy independence in the United States, the work done with criminal justice reform and peace deals brokered in the Middle East are all among his top achievements, said Taylor.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic was another success, said Taylor.
“He got no credit for the COVID response Taylor said. “I think he did a great job, but it’s going to be a long time before he (Trump) gets credit for all he’s done.”
Longtime Republican and Gunnison resident Bill Nesbitt said it’s clear there’s a crisis on the national level but that local politics have always been a little different.
“I’ve always felt like with local politics, both city and county, it’s more about the person,” Nesbitt said.
Nesbitt pointed to past county commissioners who have been a mix of both parties throughout the years in Gunnison County. But recently, the demographics seem to have shifted to be more blue.
More liberal leaning voters in the county were turned off by Vader and Taylor signs that stood next to Trump, Boebert and Gardner support, Nesbitt said. The national politics that were woven into local races potentially led to greater losses for both candidates.
“I think for years now, locally the Democrats have had a fairly open tent, they take people from varied positions and interests it seems like Nesbitt said.
For a Republican to take a commissioner seat, there could be work done to be more inclusive, he said.
“Strident discourse creates good government,” Nesbitt said of the need for two-party government.
Gunnison County resident Phil Chamberland agreed with Nesbitt that at the local level, it’s more about personality than political party.
As the last two-term Republican county commissioner, Chamberland left his seat as the lone “R” after eight years in 2019.
But like Chaney, Chamberland recognizes the majority of people in the valley are not Republican or Democrat, but unaffiliated, or as he calls it, “more middle of the road.”
It’s hard to be a far-right or far-left leaning candidate and also have success in sway-ing the more moderate voter, Chamberland said.
When it comes to a Republican once again taking county leadership positions, Chamberland said he would bet on a candidate that was personable and had been in the valley for awhile.
“If you’ve been here for more than 10 years, people feel more comfortable, they can relate,” Chamberland said.
And while he also sees the shift to blue, he doesn’t see it as a sign that trend will stick, especially given the mass exodus of people from neighboring states amidst the pandemic.
“More and more of our population is drifting to the left,” Chamberland said. “But that doesn’t mean our population couldn’t change again.”
The ups and downs of politics give Chamberland hope for future conservative candidates and the local Republican party.
“The Republican Party is actually stronger than most people think in Gunnison County,” Chamberland said.
(Kate Gienapp can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)