The Old Guard vs. the New Wave: Power Struggles in Rural America
By Wyatt Hurt
As the sun rises in the western half of Colorado, it shines down on the desert landscape of Mesa County, the lush green Rocky Mountains of Pueblo County, and the steep slopes of Durango. Rich in geographic contrasts, Colorado’s third congressional district is politically diverse as well. Blood-red areas like Mesa, Delta, and Montrose Counties have ensured Republican victory since 2010, but the swing district also has liberal havens like Pitkin, La Plata, and Eagle Counties. These contrasts combined with enormous geographic size—the district covers nearly 50,000 square miles, 164 zip codes, and 34 incorporated cities—make Representative Scott Tipton’s (R – Colo.) job a difficult one. In a part of the country where voters deeply distrust the political establishment in the best of times, the 2016 election caused the established political structure to rapidly transform.
While the rest of the country enjoyed relative economic prosperity, Colorado’s third was left behind. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2015, 84,000 residents, or 12 percent of the district, did not have health insurance. Average household income is only $50,010 per year, and 11 percent of families live below the poverty line. Less than a third of the population has a Bachelor’s degree or higher. The area’s economy relies almost entirely on natural resource extraction, an industry which is slowly dying, weakened by low oil prices. As a result, the 2016 populist wave was particularly strong in rural Colorado. In the Democratic Caucus, Bernie Sanders won between 60 and 70 percent of the vote in every county in the district.
Since 1990, the district has switched hands three times, with both parties obtaining solid margins when elected. The politically-turbulent area mirrors the nation as a whole: just like the United States, the 2016 election caused the established political structure to implode. However, while national media focuses on insurgent candidates, there is another, more compelling force at work: an insurgent political revolution is changing the way politics is organized structurally.
On October 12, 2016, the insurgent group Mesa County Deplorables (a play on Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” gaffe) shocked the Mesa County political establishment and broke away from the Mesa County Republican Party. As one organizer of this group complained to a local news station, “It’s worse than that [the Mesa County Republicans] are useless. They’re actually trying to sabotage Donald Trump from getting elected.”
While elites may have been shocked, the group saw a groundswell of support from everyday citizens frustrated by the local Republican Party’s inaction. With no budget, a group of four disenfranchised Republican operatives organized the ‘Deplorables’ on Facebook, eventually accumulating nearly 1,000 members. They adopted as their mascot a Photoshopped Revolutionary War-era painting that shows George Washington carrying a Trump campaign flag. The group bled patriotism and worked themselves into a frenzy, posting headlines like “List of debunked groper allegations by corrupt media against Donald Trump,” and “George Soros RIGGED Voting Machines In These 16 States! Is YOUR State on the List?”
But this group is not a bunch of uneducated farmers rallying together. Matt Patterson, one of the founders, is a journalist and has written for Forbes Magazine. Marjorie Haun, another founder and a well-known Colorado political operative, has worked for successful state Senate campaigns. Their first event, a women’s march, happened in October 2016 and despite being organized in just five days, was attended by nearly 100 women. They later organized an inter-faith forum on the importance of conservative Supreme Court justices (though only Christian faiths were represented). They even welcomed Trump when his campaign held a rally at the Grand Junction Regional Airport, attracting over 10,000 supporters.
Following Trump’s election, the Mesa County Republican Party elected Laureen Gutierrez, one of the members of the Mesa County Deplorables, as their chairwoman. Their revolt against the political establishment complete, the group disbanded. In an interview with the HPR, Haun explained: “How can we have the time, or the means, or the money that the liberals have? We don’t have George Soros funding us. But the other thing is that we can’t be constantly antagonistic and angry because we all have regular lives. We have jobs and families. We aren’t focused on 24/7 resistance like the liberal groups which are springing up today.”
After the election, a different kind of insurgency rose up. On a local level, angry progressives felt cheated by neighbors who voted for Trump, by the political system, and in many cases by the Democratic National Committee and Clinton. After Trump’s inauguration, four former congressional staffers wrote the “Indivisible” guide on resisting the Trump agenda, and groups formed across the country to put that guide into action. One of those groups was D3 Indivisible, bringing the resistance movement to the district. It began when four progressives who co-own a yoga studio in the small town of Ridgway hosted a meditation session and community gathering after the local Women’s March on Washington. The group believes it is counterproductive to assign members titles or promote individuals in the press; when interviewed for this article, one of the founding members asked only to be identified as a spokeswoman for the group.
As she told the HPR, the founding members were shocked when they held their first public meeting—in a town of 900 people, over 100 crammed into downtown Ridgway’s historic Sherbino Theatre. The group’s momentum has not slowed, and organizers were impressed by the level of talent that exists in their small community. The group has active issue committees, composed of volunteers who research current legislation and policy, making recommendations on what positions Indivisible should take. They also send out daily action alerts on how citizens can easily get involved, and developed a sleek and modern website which helps people take civic action. Five months in, their momentum is not slowing, and meeting numbers are growing, not shrinking. They are currently planning an organizing summit, where future organizers, volunteers, and candidates will be trained by professionals on how to take political action. “This is something which has never been done before,” the D3 Indivisible spokeswoman said. “We don’t totally know where we’re going yet, and that’s okay. For the first time in a long time, we are witnessing the birth of a new political structure.”
Many members of Indivisible are Bernie Sanders supporters who felt party leadership cheated them out of a candidate who could have beat Trump in the general election. The Mesa County Democrats perfectly demonstrate the divide in local liberal politics. The previous chairwoman of the party, who served through the 2016 election, was an “old-school Democrat.” Strongly religious, an ardent supporter of Clinton, and disdainful of Bernie Sanders, she struggled to lead the local party in a Sanders-loving county. After the 2016 election, many local progressives wanted her to resign immediately, and the November monthly meeting was contentious to say the least.
That changed when Jeriel Brammeier, a well-known 26 year old political operative and activist in Mesa County, was elected chairwoman of the Mesa County Democrats. Currently serving as a community organizer for a grassroots progressive activist group, she got her start in politics after becoming pregnant in high school and organizing a campaign to bring healthy relationship and teen pregnancy awareness into her school district. The election of an activist outsider as chairwoman closely parallels the Deplorables’ rise to power in the Republican party.
“I was not necessarily jumping up and down with excitement to be the Chair of the Mesa County Democrats, but no one else stepped up who I felt could bring in new people who were disillusioned with the local party and build bridges,” Brammeier told the HPR. “The gap between Clinton and Sanders voters still exists in our local party, but it is closing, and I’ve worked to bring people from both campaigns into the leadership of the party.” She no doubt has a hard task in trying to unify the fired-up progressive wing of the party and the more moderate Democrats who provide much of the funding for the party.
Brammeier is currently working to transform the local party into something which mimics D3 Indivisible and other progressive groups on the rise. “Grassroots participation is so important, because democracy is supposed to be about the people, and not for the leaders,” she said. “For me, I didn’t look at this leadership position as a top-down approach; I looked at it as an opportunity to listen to what people want, find common ground, and move towards common goals.”
On a local level, it seems that both the Republican and Democratic parties, upended by insurgent groups, are reforming their leadership styles and working to build bridges with those who have traditionally felt disenfranchised with the party system.
Both conservative and liberal grassroots groups feel political change is needed—the establishment system doesn’t work for them. “The system is broken,” the spokeswoman for D3 Indivisible told the HPR. “Politics right now is so far from anything that’s real and is driven by money. People who are participating in our group and becoming more active are very creative and exhausted of the status quo. People do not want to compromise their morals, and want to operate within their values.” Haun, speaking for the Deplorables, agreed, and told the HPR that, “The constant press attention, fancy luncheons, and being in a big city makes politicians lose sight of their own constituents.”
Though both groups are frustrated with political parties, they are daunted by the prospect of running their own candidates and campaigns. D3 Indivisible is working to run a progressive candidate in the congressional race against Tipton. Their spokeswoman repeatedly told the HPR that Indivisible was uncomfortable with the idea of compromising with an establishment Democrat. However, with no budget, no political infrastructure, and very little experience, an independent candidate winning seems unlikely even to grassroots groups.
Brammeier concurs, and believes that Democrats have a role to play in both electing candidates and enacting societal change: “I don’t think that an independent candidate could win—both Republicans and Democrats in this area see an independent as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as an undercover candidate for the other side.” Brammeier added that established political parties are the only ones with enough infrastructure and resources to effectively run successful candidates. She also understands the concerns of progressive groups like D3 Indivisible, and her experience in being a part of these groups shows: “Hopefully they don’t feel like they have to compromise with the Democratic candidate. We want to find a socially progressive candidate that satisfies a broad range of progressive people.”
The divide between rural and urban areas can’t be overstated, and grassroots groups in CD3 spend a lot of time trying to close the gap. Pueblo, the largest city in the district, has approximately 108,000 residents—compared to Denver’s 2,000,000. Denver, the state capital, is five hours away, and the journey requires travelers to cross sometimes treacherous mountain passes. State officials rarely visit western Colorado more than once a year, and even lobbyists from the area rarely visit the capital in person. Brammeier, Haun, and the spokeswoman for D3 Indivisible all discussed their respective groups’ strategies to overcome this divide and increase their political capital.
Frustration with this divide often leads even those who hold elected office to see themselves as being isolated from the establishment. Haun told the HPR, “I don’t think that anyone in this district, elected official or not, is part of the establishment. The establishment is in Denver and in Washington, D.C.” All three Mesa County Commissioners, who each raised tens of thousands from establishment Republicans, worked with the Mesa County Deplorables. Scott McInnis, a Mesa County Commissioner, was so concerned about missing an upcoming Trump rally that he apologized beforehand, telling the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel: “Don’t let my absence mislead you, I’m a strong supporter of Trump.”
McInnis was at one point a U.S. Representative and candidate for governor of Colorado. These elected officials, paid six-figures every year to run the government, stood arm-to-arm with the angry grassroots to say that they were tired of politics as usual, ready to upend the establishment and bring government back to the people.
In an era where dialogue is dominated by a narrative of political division, isolation from the state capital encourages groups in western Colorado to attempt reconciliation with the other side of the aisle. Haun expressed interest in understanding progressives, telling the HPR: “I want to know what their background is and what experiences have driven them to support these policies.” On the other side, D3 Indivisible is reaching out to county Republican parties to see if they can collaborate on certain issues. However, it is hard to imagine Republicans working with an Indivisible group, as demonstrated by countless posts in the Mesa County Deplorables Facebook group, as well as Haun, who told the HPR that she firmly believes George Soros and his allies are funding D3 Indivisible: “They’re all a part of this ‘new left.’ Maybe they don’t get paychecks, but you look at their website and their infrastructure, and it’s clear that there’s a lot of money involved. It wasn’t easy for us conservatives when Obama was elected, but we weren’t focused on 24/7 resistance like the liberal groups which are springing up today.”
While liberal and conservative politics have both seen their power structures fundamentally shift, they remain bitterly opposed in policy terms. Haun summed up the divide: “I’ll always be a Deplorable. America is defined by its red county areas. When you’re overseas, and you talk to a German, they talk about John Wayne. They don’t talk about Michael Bloomberg. We need to remember that spirit and that rugged individualism that is still very much alive.”
Those on both sides of the aisle have seen the power structure of local party politics fundamentally shift. Grassroots organizers from both parties formed their own groups to pressure for political change, and have succeeded in gaining real political power. While all groups are attempting to close the political divide, idealism is quickly overtaken by significant policy differences. At least for now, it seems that unity evades Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.