Wadhams’ Dual Role Draws Mixed Reviews

Posted November 5, 2008 at 6:44pm

Four years ago, Dick Wadhams was unofficially anointed the next über-GOP strategist and hired to guide then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) to a 2008 White House victory.

Two years later, Wadhams was forced out of his position as the chief strategist for Allen’s 2006 Senate re-election campaign as the Republican incumbent spiraled toward an upset loss to now-Sen. Jim Webb (D).

Wadhams landed on his feet — he returned to Colorado, the scene of some of his greatest political successes, and wrested control of the state’s battered Republican Party. But that experience hasn’t proved to be as immediately salutary as he had hoped.

On Wednesday, upon the conclusion of his first cycle in the unpaid position of Colorado GOP chairman, Wadhams finds himself surveying the ashes of his second consecutive electoral disappointment — and the vultures are once again circling. Wadhams took over as state GOP chairman in early 2007, while simultaneously serving as the chief strategist for former Rep. Bob Schaffer’s (R) Senate campaign, which went down to defeat Tuesday.

“It’s the first time in my knowledge where the campaign manager of a major contested campaign has taken on the dual role of the state chairmanship,” former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) said. “If you’re going to do that, Dick Wadhams is the most capable individual to do it. But both of those jobs are too big to be combined in one person.”

Wadhams served both as state GOP executive director and chairman until the spring of 2007, when a new executive director and additional staff were brought on and he transitioned to the Schaffer campaign, while maintaining his chairmanship.

Wadhams dismissed his critics, noting that the party’s $580,000 debt from the previous cycle will be paid off by year’s end, and arguing that he has been effective at fundraising, candidate recruitment and grass-roots organizing in what turned out to be a tough cycle for the GOP. Wadhams said the Legislature is stocked with up-and-coming Republicans, and that 2010 could be a year of resurgence for his party.

“Despite what happened [Tuesday] night, the state GOP is in better shape than when I inherited it,” Wadhams said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Not long after Wadhams was elected state chairman in 2007, he took on the role of Schaffer’s campaign manager and top strategist in an ultimately losing battle for Senate against Rep. Mark Udall (D), whom he dubbed “Boulder Liberal” Udall.

Wadhams has come under fire in some Colorado Republican circles, though not necessarily for how he ran Schaffer’s campaign. Rather, he has been criticized by some who claim that the Schaffer campaign muddled his focus, rendering him unable to adequately perform his duties as chairman at a time when Colorado Republicans have been on the defensive.

The fact that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) won Colorado in Tuesday’s presidential election isn’t likely to quiet the discontent with Wadhams that has surfaced, nor is Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s (R-Colo.) loss at the hands of former Senate aide Betsy Markey (D) in the conservative 4th district.

“Wadhams’ problem was that he was unfocused,” said one Republican strategist who worked a race in Colorado this cycle.

A few Republican operatives who were active in Colorado over the past two years — including some longtime Centennial State strategists — were critical of Wadhams’ just-completed election cycle as state chairman. Most of the critics declined to be quoted on the record for fear of hurting the party or damaging future relations with Wadhams, who is set to remain at the helm of the state party.

However, several Colorado Republican operatives — and other GOP strategists who worked in Colorado over the past two years — gave Wadhams glowing reviews. These individuals also declined to be quoted on the record.

“I haven’t seen grumbling at all,” one Colorado-based GOP strategist said. “He motivates the donor base and enthuses the activists in this state.”

Said another longtime Colorado GOP operative: “Dick is a hero to Colorado Republicans. He is the John Elway of the Colorado Republican Party.”

After Wadhams was pushed out of Allen’s campaign more than two years ago, he retreated to Colorado, where he grew up and previously guided outgoing Sen. Wayne Allard (R) to Senate victories in 1996 and 2002, and former Gov. Bill Owens (R) to his first win in 1998. In 2004, Wadhams was a top campaign adviser to now-Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) as he toppled then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. It was after this race that Wadhams became a very hot political property and went to work for Allen, first in his Senate office and then later on his 2006 re-election campaign. Many political observers saw the Wadhams-Allen alliance as proof that the Virginian would run for president in 2008.

Colorado’s political terrain has changed considerably since Wadhams steered Allard to his second term in 2002. When Wadhams took over the helm of the state GOP in early 2007, he inherited a party that was rudderless and deep in debt — and one that had lost its hold on both chambers of the Legislature, the governorship, a Senate seat and two House seats.

Colorado Democrats have also made considerable inroads on the voter registration front. The state Democratic Party — with the help of some 527 organizations funded by wealthy Colorado Democrats — had become the state’s dominant political party, in fundraising, grass-roots organization and candidate recruitment.

Some of Wadhams’ critics say he has not moved aggressively over the past two years to address these deficiencies. One Colorado GOP operative said that, based on Wadhams’ performance, the party faithful might be moved to elect someone else chairman — if they could find someone who wanted the job.

“There has been little coordination between the Schaffer campaign and other efforts,” the GOP operative said two weeks before Tuesday’s election. “The McCain campaign has been the de facto state party. We are about one year behind the Democrats in organization and trailing in money.”

Wadhams disputed this line of attack. He emphasized that his office at the Schaffer campaign was in the same building as the state GOP, and just down the hall, allowing for easy coordination with the state party, be it for downticket races or for the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Wadhams noted that he gave more than 200 speeches at Republican events during the election cycle that just ended.

“I knew what I was getting into when I got into this job in 2007,” Wadhams said. “I knew ’08 would be a challenge. I never thought it was going to be easy.”