I asked some of the deep thinking congress members I know to do guest posts that basically amount to a case for voting blue over the next couple of weeks. I’ve been running one every other day. Adam Schiff (D-CA) kicked off the series with an essay about climate. Yesterday we heard from Marie Newman (D-IL) about campaign finance reform. Before that we had essays by Jim Himes (D-CT) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). Tomorrow we’ll be hearing from Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).
Ted Lieu is working on one of these too but I also asked him to introduce me to Adam Kinzinger (R-IL)— who has been endorsing several Democrats— to get a perspective from a sitting Republican congressman who seems to have seen the light. Kinzinger is still a conservative and still even a Republican but I’ve noticed that while Liz Cheney has tended to still routinely vote with the GOP, Kinzinger hasn’t. He now backs progressive positions more regularly than any Republicans other than Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and John Katko (R-NY), the party’s last two moderates. During the month of September, there were 32 roll calls that had progressive positions. Of those Kinzinger voted with the progressives 8 and with the Republicans 8 times. He was absent for 16 roll calls.
I’ve tried before and I doubt Kinzinger will speak with me but… there is a way to get a glimpse inside the “moderate” Republican mind today. Former Republican operative, author and journalist Tim Miller interviewed Kevin Priola, a Colorado state Senator who had just jumped the fence and reregistered as a Democrat when we wrote about him in August, noting, among other things, that though he was considered the most moderate Republican in the state Senate, he is also an anti-Choice fanatic. When he announced his party switch, he said that he doesn’t expect to vote any differently in the remaining 2 years of his term, in other words, still fervently anti-Choice and pro-gun. Republicans have been— unsuccessfully— trying to launch a recall effort against him.
Priola told Miller that the first time he voted it was in 1992 when he picked Pat Buchanan over George H.W. Bush. He ran for the state House in 2008 and won in a Democratic-leaning district. “From about 2008 until recently it just, every year it seemed like the Republican party got, more extreme and the people winning elections had some bizarre, like paranoid beliefs about stuff and, you know, just didn’t really wanna work to solve problems and fix things like most voters want— most voters I’d ever talked to on the doors. And, then January 6th happened and I was just, in the letter I put on Twitter, I just pointed out how shocked I was and, and I thought, well, this, this finally has to be the last straw. Like if the Republican Party I signed up for is full of a bunch of principled, solid adults who would realize what he [Trump] just did is beyond the pale. It can’t be excusable. It’s the most impeachable thing any president has ever done. So I thought I would wait and see if people in the party structure and . . . the voters lost faith in him and his polling went down. And, you know, over a year and a half, it just became apparent to me that [wasn’t going to happen]. I honestly believe that the Republican party doesn’t exist anymore— it’s just a bunch of people that follow Trump or don’t realize that the party only just follows whatever he says or wants, day-to-day, on whatever whim. I would argue that the only legitimate political party left in this country is the Democratic party.”
Miller: Talk about the time from 2009 all the way through 2016— about the makeup of the Colorado Republican Party and the caucus and what you saw as the evolution.
Priola: It seemed like when I got there in ’09 there were mostly reasonable Republicans that were conservative, but still wanted to work through and solve problems and come to some consensus from a conservative perspective. They would at least sit down and talk with members of the other party and try to work something out that would be agreeable by 60, 70, 80 percent of the population. But it seemed like after the 2010 election the crop that came in 2011, I don’t know if it was influenced by the Tea Party, but they were just there to lob bombs and to try to find fault with everything. Regardless of how ridiculous it was and stretching the truth ad nauseam.
Back then, they were still a small minority of members. But with each subsequent election they became a larger and larger portion of the Republican caucus. And then I realized the last few years that I was in the minority by a lot because I kept winning races that were basically Democrat seats as a Republican because I worked so hard and I had the name ID from being there for a while.
So they never would primary me because they knew that whoever ran to my right in a primary, they might win the primary, but they were gonna lose the general election because it was a +4, +5, +6 Dem seat. So, I just realized how much I was in the minority and how far and how extreme the Republican party had moved in the Colorado legislature.
And they kept losing elections but they just kept doubling down and the voter registration kept moving, like it used to be a majority Republican registration state, 10 or 20 years ago. Now it’s a majority Democratic registration, and the number of unaffiliateds has grown exponentially as well. I think actually unaffiliated voters are the largest voting bloc in Colorado now. And I think most of the growth and the unaffiliateds come from people that, unregistered as Republicans just because they don’t like the extreme positions and talking points and ideas that are getting thrown around.
Miller: That’s the legislature— but what about the actual voters? Did you notice a difference in the types of people that showed up to Republican events, when you went to county events? Was there a bottom-up element to this?
Priola: You know, I would go to Republican events in the mid-’90s and there was always that fringe group that had extreme wacky views— but they were definitely the minority. . . I would say they were the World War II generation, real hardscrabble. They saw real struggle, they saw WWII, they saw the Depression, they experienced that in their youth.
But as times changed, they passed on. And now the activists in the Republican party, as far as I could tell, were baby boomers or younger. And it seemed like the reasonable people just kind of threw their hands up. They’re like, This is going south. It’s not worth my time. And so by default, the only people that would show up were the people with more extreme points of view. So it becomes like this circular feedback loop that has not been good.
Miller: So the cool thing about what you did— and I’m just going to show my bias here and say that I think you did the right thing— is that I hear a lot from Republicans who express all those same frustrations as you, but then the decision tree doesn’t follow. They either say, It’s important for me to stay within the party and vote for the good ones. Or they say, Oh, I can never be a Democrat. They’ve gone too woke or whatever. I’m assuming you considered all three, you know, all three of those options: (1) staying and fighting, (2) being an independent, (3) going to be a Democrat. Why did you make the choice you did of just completely switching parties?
Priola: Well, first of all there’s no unaffiliated party. The last few years, it seemed like the Democratic party was trying to solve problems and trying to fix things and they were trying to temper the far left in Colorado because they realized Colorado is not a far-left state. But the right wasn’t trying to do that. I considered staying a Republican, but it just wasn’t what the voters that I had talked to would’ve wanted.
Because it’s, again, I represent Senate District 25 that leans Democratic in registration. And even the new Senate District 13 is still a swing Senate district with majority unaffiliated voters in it. So, I felt like I was serving my constituents better by caucusing with the Democrats all the way. And even if I would’ve switched my registration to unaffiliated, I would’ve still had to chosen whom to caucus with. . .
Miller: I love this because what you did was the thing that everybody told me was fantasy politics, when I was saying that some of the impeachers in the U.S. House of Representatives should have switched parties. I don’t mean to pick on him, but Anthony Gonzalez, for example, in Ohio, retires instead of just trying to run as a Democrat. And my point is that, okay, sure, he wasn’t gonna agree and vote with the Democrats on everything. But the Democratic caucus is trying to solve problems and does welcome people that have heterodox views and he could represent the district better that way. And you decided to do that.
Now that you’ve made the switch, is that your experience? Do you have some freedom to buck the Democratic party on stuff, or do you feel like you’re getting sucked in by the left?
Priola: Well, it’s, it’s still the honeymoon period and we’re not actually legislating yet, but that does bring up part of the reason I switched: to be an example to others. Not necessarily other electeds, but other voters. If you don’t like what’s going on in the Republican party, you’re not trapped. You have free will. You can register independent. You can register with the Democratic party. You can be part of a third party. Like we in this country have choices. Legislators have choices; elected officials have choices; citizens have choices.
I said this to my father-in-law a year and a half ago, while I was struggling with this. . . I said the Republican party needs to lose more elections until they figure out that what they’re selling most of the public doesn’t want. But I think they’ve tried to figure out a way around that by just lying about losing elections now and still convincing people no, they really do like what we’re selling. It’s just the elections are getting stolen from us.
Miller: So what do you say to the people who say, But the Democratic Party, they’ve gone off the deep end too? What’s your pushback to that? Do you even think that’s true?
Priola: I lined out in my letter that the two biggest reasons I switched were election integrity and climate. I think those issues are just so important to the future of the state of Colorado and the nation and the world compared to whatever minor issues that I still don’t align completely with the Democratic party. And so I wanted my last two years in the state Senate to be fruitful and good for my constituents and I have no regrets. I know I made the right choice.
Miller: You’re a good politician, so you have avoided the exact question. . . I’m asking this because I know there’s some readers that think this: Does the Democratic caucus not have similarly, far-left nihilistic members in it or what?
Priola: No, I think I did answer the question in that, I know we’re not gonna agree on everything, but the things we do agree on, I think are the big issues, like election security and climate change. And the Democratic caucus is a big tent, a bigger tent than I’ve noticed the Republican caucus being. And that’s why I’m proud to caucus with them.
Priola: I honestly think he’s done a good job and I told people that before I switched my registration. He’s smart, he’s measured. There are things he does that I don’t agree with, but I at least understand why he’s doing it. He’s doing his best to lead the state through difficult times. And I think he did a masterful job of leading us through COVID while my former Republican colleagues were talking about how it was a fake disease and they weren’t gonna wear masks and it was government overreach and all this stuff. The economy held up in the state, we never had that big of a spike in deaths, and we came out of it stronger than most other states. So I honestly think he’s done a great job.
Miller: What is your sense of 2024— is there something that can be learned from Polis? As an outsider, you know, you have some fresh eyes, you can give the Democratic party some advice as they look ahead. Thoughts?
Priola: Well two years is light years in political terms. But I do think if the Democratic party stays true to solving problems and fixing things like they did with the Inflation Reduction Act, the voters will reward them. It’s just clear to me that the Republican party is out of ideas and all they have is scare tactics now to try to get voters motivated. It’s quite sad to me because I think we need to have two really legitimate, strong parties in this country and, and right now I think we only have one and that’s the Democratic party.
Miller: It’s interesting that your switch happened in Colorado because in a weird way, Colorado and Georgia have been the only examples that I can see of states where the Republican party has at least somewhat bucked the more crazy side of things— with Joe O’Dea as the Colorado example, and Brian Kemp and Brad Raffesnsperger as the Georgia examples. Do you see any hope— any green shoots within your former party?
Priola: Unfortunately, they’re all colored, in my opinion, by the same national atmosphere of the Republicans. And yeah, you might try to make a stretch here or there, but at the end of the day the Republican gubernatorial candidate has an election denier on her ticket.
Miller: But it’s interesting that O’Dea is there, I mean, it was at least kinda good that O’Dea won a GOP primary right?
Priola: I’m gonna support [incumbent U.S. Sen Michael] Bennet. I know that if Trump does in some miraculous way get the nomination and win again in ’24, I know that Bennet will stand up to him and I am not confident that O’Dea will if he wins. If he did stand up to Trump, O’Dea would get threats of primaries and recalls and all this stuff that comes with that. So I think the voters should look through the lens of we need someone solid in D.C. who will stand up to the extremism that seems to be running in the Republican party, the Trump party. So Senator Bennett is the one I’m gonna vote for.
Tim:. The whole pool is contaminated, is your point. It’s the point that I’ve made: Even if you have put a gallon of clean water in there, it gets contaminated.
Priola: Yeah. And it’s unfortunate, but the Republican party showed me, when they turned on people like Liz Cheney and Romney, that it’s not the party I thought it was or was when I was growing up. It’s become Trump, whatever Trump wants. He’s the frontrunner, he’s got all the money, and I don’t see anything stopping him from running again in ’24.