Colorado Republicans face House leadership question in wake of Hugh McKean’s death

With their top two senior members departing thanks to term limits, Democrats in Colorado’s House of Representatives will be tasked next week with finding new faces to lead the caucus.

Now Republicans will have to decide who will lead them, too.

Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican coasting unopposed to a fourth term, died of a heart attack at his home early Sunday. His death comes as the caucus he was set to lead — plagued in the past by infighting and hemmed in by a strong Democratic majority — readied for a wave of new, and hopefully unified, faces. Many were handpicked by McKean.

His death follows the early October resignation of Rep. Tim Geitner, the assistant minority leader, and the departure of Rep. Rod Pelton, the minority whip. While the party was aware that both of those men would be gone come the next legislative session in January, McKean’s sudden passing means Republicans will have to select a new leader on Nov. 10, when the caucus will gather and elect its leadership.

Before his death, McKean was set to remain leader, with Reps. Mike Lynch and Richard Holtorf tapped to join him in leadership as assistant minority leader and minority whip, respectively. Candidate Rose Pugliese was also expected to join leadership, and Rep. Colin Larson was set to join the Joint Budget Committee.

Larson and Lynch are likeliest to replace McKean as minority leader, insiders said Monday. Because McKean was running unopposed, he will be considered a member-elect to the House, and a vacancy committee convened by the Larimer County Republican Party will select his replacement, the Secretary of State’s Office said Sunday. It’s unclear when that will happen, though officials said it will likely be relatively soon.

Larson, who together with McKean played a key role in selecting the class of would-be Republican House members running next week, declined to speculate about who will replace McKean on Monday morning, given the proximity to his death and looming elections. But he said the leadership team planned before McKean’s passing would likely remain in one form or another.

“It’s so new, we haven’t had time to contemplate this,” he said. None of the potential leaders had planned to challenge McKean, a well-liked legislator by members of both parties known for his commitment to the House as an institution. McKean, who served as a city council member in Loveland before joining the House in 2016, was praised and mourned Sunday by members of both parties — including his Democratic legislative counterparts and Gov. Jared Polis.

Whoever does take over will lead a caucus rife with new members. Larson said at least 16 House Republicans will be new, out of the current 24 seats the party holds. Depending on how many they pick up in November, that could increase to 20 new members, out of a caucus that could total 28. That pairs with a wave of fresh faces — and new leadership — across the aisle.

“It’s going to be a totally new dynamic,” he said.

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