(The Washington Post)

Before the ambush at the Warwick Hotel, Steve House had every reason to feel like one lucky Republican.

He had just been elected chairman of the Colorado state party, which was still exulting over its 2014 victories: a U.S. Senate seat reclaimed, an unexpected landslide in a once-close congressional race and a new majority in the state Senate. All of which was going to make it much easier for House — a slick but affable health-care consultant with watery-blue eyes and a beefy neck — to raise money for the party and elevate his own position within it.

So when Cynthia Coffman, the new rising-star state attorney general, asked him to meet at the Warwick for drinks, he expected a casual catch-up, perhaps a bit of 2016 strategy talk.

But House arrived the night of June 15 to find himself outnumbered — and on the defensive. Coffman was joined by Tom Tancredo, a firebrand former congressman, and Becky Mizel, a Pueblo County chairwoman. Three months earlier, these three had been his biggest supporters when he challenged and beat the incumbent party chairman — but now, suddenly, they wanted him out.

They ticked off a litany of grievances: House’s bookkeeping habits, his communication style, his refusal to hire one of their allies as executive director.

“Is that all?” House asked after each point, in an exchange recalled by Tancredo and confirmed by House’s office.

“Well, there’s Julie,” Coffman said.

“I know three Julies,” House said.

Come on, said Coffman — who was he trying to kid?

“Are you accusing me of having an affair?” House asked.

“Well,” Coffman said, “are you?”

All across America, at any given time, local party politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — are feuding among themselves about something. It may be serious matters of policy difference, or it may be petty matters of the internal power structure, but what these disputes generally have in common is that they are deeply and profoundly uninteresting to anyone not inclined to hang out in those smoke-filled back rooms.

Until you throw sex into the mix.

In Colorado, that’s what has elevated a seemingly mundane power struggle into a statewide soap opera — friendship turning to rivalry, accusations of blackmail and retribution, a private detective’s secret recordings of the alleged mistress — that has left the party in disarray, a situation that could have national implications as one of the most unpredictable swing states prepares for the 2016 presidential race.

If House — who swiftly denied the affair allegations — has been bruised, so too has Coffman. The wife of Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), she had been widely viewed as a likely contender for governor in 2018. Now commentators across Colorado are wondering aloud if the state attorney general committed blackmail.

“The allegations that have been levied against me, and I am the top law enforcement officer in the state, are criminal in nature,” Coffman said in an interview with Denver’s CBS affiliate. She fiercely denied wrongdoing and flat-out accused House of lying about the threats. (House declined to be interviewed for this story. Coffman and her staff members did not respond to multiple calls and e-mails.)

This was not how Republicans wanted to start the election cycle.

Steve House, seen at a GOP gathering in Denver in early May, ousted a sitting state party chair in April with the help of the three politicians who later turned against him. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

For a moment, though, this almost all went away. Shortly after storming out of the bar, House texted Coffman saying he would give in to their demands.

“I will resign tomorrow,” he wrote, according to the Denver Post. “I will say it is for personal undisclosed reasons. If anyone attacks me, I will attack back.”

Coffman’s group celebrated at the bar, and Mizel announced House’s departure on her Facebook page.

But the next day, after talking with friends and family, House resolved to keep his job — and tell the world about the clandestine confrontation at the Warwick.

In a lengthy statement blasted to the local media, House accused Tancredo, Coffman and Mizel of using “bullying tactics.” He alleged that they tried to push him out by threatening a “potential lawsuit may be filed and that false rumors that I have been unfaithful to my wife would be made public” if he did not step down.

“I will not give in to a vicious and vocal minority that seeks to bring down the Party from within,” he declared.

Well, that definitely gave Colorado something to talk about for a few days. But as Coffman and company fired off their rebuttals, and talk radio percolated with speculation about what had gone so wrong between them and their handpicked GOP chief, Julie silently seethed.

Now, who’s Julie again?

Julie Naye, a 51-year-old event planner, mother of four and political enthusiast from Colorado Springs.

A week after House denounced the Warwick Three, Naye went public in a tell-all interview with the conservative blog Politi­Chicks.com. She was the “Julie” everyone was whispering about, she said — and, yes, she claimed, she did have an affair with House.

But from that moment, the news cycle sped up ever faster. Hours later, a liberal blog called ColoradoPols.com countered her bombshell revelation by releasing the audio from a phone conversation between Naye and one of House’s friends, a private detective named John Sampson — in which Naye categorically denied ever having been alone with House at all.

Naye says now that she was lying in that phone conversation — at House’s behest. She claims that he called her as soon as he left the Warwick and asked her to deny the affair. Sampson declined to comment. House’s representative strenuously denies the story.

“He said he just wanted me to confirm his story to a trusted third party,” she said last week over a plate of cherry pie at a roadside restaurant in Colorado Springs. A tanned, willowy woman with a cascade of light-brown hair, Naye has drawn perhaps disproportionate attention from the throngs of Internet sleuths mesmerized by the scandal. Some trying to discredit Naye have circulated screen shots of a now-defunct Web site in which risqué images of Naye appear alongside text offering up “companionship” for a fee.

Naye denied any knowledge of the business and suggested her pictures — from a photo shoot celebrating her remarkable health and fitness at 50, she said — were stolen and misused in an attempt to “paint her in an unsavory light.”

“I’m proud of the photos,” she said. “I think they are really pretty. . . . [But] I never authorized any kind of Web site of any kind like that.”

Naye intended to stay quiet , she said, until House leveled his claims against Mizel and Tancredo — friends of hers whose side she has taken in the whole Warwick mess.

House “accused very good people of being underhanded and threatening to lie about something to get their way,” she said. “I thought, ‘You son of a b----, you can’t do this.’ ”

Naye has since tried to back up her claims of an affair by sharing her text messages with House. Last week, her lawyer, Randy Corporon, read these texts to The Washington Post.

(Small world: Corporon lost his side gig as a conservative talk-radio host last month after he defied his boss’s orders not to bring his old pal Tancredo on the show until the whole Warwick mess was sorted out. The former congressman was in the middle of a sentence when, poof, the suits pulled the plug on the broadcast.)

Assuming they’re legitimate, the 63 text messages are certainly flirtatious. But that’s about it. They don’t prove an affair, as even Corporon admitted. And Naye seemed to be doing most of the flirting.

Cynthia Coffman, the new state attorney general, was considered a possible candidate for governor or senator until the confrontation with House blew up into a scandal. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

By now, you’re asking yourself: What is this really about? Why was it so important to get House out of the job — just months after he was voted into it — that big-name Republicans, the same ones who helped get him the job, are stabbing one another in the back and exposing themselves to scandal and party disarray?

House, in his statement, said the whole thing was about his refusal to hire a tea party favorite named Ted Harvey as the executive director of the party. Coffman, who had nominated House for the chairmanship, would tell the CBS affiliate that the confrontation was over a “pattern of lies” and that House had “done things that exposed the party to potential liability, legal liability,” but she would not elaborate.

Coloradans were confused. The one thing everyone could understand was that Tancredo was involved.

A Colorado political story just wouldn’t be complete without the former congressman, who revels in playing the rabble-rouser and once called President Obama a greater threat to the country than al-Qaeda. In 2007, Tancredo ran a brief, shoestring campaign for president — he was one of three candidates at a California debate who raised a hand when asked who didn’t believe in evolution. In 2010, he ran for governor as nominee of the upstart Constitution Party and siphoned off so many votes from the Republican candidate that the GOP was at risk of being designated a “minor party,” like the Greens, in future state elections. He has proposed bombing Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to deter terrorists, called for a moratorium on legal immigration, and called Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor a “racist.”

Now, without an elected office, Tancredo is Colorado’s Lord of the Gadflies, spending his days on cable news talking about illegal immigration and holding meetings with fellow members of an unofficial “liberty movement.”

For weeks, these meetings were about how to deal with House. The way they saw it, not only had House reneged on a job offer to Harvey, but they say House had also been saying slanderous things about him around town.

“This has been described by the other side as a coup based on the fact that Steve didn’t hire someone that we wanted hired,” said Tancredo, a stocky, leather-faced guy with a Cheshire Cat grin, as he sipped cappuccino at a mountainside cafe while his mini goldendoodle, Sasha, dozed under the table. He claimed it’s much more “nuanced” than that. Tancredo said he’s furious at House — but honestly, he looked as if he was having a pretty good time. (“Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post likes to say I can’t walk past a pile of kindling without asking for a match,” he boasted.)

Tancredo said House had demonstrated a pattern that made him untrustworthy and that he and his allies feared the party could suffer if they didn’t nip it in the bud. Still, it wasn’t blackmail, Tancredo said — just three people asking a guy to resign. And of course they couldn’t ask him to step down without explaining why.

“No one ever said that we’d go public,” Tancredo insisted. A minute later, though, he explained that “We told him, ‘You leave and nobody’s going to say a word about this.’ ”

He added: “I will never stop going after him until he apologizes.”

Tom Tancredo, seen here at a 2013 gun rights rally in Aurora, Colo., insists that he and his allies had “nuanced” reasons for wanting House to step down. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

For weeks, this soap opera dominated the political conversation in Denver. Jack Stansbery, the former executive director of the state GOP, penned an essay for the Colorado Statesman comparing the situation to “The Godfather.”

“What kind of person would turn so quickly and callously on a supposed friend and ally?” he asked about Coffman.

“This is something that no one would think of writing as a ‘House of Cards’ episode because it is so unbelievable,” Republican committee member Joy Hoffman told the Denver Post.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had already had a tough enough time finding a top-tier candidate to run for the Senate in 2016. Before this mess, Coffman’s name had come up as a possibility. The amateur hour is particularly embarrassing for the Rocky Mountain State, one of the most competitive in any presidential election, and the cornerstone of the Republican strategy for assembling electoral votes in the West.

“Even though the role of political parties has been weakened by campaign finance reform laws, there is still a very critical role in states like Colorado for competitive races for president and U.S. senator,” former state GOP chairman Dick Wadhams said. “And if the party is not credible or cannot function because of this type of turmoil, our candidates in 2016 will be affected.”

The Republican executive committee held a closed-door session to get the facts late last month. Coffman, Tancredo and Naye waited in a hallway for hours, along with journalists, as the session dragged on inside. There was no air conditioning and people sat cross-legged on the floor.

Coffman is said to have read a five-minute statement about her concerns regarding House, which still have not been made fully public. And then the committee gave House a 22 to 1 vote of confidence. Mizel, ultimately, was the only member to vote against him. (This week, she resigned from her party post.) House’s spokesman points to the vote as vindication against Coffman and Tancredo’s claims that he was untrustworthy.

Wadhams later called it the only tolerable outcome. “If the state party chairman could be removed every three to four months by a few chronic malcontents, who would give to a party like that?”

When the meeting ended, House gave a brief interview to reporter Shaun Boyd of Denver’s CBS4. He sounded like a police officer at the scene of a crime telling the crowd to move along, nothing to see here.

“I am absolutely affirming my support for Cynthia Coffman as attorney general,” he said, glowing magnanimously.

“How can you say that after you accused her essentially of extortion just last week?” Boyd asked.

“If you really read the concept of what was written,” he said smoothly, “I never accused anybody of extortion.”

And then he chalked the whole thing up to a mere “family dispute” in a manner so suave and assured and reasonable that, for a second, at least someone in Colorado looked like a professional politician.