First, came the allegations about vote-rigging in the March caucuses. Then, a website made bogus accusations that a conservative Republican candidate is actually a Democrat. Now, an email is the subject of a complaint to police and consumer protection authorities for using a false address.
The result: The Colorado attorney general’s office is looking into potential voter fraud and being asked to investigate witness intimidation as political adversaries level eight campaign-finance complaints against each other.
It’s all happening in Weld County, where the June 30 primary election is a Republican-on-Republican battle exposing rifts and grudges over a handful of local races. In addition to the anonymous emails and attacks, nearly $785,000 in outside spending is blanketing Weld in political advertising with about two weeks to go.
The latest drama follows a contentious caucus that showed voting records didn’t match official reported results and led the county Republican Party chairman in May to ask for an investigation into potential election fraud. Much of the infighting in the rural county is playing out on Facebook, with accusations flying in public groups, private groups and personal pages.
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In the primary, the county’s voters will choose among Republican candidates in four state legislative districts and three county commission seats. All the legislative seats are open because of term limits. And because the county is so heavily Republican, the primary contests are the equivalent of the general election.
“People come out of the woodwork and create these nasty things,” said Will Sander, the county GOP chairman. “It’s unfortunate.”
Former Colorado GOP chairman Dick Wadhams called the Weld County legislative primaries “brutal.”
“When you have one party controlling the county, that’s what happens. In many ways it’s become the newest version of El Paso County,” he said, referring to the state’s No. 1 GOP stronghold.
The candidates on either side of the attacks represent two factions that split on how they qualified for the ballot. One slate of candidates took the caucus route, winning support at Republican precinct meetings to earn a place on the ballot. Several of the others — wary of the questionable caucus voting — collected voter signatures to secure their slot in the race.
The division is apparent in the money behind the candidates, too. Four of the legislative candidates are supported by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a polarizing force in Colorado Republican circles for their no-compromise approach to Second Amendment issues.
On the other side, political committees linked to education and business groups are backing more mainstream conservatives.
Most of the nasty emails, websites and other attacks are targeting many of the candidates getting big-money backing. Three current state lawmakers, Reps. Perry Buck and Lori Saine, who are seeking county commission seats, and Sen. Vicki Marble, seeking a House seat, are not among those being attacked.
So far, there’s little indication who’s behind some of the attacks or where the money is coming from to fund them. The lack of disclosure may represent a violation of campaign finance laws.
Wayne Williams, an attorney and the former Republican secretary of state is getting involved. He filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office on behalf of two political consultants named in a malicious email as part of an attempt to find out who’s behind the attacks.
“Given that they’ve attacked more than a dozen Republicans, there’s no indication to me that this is a group that has the best interests of my party at heart,” Williams said.
Sander — the county GOP leader who himself has been the subject of attacks and demands for his resignation — noted that few policy differences split the candidates in each contest, so it leads to exaggerated attacks. “You’re kind of splitting hairs when you get to a certain point,” he said. “We’re a very Republican county and the race is the primary, and you have to make those differences into a bigger thing than they are.”
In the middle of the fray is U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, whose congressional district includes Weld County, because he also doubles as the Colorado Republican Party chairman.
Buck’s ex-wife, Perry Buck, is one of the candidates supported by RMGO. And a congressional office aide is part of the questions about voting irregularities from the March precinct caucuses. Buck, who’s under fire for pressing a county party official in a separate conflict down in El Paso County, recently had to issue a statement saying he resolved a conflict with Sander.
“I look forward to continuing to work with Will and all Weld County Republicans in moving our Party forward and ensuring that we elect strong conservative leadership in November,” Buck said in the statement.
A nasty email missive targets seven candidates and fuels the fire
Not everyone is getting the unity message.
The latest blow-up involves an incendiary email that went out on June 8 suggesting one of the candidates in each of the seven contested races is actually a Democrat. The email — first reported June 12 in The Unaffiliated, the political newsletter from The Colorado Sun — goes on to make other false or misleading allegations against each of the candidates. The mailer also calls Sander, two political consultants, a candidate’s daughter and others “politically corrupt.” It wildly suggests that one candidate “kneels during (the) national anthem.”
Williams’ complaint to the attorney general says the email appears to be an attempt to intimidate or retaliate against political consultant Tammy Klein and three others who are witnesses in the caucus election fraud case.
The street address listed for the “Anti-Communist League” on the email belongs to Broomfield political consultant Sheryl Fernandez. She’s working on the state Senate campaign of term-limited County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer, one of the candidates attacked.
One of the links in the contested email goes to a website criticizing Kirkmeyer, who faces newcomer Rupert Parchment in a Senate district that includes Broomfield, parts of Larimer County and southern Weld County. It’s unclear who created the website, and Kirkmeyer submitted a letter to the administrator asking that it be taken down. The site posted that email annotated with its refusal.
Kirkmeyer shared a Facebook post Sunday about the attacks, asking “Who is funding this attack? What is their motive? Please don’t be tricked by this fake Second Amendment group.”
Fernandez said people started calling her the afternoon of June 8 about the email. “Our name isn’t on there, it is just our address,” she said. “We have been very involved for over 10 years and (Republicans) know our address.”
Fernandez and her husband, former Broomfield GOP chairman Rick Fernandez, filed a police report, a complaint with the state attorney general’s office and complained to MailChimp, the company used to send the email.
Williams said he wants to know who sent the email; he’s certain it wasn’t the Fernadezes. He also scoffed at the name of the group.
“I’ve been involved politically for a while,” he said. “I’ve never heard of anyone called the Anti-Communist League, nor have I noticed a huge need for an Anti-Communist League in Colorado.”
Separately on June 9, campaign finance complaints were filed against Sheryl Fernandez and Marble, claiming the two coordinated to send the email, noting that Fernandez’s address is used in the email information. The complaints said the website address in the email is the same as that of a survey texted to potential voters that favors Marble. But in reality, there’s a single letter difference between the two website addresses.
Fernandez also does campaign work for Marble, whose opponent, Michael Lynch, is among the candidates lambasted in the email.
The complaints against Fernandez and Marble are among the six related to Weld County that Denver resident Donna Windholz has filed with the state. She also filed complaints against Parchment’s campaign and related complaints against Lesley Hollywood, a Johnstown activist whose legal name is Lesley Taylor, for improperly identifying Hollywood in a campaign donation.
The Secretary of State’s Office dismissed three of Windholz’s complaints, and has given Parchment time to correct his reports. The campaign finance complaint system has long been used by political rivals to target each other.
In fact, House District 48 GOP candidate Grady Nouis filed the other two Weld County-related complaints alleging inaccurate campaign finance filings by his opponent Tonya Van Beber’s campaign. Her campaign was given time to correct the issues and has amended several reports, though his complaints have yet to be dismissed.
Are Republicans really Democrats in disguise?
While the mystery email labels seven candidates as “Democrats,” one website called Van Beber a “Democrat in Republican clothing.” Another conservative site noted that Coloradans for Constitutional Values, which has spent more than $226,000 in two Weld County contests, is primarily funded by a frequent Democratic donor.
Van Beber switched her voter registration from unaffiliated to Republican in January 2019, records show. An education consultant and elected member of the Weld County Council, Van Beber is supported by Ready Colorado Action Fund, the super PAC funded by the nonprofit Ready Colorado. That group lobbies for conservative education reform including charter schools and greater school choice.
She is also supported by Coloradans for Constitutional Values. The group gets much of its money from the Unite Colorado Election Fund, which is funded by the federal super PAC Unite America. And Unite America gets much of its money from Kathryn Murdoch, daughter-in-law of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who serves as vice president of the group.
As the accusations fly, Williams, who is now a Colorado Springs city council member, offered advice for Weld County voters.
“People want to talk about records and who’s the best candidate. Those are legitimate issues,” he said. “I think people want to make decisions based on merits, and not on spurious anonymous claims.”