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Supporters of President Trump gathered on all four corners at University Boulevard and Highlands Ranch Parkway on Election Night, Nov. 3, 2020, waving flags and playing music. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kristi Burton Brown, chairwoman of the Colorado GOP, appeared at a gathering of Republicans in Jefferson County this summer where she talked about how the party can attract unaffiliated voters and finally win again in 2022.

Candidates need to look forward and talk about keeping taxes low and school choice, she said. “We have to become the party of ideas.”

But when Burton Brown opened the hotel-conference-room gathering up for questions, the crowd didn’t want to discuss her talking points. They jerked the focus back to the past.

“The biggest issue for me is voter cheating and this whole national election, as we all know, was a set up,” a man said. 

“Has there been any talk of a forensic audit anywhere in this state?” a woman asked next. 

“If the Arizona audit shows the Dominion (Voting System) machines to be unreliable — and we use those machines — what’s our game plan?” another man wanted to know, referencing a Republican-led recount in the Phoenix area.

As Colorado Republicans look to 2022 with hopes of bouncing back from two election cycles of defeat, their game plan for how to move forward is clashing with an attachment among the party’s base to unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. It’s not clear if the two pursuits can successfully coexist. 

“The election-fraud claim does pose a special challenge, because the base is especially riled up about it and swing voters are especially turned off by it,” said Daniel Cole, who leads the Republican campaign operations for state House and Senate Republicans.

The same debate is playing out in other states, including Arizona, where a Republican audit of 2020 ballots in Maricopa County is dragging on. Trump, who continues to question his loss last year, fell short in the state by more than 10,000 votes. A previous recount of Maricopa County’s ballots found no problems.

A push from some in the Colorado GOP to cancel the 2022 primaries to cut unaffiliated voters out of the process and allow party insiders to select the GOP nominees is an extension of the baseless voter fraud anxiety. Unaffiliated voters have been able to vote in partisan primaries in Colorado since the 2016 passage of Proposition 108.

For instance, state Rep. Ron Hanks, a Fremont County Republican who has been one of the loudest voices in Colorado when it comes to questioning the 2020 presidential election results, said opting out of the state-run primary is a step toward election integrity.

Fremont County Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks (Handout)

Randy Corporon, a Republican national committeeman and conservative talk radio host, has been advocating on his KNUS show for the primaries to be canceled for the same reason.

“The Republican Party can take … power away from Jena Griswold and the state by reclaiming their own primary,” he told listeners recently, referring to the Democratic secretary of state, who is Colorado’s top election official.

Priscilla Rahn, vice chair of the Colorado GOP, recently said she supports canceling the 2022 primary, calling into question Griswold’s ability to fairly oversee the contest.

“Ask yourself this: “Do you trust her to administer an honest election and not interfere against Republicans?” Rahn wrote in an Aug. 21 letter.

But Dick Wadhams, a former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, sees major peril for his party if it continues to beat the drum on election fraud and opts out of next year’s primaries. “There is no way a Republican can win in 2022 for statewide office and, frankly, in a bunch of competitive districts around the state,” he said of the scenario. 

Unaffiliated voters made up 43% of registered voters in Colorado at the end of July, compared to Republicans at 26% and Democrats at 29%. 

“They keep talking about how these unaffiliated voters are going to defile our process because they are going to be nominating a bunch of moderates and liberals,” Wadhams said. “I read that kind of stuff, I listen to it, and I’m thinking: ‘Any Republican candidate for statewide office who doesn’t think about the unaffiliated voters during their primary isn’t serious.’”

Wadhams said it would be disastrous for Republicans if questioning the 2020 presidential election results becomes a litmus test for primary candidates. 

Burton Brown, who hasn’t taken a public stance on the question of whether to cancel next year’s GOP primaries, appears to agree, urging Republicans to move on from last year.

“The more we talk about the past, the more we talk about what happened instead of what we are going to do in 2022, the more our candidates are put at a disadvantage,” she said at the Jefferson County Republican event, “because we are focusing on something we cannot control.”

Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown speaks during a “Commitment to Colorado” press conference at a Sinclair gas station on Monday, August 9, 2021, in Denver. Colorado GOP members addressed goals of the coming legislative session on tax reversals, public safety changes, and modifying public educational choices. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Still, she said, questions about election integrity are posed “all around the state.” 

The Colorado GOP is encouraging people who are concerned about the state’s voting processes to “get involved” and “get your eyes in the room” by becoming poll watchers and election judges. But she said there has been no proof of mass fraud in Colorado and that the only sure way for Republicans to lose in 2022 is for the party’s voters not to show up on Election Day because they think their vote won’t count.

Election security was not explicitly on the list when Burton Brown and other top Republicans earlier this month rolled out a 10-point “Commitment to Colorado” aimed at attracting unaffiliated voters and serving as the party’s 2022 platform.

Colorado Republicans “Commitment to Colorado.” (Handouts)

State Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, thinks the GOP shouldn’t shy away from election integrity issues and that it needs to push for policy reforms. 

“It does no one any good to stay out of the fight or not engage,” said Williams, who favors canceling the 2022 primaries. “We need to be able to secure our elections but also prepare for 2022 with the fundamentals — find and recruit candidates, set them up. We can’t ignore one or the other.”

He thinks both can be addressed simultaneously — and he also thinks that unaffiliated voters care about election integrity. 

Even if there are Republicans who want to move on, 2020 continues to dominate the spotlight. 

Most recently, that’s because of Tina Peters, the GOP clerk and recorder in Mesa County who is under criminal investigation after election system passwords and a copy of a voting equipment hard drive were allegedly taken from her office and then leaked online.

Peters’ case has generated headlines in Colorado for weeks. She has cast doubt on the 2020 presidential election results, allying herself with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a Trump supporter who has peddled conspiracy theories about last year’s contest.

Seth Masket, who leads the Center for American Politics at the University of Denver, suspects that election integrity questions will persist.

“If you make that (stolen election) argument, it’s pretty hard to pivot away from,” he said. “It’s kind of a difficult place that Republicans have painted themselves into.”

Ryan Winger, a pollster with Louisville-based Magellan Strategies, thinks the divided focus among Republicans is “symptomatic of a larger problem.” 

“Many in the GOP fail to understand unaffiliated voters and consequently fail to grasp why they lose elections,” he said. “Sure, making election integrity a major focus will likely scare off unaffiliated voters who didn’t vote for Trump and who the GOP needs to win over, but in a world where there is no dispute about the 2020 result, unaffiliated voters still aren’t flocking to Republican candidates.”

Steve Barlock, Donald Trump’s Denver campaign chief, speaks to attendees of a pro-Trump rally at the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Others, like state Rep. Colin Larson, a Ken Caryl Republican who is eyeing a 2022 congressional bid, doesn’t see election integrity as being the main focus of GOP voters. He’s bullish on his party’s chances next year.

“It’s not something I’m inundated with,” he said about election security questions. “The vast majority of people in my district are talking to me about school issues right now. And then after that it’s crime.”

Cole, the strategist leading election efforts for Colorado’s legislative Republicans, thinks that even if there is an election integrity focus among the GOP base “it poses a … familiar challenge.”

“How to appeal first to the base in the primary election and then to swing voters in the general election?” he said. “This is an issue every cycle on both sides of the aisle. And there are always voices who think Republicans can’t hold the base and the middle together. In 2016, Jeb Bush said: ‘You have to lose the primary to win the general.’ But it turned out he was wrong.”

The Colorado GOP’s central committee will decide whether to cancel the party’s 2022 primaries on Sept. 18.

Colorado Sun staff writer Daniel Ducassi contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....