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County clerks spoke out against election disinformation at a news conference on Sunday, April 3, 2022. (Sandra Fish, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Republicans’ hopes for winning in November could hinge on a clash this week between those in the party still focused on baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and those who want to focus on the future.

The GOP’s state assembly, where Republican primary candidates will be selected by party insiders, is set for Saturday. But in the days leading up to the marquee gathering there is a parade of high-profile events showcasing the Colorado conservatives who are focused on the past. 

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, an ally of former President Donald Trump who has helped fund the work of various 2020 election deniers, will headline an “Election Truth Rally” at noon Tuesday at the state Capitol. Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who was indicted by a grand jury in March for a breach of her county’s election system and is running to be Colorado’s top election official, is also set to attend the event. Also featured: state Rep. Ron Hanks, a Fremont County Republican who is running for U.S. Senate and attended the rally for Trump in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Also on Tuesday, Hanks and other Republicans will be in federal court in Denver trying to persuade a judge to stop unaffiliated voters, who make up the state’s largest voting bloc, from participating in the June 28 primary. The state Republican party isn’t taking sides on the case, which is rooted in the unfounded belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Meanwhile, the legislature is considering an election security measure from Democrats and county clerks that’s inspired by Peters’ actions and aimed at addressing insider threats to voting systems. Most Republicans at the Capitol are fighting the bill.

The rally, lawsuit and legislative debate all come days before Republicans gather Saturday in Colorado Springs for the GOP’s state assembly to select candidates for the primary. The party is torn between those running for office who are still focused on baseless claims the 2020 election was stolen, like Hanks and Peters, and those who fear that not moving on will spell defeat for Republicans in November.

Which candidates are selected to advance to the primary ballot could say a lot about where the GOP’s Colorado base stands.

El Paso County Clerk Chuck Broerman, a Republican, said that the false election conspiracy allegations are hurting his party and may curtail turnout in November.

“It’s been devastating and I think it’s going to continue to be devastating,” he said. “I think the effect will be exactly the opposite of what they intend. I think people will not turn out and vote.”

Moderate Republican Priola says he saw it coming

Republican Sen. Kevin Priola, of Henderson, is also among those who’ve grown weary of those in his party who remain focused on election conspiracies. 

“I’ve honestly been horrified by the accusations of a stolen election,” Priola said. “It’s intended to destabilize our systems.”

Priola, who knocked on 10,000 doors in his narrowly successful 2020 reelection campaign, said he knew by July 2020 that Trump would lose based on his conversations with voters. That’s among the reasons he doesn’t believe claims that the last presidential election was stolen. 

“In 2016, Trump was kind of like this new toy, like this kind of interesting side show that people were intrigued by,” Priola said. “In 2020, he was kind of like the drunk uncle nobody wanted to talk about.”

Democrat Joe Biden won 55% of the vote in Colorado in 2020 to 42% for Trump. 

Priola is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 153, a measure being considered by the Colorado legislature this year aimed at improving election security through better training for local election officials and by increasing penalties for tampering with voting equipment. The hope is that the measure will prevent actions like Peters’, who is accused of allowing an unauthorized person to access voting equipment. 

But other GOP state lawmakers fear the measure hands too much power to Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. One of Priola’s fellow Republicans commented during Senate debate on the legislation that it might as well be called either the “Tina Peters Bill” or the “Jena Griswold Bill.”

When the bill was passed by the Senate, Priola was the only Republican who voted in favor of it.

Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown is sending emails to supporters urging them to oppose the bill. 

“This bill is a blatant power grab by Democrat partisan hack Jena Griswold and the Democrats in Denver,” Burton Brown wrote. “Jena is making another bold attempt to weaponize her office and centralize control over elections at the state level, taking power away from local officials who are elected by YOU, the people.”

It seems Colorado Republicans are heeding Burton Brown’s call to speak out on the legislation.

“There has been a lot of email from constituents, from voters who opposed it,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, who led the charge against the bill. 

Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and another co-sponsor of the legislation, said he has received a range of emails and petitions against Senate Bill 153. One came from Ken DeGraaf, the only Republican candidate in state House District 22, a safe GOP district in Colorado Springs. 

“You will have ushered in the despotic tyranny dreamed of by Marx,” by voting for the bill, DeGraaf wrote. “Contrary to popular opinion, communism works 100% of the time because the aim is misery.”

A Tuesday rally and court hearing

The rancor against Senate Bill 153 has gotten so intense that it appears to have inspired Lindell, Hanks, Peters and others to hold the rally on Tuesday. The MyPillow CEO is also scheduled to appear at a fundraiser for Peters’ campaign Tuesday evening in Parker, with tickets priced between $625 and $1,250.

When The Sun asked Holbert if he planned to attend the rally, he demurred. “I probably will be attending to my work here,” he said in an interview on the Senate floor.

The Colorado County Clerks Association, a bipartisan organization that supports Senate Bill 153, held a news conference Sunday to counter Tuesday’s rally. The elected clerks challenged the election deniers to provide proof of their election fraud allegations to district attorneys and the attorney general.

“It seems at least one goal of these efforts in undermining our system is to create a new election model where these people believe their preferred candidates would be more successful,” said Weld County Clerk and Recorder Carly Koppes, a Republican. “This idea centers on reducing the election and voting to one day, drastically limiting access to absentee ballots and hand-counting ballots.”

Meanwhile, before Tuesday’s rally a federal judge will hear arguments on whether to overturn a voter-approved state law that allows unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries. Last fall, Hanks and other Republicans tried to convince the party to opt out of the primary election, but  failed.

Attorneys for the state will ask the court to dismiss the entire suit during the hearing.

The plaintiffs in the case are represented by John Eastman, a controversial lawyer who advised Trump on trying to overturn the 2020 election, as well as Republican National Committee member and conservative talk radio host Randy Corporon.

Eastman made news last month when a judge ordered him to turn over emails to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. That judge’s ruling also said Trump likely committed crimes in his efforts to overturn the election. Eastman’s memos and emails were written when he was a visiting professor of conservative thought and policy at University of Colorado. 

CU sharply curtailed his duties there after his appearance at the rally before the Capitol riot.

The Republican Party isn’t taking a position on the lawsuit, but plenty of big names are intervening to oppose it. They include Republican former Gov. Bill Owens and Democratic former Govs. Bill Ritter and Roy Romer. Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, both Republicans, also oppose the lawsuit. A number of civic organizations, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Ready Colorado, are fighting the legal action, too.

Kent Thiry, a wealthy businessman and unaffiliated voter who funded the 2016 ballot initiative opening primaries to unaffiliated voters, noted that those voters make up 44% of the electorate in Colorado. 

“The primary is the general (election) in that there are a lot of safe Democratic seats,” he said. “There are a lot of safe Republican seats. And so therefore broad participation, proportional representation, is absolutely essential to have a healthy democracy.”

Thiry is also in federal court this week, on trial for charges that he violated antitrust laws while CEO of DaVita Inc., the kidney dialysis company. 

Republican former Secretary of State Scott Gessler is among the witnesses expected to be called by Eastman and Corporon on Tuesday. Gessler is also representing Peters in an ethics case against her, and in a lawsuit against the Mesa County commissioners and Griswold. 

April 9 state assembly and June 28 primary may decide GOP fate

Tuesday’s events are all happening days before Republicans gather Saturday to select statewide candidates for the primary ballot. Already, there are signs that election deniers are influencing GOP decision-making.

Hanks is among the more well-known candidates running for U.S. Senate. Danielle Neuschwanger, a political newcomer running for governor, has said there was fraud in Colorado elections in both 2020 and 2021. Then there is Peters, who’s drawn plenty of enthusiasm at county assemblies. If nominated, Peters will face a primary opponent who is one of the few Republicans who consistently speaks out against election disinformation. Pam Anderson, former Jefferson County clerk and recorder, made the ballot by collecting petition signatures.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs is headlining the party’s annual dinner Friday evening, which the media isn’t allowed to cover. The Republican from Arizona chairs the House Freedom Caucus and voted against certifying 2020 presidential election results from his state and others.

While some candidates make their 2020 election denial the center of their candidacy, others are walking a fine line, trying to avoid addressing the issue so as not to lose the Republican base they need at assemblies or in the primary.

Asked who he believed won the 2020 presidential contest, Holbert replied, “President Joe Biden is in the White House.” 

Priola and other Republicans hold out hope that voters in the June primary will quash the election denial. It’s unlikely that Colorado’s unaffiliated voters will be drawn to vote for election deniers in the Nov. 8 general election.

“Their bark is bigger in their bite,” Priola said of the election deniers. “They try to portray that they’re this large group, but they’re not. They’re not as big as they appear to be.”

Thiry is not so sure.

“It is a scary time, and whenever the far left or the far right gets a disproportionate voice, then things get tense,” he said. “This is one of those times.”

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @fishnette