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Politics and Government

Colorado’s June 28 primary will test just how much Republicans embrace 2020 election conspiracies

In virtually every major Republican primary race in Colorado this year voters will have a choice between a candidate or candidates who baselessly believe the outcome of the last presidential election was fraudulent and those who don’t

U.S. Senate candidate Ron Hanks, a Republican, speaks during the GOP Assembly at the World Arena on Saturday, April 9, 2022, in Colorado Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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Eli Bremer thinks that his refusal to embrace unfounded claims that former President Donald Trump really won the 2020 election cost him a spot on the Republican U.S. Senate primary ballot this year.

“Absolutely,” said Bremer, a former Olympic athlete who in April fell well short of the support he needed from Colorado GOP state assembly delegates to advance to the June 28 contest.

But he doesn’t think the assembly electorate, made up of about 3,500 party insiders, is reflective of the broader Republican primary electorate. “I think that the election-was-stolen group is a very small, but very agitated group right now,” he said. “I don’t see a broad movement.”

In a month we’ll find out whether he is right.

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In virtually every major Republican primary race in Colorado this year, from the U.S. Senate contest to the battle over who will be the GOP nominee in the highly competitive new 8th Congressional District, voters will have a choice between a candidate or candidates who baselessly believe the outcome of the last presidential election was fraudulent and those who don’t. 

The dichotomy is clearest in the Republican primary for Colorado secretary of state, where the winner will have a chance to be the state’s top elections official. On the ballot are Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, a nationally known 2020 election denier under indictment in a breach of her county’s voting system that she’s accused of orchestrating as part of her efforts to uncover fraud, and former Jefferson County Clerk Pam Anderson, who rejects 2020 election fraud claims.

Scroll down on this graphic to see more candidate positions. (Sandra Fish, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The outcome of the races could answer two questions: How beholden is the Colorado GOP to Trump and just how many Republican voters believe Trump’s false claims about his 2020 loss?

Similar dynamics are playing out in other states.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday fended off a primary challenge from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, whose platform centers on the baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump, who endorsed Perdue. In Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who has spread stolen election claims and was also endorsed by Trump, won the primary.

Peters’ candidacy is thrusting a national spotlight on the issue in Colorado, where election denialism has already shaped several races. Candidates who embraced conspiracies about the 2020 presidential contest were advanced to the primary by delegates at the GOP state assembly in April. Those who took a more tepid approach to the issue, or who rejected the unfounded claims, didn’t win the most support or didn’t make the ballot.

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George Brauchler asks every 2022 Republican candidate who comes on his conservative talk radio show a version of the same question: Was the 2020 election stolen from former President Donald Trump, or did President Joe Biden win it fair and square?

“Every. Candidate. I just ask them that because I think it’s going to be an issue,” said Brauchler, a Republican who used to be a district attorney in the south Denver suburbs.

Some candidates say yes, the election was stolen. Others emphatically say it wasn’t. 

Then there are candidates who offer careful nonanswers indicative of the political sensitivity of the question. “It’s like pulling teeth,” Brauchler said of trying to get a clear response. 

What does polling tell us?

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Polls conducted in recent months strongly indicate that a large portion of the Republican electorate doubts the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

A national YouGov poll conducted in mid-December on behalf of the University of Massachusetts Amherst revealed that 46% of Republicans thought Biden’s 2020 victory was “definitely not legitimate” while another 25% said they thought it was “probably not legitimate.” A national Politico-Morning Consult poll conducted in February found that Republicans were roughly evenly split on whether to move on from Trump’s claims of election fraud.

In Colorado, the latest public polling data on sentiments around the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 win is outdated, but it still provides ample context about the issue’s relevance among Republican voters.

A voter casts his ballot at Mesa County Central Services on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, in Grand Junction. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

A poll of 800 Colorado registered voters conducted Oct.19-24 by Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, in partnership with ProgressNow Colorado, a liberal political advocacy nonprofit, asked participants if they agree or disagree that Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election.

Sixty-seven percent said they agree while 29% said they disagree. Four percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer. 

Among Republicans, just 38% said they agreed that Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election, while 57% said they disagreed. Among unaffiliated voters, who make up 45% of Colorado’s electorate, 69% said Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, while 27% said they disagreed.

But the question remains whether Republican primary voters, which will include unaffiliated voters, feel strongly enough about the issue to use it as a litmus test for candidates. Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster, said election integrity doesn’t appear to be a top issue for voters right now.

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“When we ask people what are the biggest problems facing Colorado, they are way more focused on cost of housing, cost of living,” she said.

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That was reflected in conversations The Colorado Sun had Saturday with Republican voters at a GOP candidate event in Adams County. While several said they had questions about the results of the 2020 presidential election, none said it was their top issue.

“I think if any Republican candidate or constituent says it’s not an issue for them, it’s not true,” said Sierra Oklesson, 24, who lives in Highlands Ranch. “I think it’s in the back of everyone’s minds.”

Asked if she thinks the 2020 election was stolen she replied: “I’m going to say I’m skeptical.”

But Oklesson said that while election integrity is important to her, it’s not a deciding factor on who she will vote for in the primary. Her boyfriend, 25-year-old Jack Matthews, expressed the same sentiment. He said he won’t be voting for state Rep. Ron Hanks, who fiercely rejects the 2020 election results, in the Republican U.S. Senate primary because he is “too strict on abortion.”

Republican candidates for Colorado secretary of state: Tina Peters, left, and Mike O’Donnell debate at the Republican Rumble on Saturday, May 21, 2022. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hunter Rivera, a 20-year-old Republican voter from Windsor, said he doesn’t think the 2020 election was stolen. He said he’s backing Anderson, who rejects claims the presidency was stolen from Trump, in the Republican secretary of state primary. 

“I think Colorado, in general, has the most secure elections in the nation,” he said.

How it’s playing out on the campaign trail

Earlier this month, at a forum for the three Republican candidates for Colorado secretary of state, Peters claimed there has been so much tampering with Colorado’s election systems that criminal charges should be filed.

“I want to see people going to jail,” she said. 

Anderson fired back that the reality is Peters is the one who has broken the law.

“Tell me, as secretary, what would you do if you had a clerk and recorder … that violated voting system security protocols by giving away their passwords to a special interest group, that stole the identity of a constituent and gave their credentials to an unauthorized person and blew up their constituents’ lives?” Anderson asked, referencing civil and criminal accusations that have been made against Peters.

Pam Anderson, who is competing for the nomination from the Republican Party to run for the job of Colorado’s secretary of state, is shown in her office Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in southeast Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Jason Dunn, Colorado’s Trump-appointed former U.S. attorney, said any candidate who wants his endorsement must believe that the 2020 election was legitimate. “That’s the first question I ask,” he said. “If they can’t say that Joe Biden is the president of the United States then I’m not interested.”

The was-the-election-stolen question is also asked at virtually every candidate forum and debate. And the answer is usually a big applause line for those who say yes.

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“Trump won this,” Hanks said to big cheers at a Republican U.S. Senate candidate forum earlier this year. Hanks was at the rally preceding the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The candidate who answered the question right before Hanks was Joe O’Dea, a construction company owner who now faces Hanks in the primary. O’Dea’s response didn’t get nearly as much reaction. 

“I don’t believe the election was stolen,” he said. “If we stay to the issues, we’re gonna have a Republican in the U.S. Senate this next November.”

In the highly competitive 8th Congressional District, three of the four Republican primary candidates — state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann and former Army Special Forces soldier Tyler Allcorn  — say the outcome of the 2020 presidential election was legitimate. The fourth candidate, Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, who as a state lawmaker convened an election security audit hearing last year, danced around an answer.

“A lot of voters in my district and in the country have questions and concerns about election integrity,” she said in a written statement, declining to discuss the issue further.

Kirkmeyer said there are voters who hold her position on the issue against her and that election integrity questions are “certainly not making it easier” to campaign. But she sticks to a matter-of-fact approach and tries to explain how elections work in Colorado.

“It’s not that I’m not open to hearing how we build trust in our election system,” she said. “I just don’t think the election was stolen — especially not in Colorado.”

State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer speaks at forum for Republican candidates for the 8th Congressional District on March 3, 2022. The forum in Fort Lupton was hosted by Republican Women of Weld. (Thy Vo, The Colorado Sun)

Some candidates have not directly answered the question of whether the 2020 election was stolen, including Heidi Ganahl, a University of Colorado regent running for governor. She faces former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez in the primary. Lopez has claimed that Trump won in 2020 and he has promised to pardon Peters if he is elected and she is convicted.

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At a candidate forum with Lopez in Lakewood, Ganahl was asked whether the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump. 

“Joe Biden is our president,” she said before delving instead into how people need to feel confident in the election system.

When she finished her response, two people in the audience called out “answer the question!” and “you didn’t answer the question!”

“I did,” Ganahl said. “I did.”

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.