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Aaron Wood speaks during a Colorado GOP chair debate on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 at a pizza restaurant in Hudson. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

HUDSON — Of the six candidates running to be chair of the Colorado GOP, three believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, another says he’s not sure if Trump or President Joe Biden was victorious and a fifth won’t directly answer the question.

Only one of the candidates, Erik Aadland, concedes that Biden was elected president, but said he doesn’t know if it was “by hook or by crook.”

“Whether fraud (had) a role in the outcome of 2020, sadly we’ll never know, folks,” Aadland said at a debate Saturday at a pizza restaurant in Hudson moderated by The Colorado Sun and Colorado Politics.

That means that whoever is elected March 11 to lead the Colorado GOP for the next two years will either be a full-blown election denier or, at the very least, an election skeptic. Some Republicans see the prospect of voting conspiracies being at the highest echelons of the party as disastrous as the GOP looks to rebuild after three election cycles of defeat in an increasingly Democratic-leaning state.

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“Every one of these six candidates would drive the party into deeper oblivion with their conspiratorial, exclusionary and politically naïve agendas that are already repelling a rapidly changing Colorado electorate,” Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado GOP chair, wrote in a recent opinion column.

It’s possible that a candidate could announce a bid to be Colorado GOP chair on March 11, when the party’s central committee meets to pick a new leader. But with less than two weeks to go before the election, that seems highly unlikely.

The Colorado GOP chair race isn’t unique. The Associated Press reports similar state party leader contests across the nation feature election-denying candidates, many of whom ran for office in 2022 but lost. 

Biden won the 2020 presidential election and there has been no proof of fraud or malfeasance that would have overturned the results. Various lawsuits challenging the outcome have been tossed, and now people responsible for spreading conspiracies about the race are facing legal action themselves.

Still, former state Rep. Dave Williams, Tina Peters, the indicted former Mesa County clerk, and Aaron Wood, a conservative activist and Douglas County businessman, all said Saturday at the event hosted by the Republican Women of Weld that they believe Trump won in 2020. 

Wood said Republicans “need to not be afraid of people calling us” election deniers or subscribers to the “big lie.” 

“Trump won,” he said.

Peters ran for secretary of state last year and lost in the primary. Williams ran for a congressional seat but also lost in a primary. Wood is making his first real foray into politics.  

Tina Peters, the indicted former Mesa County clerk, speaks during a Colorado GOP chair debate on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 at a pizza restaurant in Hudson. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Former state Sen. Kevin Lundberg was the candidate who said he wasn’t sure who was the true 2020 winner. “I think that Biden didn’t legitimately win, but I don’t know,” Lundberg said.

Casper Stockham, who ran for state party chair in 2021 after three failed congressional bids, sidestepped the question by saying Biden is in the White House and the 2020 election is in the past. Stockham “wants transparency in the election process, and until that unequivocally is guaranteed to happen, he will question the process,” his spokeswoman said.

When Stockham ran for state party chair in 2021, he said “I don’t know that the election was stolen, but I feel it was.”

Casper Stockham before a Colorado GOP chair debate on Saturday at a pizza restaurant in Hudson. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Aadland, who ran unsuccessfully last year to represent the 7th Congressional District, said Saturday that he, too, thinks “this rehashing 2020 is not serving Republicans.” But during his 2022 congressional campaign, Aadland called the 2020 election rigged and said the government was illegitimate

The candidates are all pushing for election-process changes, too

In addition to rejecting, or at least questioning, the 2020 presidential election results, the six candidates running to lead the Colorado GOP are pushing for changes to the state’s election processes. 

All six would like to block unaffiliated voters from participating in Republican primaries by reversing Proposition 108, a voter-approved 2016 ballot measure letting unaffiliated voters, who make up 47% of the state’s electorate, weigh in on partisan primaries. 

The Colorado GOP recently began raising money for a lawsuit seeking to close the GOP and Democratic primaries. A similar legal action filed in federal court in 2022 failed

“If you want to choose the Republican nominee, you should be a Republican,” Williams said.

Former state Rep. Dave Williams speaks during a Colorado GOP chair debate on Saturday. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

He was the only one of the slate who said they think the Colorado GOP should take a vote to opt out of the primary process, which is allowed under Proposition 108. To be successful, 75% of the state party’s central committee would have to support the move. 

In 2021, the Colorado GOP’s central committee overwhelmingly voted down an effort led by Williams and others to bypass the 2022 primaries and select general election candidates only through the caucus and assembly process. 

Williams said he still thinks the GOP should opt out. 

Lundberg, Aadland and Stockham explicitly said they don’t think the Colorado GOP should take a similar vote in the future — Aadland said it would be “disastrous” to opt out —  while Wood and Peters didn’t answer the question. 

All six candidates said they also oppose Colorado’s system of mailing ballots to every active, registered voter.

  • “I don’t believe in mail-in ballots,” said Peters, who added that people should have to vote in person on Election Day.
  • “I do not support them,” Wood said of mail-in ballots.
  • “I do not support mail-in ballots,” Stockham said.
  • “In-person, same-day voting is the ideal, but that’s not what we have in Colorado,” Aadland said.
  • “Universal mail-in ballots is a terrible idea,” Lundberg said.
  • “I don’t support mail-in balloting,” Williams said. “We have it as our system and we need to work with it. If we can ever go back to same-day voting at a polling center with ID laws then we should.”

Other things to know about the candidates

The candidates on Saturday each shared their thoughts on why the GOP fared so poorly last year. 

“We lost in 2022 because we put unprincipled, weak candidates forward in top, key positions,” Wood said. “And we’re losing trust with the party. We’re losing trust with real conservative voices throughout our state.”

Aaron Wood speaks during a Colorado GOP chair debate. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Williams said Republicans lost because they “failed to provide a true contrast” with Democrats. Lundberg said he agreed with Williams and Wood and that the GOP needed to have a clear vision for what it stands for. 

Peters said Republicans lost badly in 2022 “because … of the machines,” saying the GOP’s misfortune is the fault of election irregularities, of which there is no evidence.

Aadland said Republicans had a messaging problem. “We have the best candidates and we have the right way forward,” he said. “But we’ve got to articulate our message in a way that Coloradans believe in, understand and want to get behind.”

Erik Aadland, center, mingles before a Colorado GOP chair debate on Saturday in Hudson. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Stockham said the Colorado GOP needs to boost its numbers to win in the future. Right now, registered Republicans make up 24% of active, registered voters. Democrats make up 27%. 

Here are some other key moments from the debate: 

  • Wood alleged that affordable housing projects are being used as a way to turn Republican areas blue. “You look at the affordable housing projects and the multifamily housing that’s been popping up in Douglas County — I’m sure the same is true in Jefferson County and Weld County, all across our state — it’s to pack people in,” he said. “And if you pack in people in affordable housing, guess what you’re going to get? Democrat control in your counties.”
  • Peters didn’t directly answer a question about how she would balance preparing for her upcoming felony trial on charges that she orchestrated a breach of Mesa County’s election system and the duties of serving as GOP chair. She also didn’t answer a question about whether she would step down if convicted and incarcerated. Instead, Peters read a Psalm and said she welcomed the trial because she wants to “expose these machines,” presumably meaning electronic ballot tabulators.
  • “You want to know why we don’t win? It’s because we don’t tell the truth,” Williams said. “If we got out there and we boldly articulated what we believed in, we would win.”

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Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...