As Colorado’s Republican Party struggles to find its footing after major losses in the last two election cycles, the volatile election for party chair in one of its traditional strongholds shows how deep the divides have become.
Controversy erupted over a tentative agenda for Saturday’s El Paso County GOP meeting, which listed the United American Defense Force as providing security. UADF describes itself internally as an “unorganized constitutional militia” and its parent organization backs the county’s embattled current chair, Vickie Tonkins, who will be up for reelection at the meeting.
UADF’s leader, John ‘Tig’ Tiegen told Colorado Politics his organization had no involvement in the Saturday meeting and was unaware it had been proposed for security until a news story in the Colorado Springs Independent Monday night.
Earlier in the week, CPR spoke with a number of El Paso County Republicans who said they were concerned the Tonkins would try to use the militia for security; they feared it could escalate tensions and intimidate attendees, especially those who don’t plan to vote for Tonkins.
“I’m hoping for a fair safe meeting on Saturday. That’s my hope,” said former Republican state Rep. Lois Landgraf.
The meeting is significant not just because party leaders will select the county chair, but also because they’re voting on candidates to the state GOP central committee, which will pick the next chair of the Colorado Republican Party in March.
Landgraf is running for one of those committee spots.
“I’m just kind of resigned,” she said of Saturday’s meeting. “I think it’s not going to be properly held. I don’t think it’s going to be fairly done. I think it’s going to be bad.”
Tonkins, the current El Paso GOP chair, is running for reelection with the backing of the right wing of the party, including FEC United — the initials stand for Faith, Education, Commerce — an organization that bills itself as a movement to “restore and secure the blessings of liberty guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution.” It was originally formed by a conservative businessman and podcaster to push back against COVID-19 restrictions and has since become active in Republican politics. Tonkins’ opponent is former El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton.
Tonkins has been in conflict with some of the county’s highest-profile Republican elected officials since last spring when she suggested on Facebook that COVID-19 may be a hoax. The post prompted 17 officials to sign on to a letter urging Tonkins to consider stepping down. Tonkins later replied that she was only trying to start a discussion.
CPR reached out to Tonkins for an interview. She said she has much to do and would respond to questions via email when she could, but so far has not answered CPR’s questions about the structure of Saturday’s meeting, its security arrangements or the most recent allegations against her.
Disagreements between Tonkins and her supporters and many of the county’s rank-and-file Republicans and elected officials have not subsided. The county party’s executive committee stripped Tonkins of many of her powers in August, including the ability to make most budget decisions and to communicate on behalf of the organization. Recently, the majority of elected officials and executive committee members sent out an email urging people to vote against her; it alleged she has mismanaged campaigns as well as the party’s finances and social media accounts, banned officials from meetings, and hired an off-duty police officer “and then used him to threaten executive committee members.”
Yet Tonkins still appears to have a firm grip on how Saturday’s meeting will unfold.
Tonkins sent an email last Friday afternoon, giving people less than 24 hours to sign up to participate remotely. Two recipients said they didn’t receive the email in time for the deadline and will have to forego participating at all because they’re concerned about the health risk of attending in person.
“Arbitrary pre-registration deadlines have disenfranchised so many voters,” said Tonkins’ opponent, Littleton. She said she wants to unify the party and fight for transparency and the Constitution.
“I hope everyone within this race is going to be an adult and act with respect and run this election fairly,” said Littleton. “I have nothing against FEC but they shouldn’t be involved in our local organizational meeting.”
Race an issue in leadership controversy
Tonkins is Black and some of her defenders argue the moves to oust her from leadership are driven by racism, something her opponents vehemently deny.
“I can find no other reason to do what you have done to Vickie,” FEC United’s founder Joe Oltmann wrote to El Paso GOP officials in an email obtained by CPR. Oltmann has been at the center of unsubstantiated voter fraud claims and is being sued by an employee of Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems, Eric Coomer, for defamation over allegations of widespread voter fraud.
As a Douglas County resident, Oltmann can’t vote in the county chair race, but his group has sent flyers and Facebook messages in support of Tonkins and tried to recruit people who would be eligible to vote for her. “At the meeting, we have the opportunity to vote out the corrupt RINOs, install anti-corruption/pro-Constitution leadership, and retain Vickie Tonkins,” read one post.
El Paso County GOP Vice-Chair Wendy Miller responded to Oltmann’s email accusing the party of racism by questioning his involvement in internal GOP discussions in a county in which he doesn’t live. Miller, who is Asian American, said she has not experienced racism within the El Paso County party.
“The left use the RACISM card when people disagree with what is going on,” she wrote. “You sir should re-evaluate where you are standing when talking about Racism. You have no evidence, no recording, no email, NOTHING to show there is Racism.”
Miller confirmed the authenticity of the email exchange.
Republicans say the divisive internal party disagreements do not help the GOP’s ability to chart a new path and rebuild after the recent tough elections that saw the party lose significant ground in Colorado.
“Colorado Republicans are common-sense conservatives and freedom-loving individuals,” said former El Paso County GOP chairman Eli Bremer, who also opposes Tonkins. “We are now seeing fringe groups trying to take over the Republican Party organizations in Colorado to push radical agendas that the vast majority of actual Colorado Republicans are not aligned with.”
The fight may also be a prelude to the likely heated contest for who will head the state party for the next two years. Congressman Ken Buck, the current chair, is not seeking the office again. So far three candidates have declared their interest in the job: current state party vice-chair Kristie Burton Brown, former Secretary of State Scott Gessler and consultant Jonathan Lockwood.
“I have no idea what is going to happen at (Saturday’s) meeting,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Lundeen, who plans to attend in person. “I’m an optimist. I’m an encourager, and I hope we all find our better angels.”
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected; an earlier version erroneously stated that Littleton intends to run for Senate in 2022.