At forum, Republican Senate candidates diverge on 2020 election claims, Ukraine

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Deborah Flora laughs during a lighter moment among the eight declared Republican candidates to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet who gathered for a packed forum on Thursday night, Feb. 3, 2022 in the Fort Lupton Recreation Center in Weld County.

Eight candidates in the wide-open Republican primary for U.S. Senate gathered for a two-hour forum before a packed house at the Fort Lupton Recreation Center on Thursday night. 

They had plenty in common: They dunked on President Joe Biden, warned of a grave liberal threat to American life, and expressed deep appreciation for farmers, police and the American dream. But the candidates also split on topics like the legitimacy of the 2020 election and the Russian threat to Ukraine.

The winner of June’s primary election will challenge Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in November.  Here’s what the candidates said on several of the biggest questions at the forum, which was hosted by the Republican Women of Weld.

On the 2020 elections:

Moderator George Brauchler asked if the 2020 election was “stolen from President Trump,” and whether any misdeeds had happened in Colorado. (There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Colorado or any other state.)

In all, two of the eight candidates said that the election was stolen. Three did not directly answer the question. And three said they hadn’t seen evidence of a stolen election or that they believe it was run fairly.

Joe O’Dea, who runs a construction company, said he did “not believe the election was stolen. Joe Biden’s our president. He’s a lousy president.” Instead of focusing on the past election, O’Dea, like several others, urged the party to “stay to the issues.”

Eli Bremer, a former Olympic athlete, said the question “probably should be asked at every forum” and that he had seen “things that didn’t make sense.” But he said he accepted that Republicans “did not do very well in the last election.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Eight declared Republican candidates to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet gathered for a packed forum on Thursday night, Feb. 3, 2022 in the Fort Lupton Recreation Center in Weld County.

Gino Campana, a developer, former Trump adviser and Fort Collins city councilman, also accepted the election result; he said: “At the end of the day, after everything’s contested, I couldn’t find hard evidence.” 

Gregory J. Moore, a Colorado Christian University professor, said that it had been “unclear” who won the election in its immediate aftermath, but that the outcome was that “Congress ratified the election.” He added: “I don’t know if we’ll ever know what played out there” in the days after the election.

Peter Yu, a business consultant, said it was a “tough question.” He alluded to election concerns but didn’t directly answer the question, instead saying that it was a “distraction” that Democrats were using to draw attention away from the economy.

Deborah Flora, who worked in radio, also did not directly answer the question, later explaining that Republicans were being boxed in on the topic by the media. She said Biden had “vilified” people for asking reasonable questions about elections.

”We’re in the right for wanting to make sure that our elections are secure, there is complete transparency, and it stays at the state level. There can be no federal takeover of elections,” she said.

Of the two candidates who believe the election was stolen, Daniel Hendricks answered “flatout yes. Conversation over.”

State Rep. Ron Hanks said, to applause: “Trump won this” and that Colorado’s election systems were not secure. Hanks has been criticized by his local county clerk, a Republican, for not accepting an invitation to see first hand how the election system works.

On election reforms:

Brauchler asked the candidates about a bipartisan federal bill that would clarify that vice presidents cannot reject electoral votes.

Most of the candidates said they’d support the change.”Whatever we can do to increase confidence in voting, is something we have to do,” Moore said, warning that if people lose faith in elections, “the whole ship could sink.” O’Dea similarly warned of lost faith in elections.

Flora did not directly answer the question, calling instead for a bipartisan commission that could support Republican priorities like voter ID and voter-roll “cleanup” — priorities shared by most of the candidates.

Hanks did not support the vote-count legislation. Instead, he said that former vice president Mike Pence “had options” and that his legal team was not “on point” during the election certification last January. 

“If he had been on point, we wouldn’t be talking about the terror that is Kamala Harris right now,” he said, implying that Pence could have overturned the election results.

On energy development:

The candidates generally slammed Biden in this area, arguing that he could do more to ramp up oil production in response to rising oil prices.

“Biden and Bennet are frankly killing these jobs,” Campana said. “ … We’ve got leases stacked up on somebody’s desk for federal lands, but none are being signed.” 

Biden promised to end new oil-and-gas leasing on public lands, but his administration issued permits at a faster pace than under president Trump amid legal challenges in its first year.

Colorado’s crude oil production hit its record high in 2019, then fell sharply, and has since recovered slightly to roughly 2017 levels. Peter Yu said Republicans could protect oil development from further state restrictions by demonstrating that it’s safe.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gino Campana, second from left, gestures as he speaks among the eight declared Republican Senate candidates at a packed forum on Thursday night, Feb. 3, 2022 in the Fort Lupton Recreation Center in Weld County.

O’Dea also thinks states could be producing more, if the president stepped in: “Why in the hell didn’t he call Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota and ask us to go back into production?” 

Bremer claimed that renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, “are actually causing an increase in greenhouse gases.” (Oil and gas have much larger carbon footprints than renewables, though renewables often rely on rare earth elements which do have an environmental cost to produce.)

“If we unmask the fake environmentalism of the left, then we can truly expose that clean natural gas and clean energy produced right here in Weld County … is good for our environment and good for our economy, and we can stop the nonsense,” Bremer said.

Several other candidates argued for the federal government to open up more public lands for drilling. Moore called for greater rare-earth mining to support electric vehicles.

Hanks said he had worked on fracking operations himself in North Dakota, having “hammered iron with blue collar America” and wanted to see more leasing for drilling.

On agriculture:

Campana said that Colorado’s farms would benefit from reduced regulations, lamenting that Democratic leaders “don’t understand what generation after generation of farmers have done.”

Yu said the Biden administration would encroach on private property rights of farmers and ranchers with conservation plans. “We need to make sure that we understand what private property rights are in America,” he said.

Bremer said he would create an “opportunity industry” to make it more profitable to invest in agriculture.

Flora put much of her focus on water rights, saying she’d protect rural water users from urban needs and other states.

“We need a senator that will fight for water rights, agriculture and small business,” Flora said. O’Dea called for greater water storage, such as dams, to support agriculture.

Springboarding from the question about agriculture regulation, Hanks called to cut the federal government to 30 percent of its current size.

On Ukraine:

Brauchler asked about how the U.S. should respond if Russia invades Ukraine, especially as Biden sends more troops to eastern Europe.

Campana didn’t say what steps the U.S. should take. Instead, he said that “Joe Biden’s weakness, shown to the world, is just crushing our American dream,” and pledged to “hold people accountable.”

Yu said that a conflict would be impossible to ignore but that the United States has non-military options, such as sanctions and banking restrictions.

Bremer called it a “conundrum” and said that Russian president Vladimir Putin wouldn’t stop with Ukraine. He blamed Biden “for not foreseeing this,” and said the U.S. should have been selling arms to Ukraine to help them prepare. (Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.)

Moore said that the threat of U.S. air power could keep Putin out of Ukraine, but warned that Putin “would keep going” if he invaded. Flora connected the current crisis to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the U.S. “lost the respect of the world;” she promised to bring accountability for the withdrawal.

Multiple candidates referenced “peace through strength,” a favored motto of the late former president Ronald Reagan’s. O’Dea said he would support an “air” response if sanctions failed.

Hanks said that an incursion into Ukraine would likely spur China to aggressive action in the Pacific. He said that NATO already should have offered Ukraine membership and now should offer it protections. 

But he said that Russia would “not have the horsepower to go further than Ukraine.”