Colorado GOP assembly winnows down primary fields, as social issues dominate

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Supporters of Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks, a candidate for U.S. Senate, at the Colorado Republican State Assembly Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Republicans on Saturday set the stage for competitive primary elections in a statewide assembly that was dominated by talk of election security and gender politics — along with high hopes for the party’s return to power in Colorado.

The nominees include some of the party’s most prominent election deniers. Tina Peters, the Mesa County clerk who has been indicted for the alleged theft of election systems data, will take the top line among three Republican candidates to challenge Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Ron Hanks shut out all other assembly candidates and will be one of only two names on the party’s U.S. Senate primary ballot, alongside businessman Joe O’Dea, who petitioned on. They’re vying to challenge Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet. Hanks has embraced false claims that the 2020 elections were stolen and has been closely involved with Peters and a national network of election skeptics.

“I fully expected Donald Trump to win in 2020, and he did,” Hanks declared to cheers and whoops. His supporters wore yellow work vests reminiscent of the French populist movement.

Several better-funded candidates failed to reach 30 percent support from delegates — the minimum to secure a spot on the ballot. Homebuilder Gino Campana of Fort Collins pulled in  just 11.2 percent of the vote, despite raising nearly $1 million as of the most recent filings and bringing a flashy campaign presence to the assembly.

The balloting also significantly narrowed the gubernatorial primary field, leaving just former Parker mayor Greg Lopez and CU regent Heidi Ganahl. Both candidates won more than 30 percent of the assembly votes after polished speeches that portrayed them as fighters who would finally end liberal rule in the state. They will now compete for the chance to challenge Gov. Jared Polis in the general election.

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Heidi Ganahl, a Republican candidate for governor, at the Colorado Republican State Assembly Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Ganahl noted that, as an at-large regent, she is the only Republican to win statewide office in nearly eight years. “It’s lonely,” she told the crowd. Her stump speech also emphasized her perseverance after the death of her first husband and her recent surgery for benign meningioma.

“When they took out that tumor, they took out my filter, and I’m feistier than ever,” said Ganahl. She was one of the few candidates not to mention election fraud allegations in her remarks.

In his speech, Lopez touched on a wide range of GOP concerns, from getting “tough on crime” to abolishing “critical race theory and the sexualization of our kids from public schools” to increasing teacher pay.

“Colorado deserves a governor that understands we have 64 counties, not nine,” he said, referring to the Front Range. “It’s about all of us, not just some of us, and that includes the unborn.” 

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Greg Lopez, a Republican candidate for governor, at the Colorado Republican State Assembly Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Both candidates also made brief mentions of their plans to cut taxes.

Delegates anticipate a 'freedom awakening'

The assembly was held at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, where 3,772 delegates sat in rows of purple fold-up chairs and voted with small keypads to register their selections after hearing nominations and speeches. Starting with the morning invocation, attendees described the upcoming election as a fundamental conflict over the United States’ culture.

“We're here today as a grand old party to unite, build coalitions, work within our differences and turn this state red again,” said Pastor Steve Holt, whose El Paso County church fought against pandemic restrictions. 

Holt warned the hushed hall that Democrats were enacting a “great reset” with an agenda including “CRT,” the “death bill” that reaffirms the right to abortion in this state, and the “queer endeavor.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Delegates close their eyes during the invocation at the Colorado Republican State Assembly Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Conservatives, he continued, would turn Colorado “red with the blood of Jesus, through a spiritual awakening — red with the freedom awakening of disciplined principles built on the Declaration of Independence, the greatest Constitution the world has ever known, and the Bill of Rights."

In interviews, many delegates pointed to election fraud and changing norms around gender identity and sexuality as their greatest concerns.

"When they started attacking my beliefs — and not so much my religious beliefs, but my knowledge of knowing a man's a man and a woman's a woman — I said, this is wrong, put the brakes on,” said David Moran of Delta County, who supported Lopez for governor.

Many of the candidates took time in their speeches to argue transgender people should only be identified as the gender they were assigned at birth.

“Raise your hand if you know the difference between a man and a woman,” Senate candidate Eli Bremer exclaimed as he took the stage, a reference to U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Sydnnia Wulff, a Denver delegate, said Republicans had to fight back against a creeping liberal regime. 

“It's the best country in the whole goddamn world and people don't realize that. And it's the reason we had a Black president twice in a row, but it still is not enough. Nothing is enough,” said Wulff, who emigrated from Nicaragua more than 40 years ago.

Andrew Kenney/CPR News
Lisa Zimmerman, a GOP state delegate from La Plata County, said she sees her own identity reflected in the party's candidates for governor.

Lisa Zimmerman, a lumberyard worker from La Plata County, said that education is her biggest issue, in large part because she’s worried about how her son is learning about gender.

“He has to write about the different genders there are,” an assignment that included discussion of transgender people, she said. But that wasn’t necessarily what drove her votes on Saturday.

“I like Heidi (Ganahl) because she represents me as a single mom, and I like Greg (Lopez) because he represents me and my (Latino) heritage. I feel they’re both strong candidates,” said Zimmerman, who wore a pink Trump 2024 hat.

Elizabeth Lupia and her daughter, Olivia, said they believe the party is failing them by not uniting to fight harder against abortion and to secure elections. “The infighting is due a fact that we, as Christian, conservative grassroots have a high moral standard, and we are not willing to lower our standards,” Lupia said, deriding Colorado GOP chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown as “absolutely tyrannical.”

Some raise concerns for the general election

Some of the conversations in the hall — including an angry debate about the use of electronic voting instead of paper ballots — gave pause to some moderate attendees.

“Unlike many of the most vocal here, I am not far right. I am conservative,” said Jim Hargis, a delegate from Grand Junction. “I thought we were (winning) until I heard all this uproar going on.”

He added: "The popular movements tend to be less well informed, and it's a matter of education."

By the evening’s end, that worry was shared by some Republican political operatives, who think candidates like Hanks and Peters won’t have the broad appeal to win in a state that has rejected far more moderate candidates in recent years. They hope to see some of today’s victors toppled by moderates in the primary .

Meanwhile, Democrats crowed over the selections. “This chaotic primary is just a choice between which out-of-touch Trump acolyte should lose to (Sen.) Michael Bennet in November,” texted state Democratic spokesman Nico Delgado.

But for many in the building, the assembly marked the beginning of a long-awaited battle. After years in the political wilderness, some sensed opportunity.

“People are angry, and I think they are the people who are going to bring in the independents. We're not moving our house to them. We're opening it up and they're coming in,” said Jonathan Calm, balancing nachos with one hand while he walked the halls in an outfit covered with flag prints and an eagle, plus light-up shoes.

Republicans have to “get our message out — and we can’t be nice about it,” said Beth Francis, a delegate from Centennial. “We’ve got to fight like the Democrats do.”

The next stage of that fight is the June 28 primary, where Peters and Hanks will face opponents who chose to collect voter signatures instead of attending the assembly. 

Pam Anderson, a former chair of the state county clerks association and former Jefferson County clerk and recorder, petitioned into the Secretary of State race. (Political newcomer Mike O’Donnell also won enough assembly support at the assembly to join them on the ballot.)

Hanks will face Joe O’Dea, the best-funded candidate in the U.S. Senate race. O'Dea, who runs a construction company, said in February that he did not believe the election was stolen. O’Dea, who is partially self-funding his campaign, had raised more than $1 million, compared to about $28,000 for Hanks, as of the end of last year.

Editor’s note: This article was updated April 10, 2022 to correct the medical condition for which Heidi Ganahl was recently treated.