First term state Rep. Ron Hanks got the idea to seek higher office on the long road between Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Cañon City, Colorado.
He was on his way back from an event hosted by Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow who has become one of the nation’s leading proponents of false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
“Driving home from the cyber symposium, I asked aloud what more could I do in service to this cause? And the answer came: run for U.S Senate,” said Hanks.
Since that 2021 epiphany, Hanks has made attacking the credibility of the election system central to his time at the state capitol and his campaign — his first campaign video featured him shooting a piece of office equipment labeled ‘Dominion Voting Machine’. It’s a stance that has won him passionate support from the party’s conservative base, but has others questioning his viability, should he become the Republican nominee to take on Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
Hanks lives in Fremont County, where he settled after retiring from 32 years with the U.S Air Force, “enlisted and commissioned, active and reserves,” as he puts it. According to his biography on the Colorado House Republicans’ website, Hanks served in Desert Storm and the Global War on Terror, working as a linguist and intelligence officer.
He also talks about his past work in the oil and gas industry in North Dakota, an experience he touts as giving him insight into the energy industry.
“What we need to do is get the federal government out of the way and start signing permits and opening up the oil leases, once the drilling companies and the fracking companies fully understand that the government's not going to get in the way,” he said.
Hanks ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California twelve years ago. But his turn toward Colorado politics started more recently; he said he felt like Americans weren’t getting the full story of what was happening along the Mexican border, so in 2018 he traveled to El Paso to see for himself.
“I went down there… and drove every point-of-entry road and along the border until I got to Yuma, Arizona, talking with Border Patrol,” he told CPR. Hanks returned to the border in 2021. “I can see they've been demoralized and we have taken away their mission, and we need to repower the Border Patrol.”
In 2020, Hanks ran for and won a safe Republican seat in the Colorado House. He made headlines even before being sworn in, when it came out that he had attended the January 6th Stop The Steal Rally in Washington, DC,, although he has said he did not enter the Capitol. His his first year in the legislature was further marked with controversy after he made racially insensitive remarks during a floor debate over how to strengthen civics education.
Hanks has at times claimed the capitol rioters were actually infiltrators from the left (there is no evidence of this) although he has also said it was not a good idea for anyone to enter the Capitol that day.
“And so frankly for the police to have allowed anybody to enter was the first flaw that I could see,” he said. (Numerous police officers were injured trying to keep rioters out of the building).
Hanks said he thinks some rioters are being held without due process, but added that those who damaged the Capitol should be prosecuted.
‘My mission as a state representative’
Hanks got top line on the GOP ballot when he defeated five other candidates at the state assembly in April. During his floor speech, he highlighted his strong support for former President Donald Trump and his discredited claims about fraud in the 2020 election, saying everything changed for him the day after that election.
“Just like the changes we felt after 9/11, my mission as a state representative shifted to election integrity. I have been fighting for it ever since,” he told delegates.
During this year’s legislative session, Hanks introduced bills to reshape the election system to limit voting to just in-person and only on Election Day, and limit the use of electronic voting machines. Another of his bills would have required ballots to be printed on specialized paper with features he said would prevent fraud. Those measures were opposed by the bipartisan County Clerks Association and failed in the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Yet during an interview with CPR News, Hanks said he wouldn’t focus as much on election security if elected to the Senate, as he views this as primarily an issue for the states.
“I think it needs to be addressed,” he said. “We need to be proactive. As a U.S Senator, I see the (main) issues more as national security. I see it as border, inflation, energy, manufacturing — which both contribute to inflation — and traditional education.”
Hanks said schoolchildren are being “brainwashed” in public schools and he wants to eliminate the U.S Department of Education.
On abortion, Hanks describes himself as staunchly “pro-life” and opposes allowing the procedure under any circumstances. But if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, he said it should be up to the states to decide what happens next.
Hanks’ views on issues like the border and abortion have helped him win support from some party members.
“I've already decided I'm going Hanks,” said Dixie Evans from Littleton. “Because he took a stand against the things that really matter. I mean, I'm very pro-life and he was unapologetically pro-life and so that's what I like.”
A big question: electability?
Which candidate would be the strongest in the general election is another issue that’s come up time and again in this primary. Republicans nationally are heading into a favorable year and the state party hopes to make up some of the ground it’s lost in recent years in Colorado.
The question for the GOP is whether a candidate as far to the right as Hanks has a chance in the general election; the nominee will need to win support from a broad swath of unaffiliated voters, the largest portion of Colorado’s electorate.
Republican political consultant Tyler Sandberg, who has endorsed Hanks’ opponent Joe O’Dea, said he doesn’t think Hanks has ever been focused on the pocketbook issues most voters care about, and instead appeals to a narrower sliver of the Republican base.
“Hanks may be reflective of the rapid Facebook post-er,” said Sandberg, envisioning the kinds of ideological voters who dominate social media. “But that rapid Facebook post-er is an outlier, an exception to the rule of politics not being everything to people.”
But plenty of voters don’t see it this way.
Highlands Ranch resident Mark Custer said his goal for this election is pretty simple: “Get rid of the Democrats.”
“The biggest thing is who you think is gonna win in November,” he said. “Between Hanks and O’Dea, I like Hanks better.”
Hanks himself argues his political background will give him the edge in this race; “I am the only U.S Senate candidate that has any legislative experience (and) a conservative record. None match.”
Outside players get involved
Democratic groups aren’t just sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens in this primary.
Progressive-aligned groups, betting on Hanks as the weaker general election candidate, have now spent more than a million dollars on statewide television ads meant to bolster his chances over O’Dea. Voters are also being targeted with digital ads and at least three mailers with the same theme.
The spending far dwarfs what the Hanks campaign has been able to put into the race. He’s brought in about $120,000 so far, through donations and loans from Hanks himself, and has only about $20,000 left in his bank account at this point in the race.
The Colorado Republican Party is pushing back on one of the ads in particular, which claims the party endorsed Hanks.
"Let me be clear: the Colorado GOP has not and does not endorse in primary races. These verifiably false and malicious mailers are criminal and we will be taking action,” wrote GOP State Party Chair Kristi Burton Brown in an email blast criticizing the ad.
But Hanks dismisses concerns from Republican political consultants and members of the establishment that he’s too conservative to to win in a state like Colorado where most of the electorate is now unaffiliated.
“You know, Biden is so bad, the economy is so bad that unaffiliated (voters) need and will take an objective look about what's going on,” said Hanks. “They may not like Republicans, but they ought to be sure and recognize Republicans didn't create this ditch that we're in. Joe Biden dug it himself and Michael Bennet enabled him.”
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