Election denial is a losing message as centrist Republicans sweep statewide Colorado primaries

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Candidate for Colorado Secretary of State Tina Peters recites the Pledge of Alegiance on the deck of the Wide Open Saloon in Sedalia on Tuesday evening, June 28, 2022 during a watch party as Republican votes come in during the primary election.

The centrist side of Colorado’s Republican Party easily won all three statewide primaries on Tuesday night, sweeping away right-wing challengers who had focused on election denial and culture wars.

At victory parties in Denver and Douglas County, the party’s nominees said they were putting aside intra-party fighting and moving on from the 2020 election. Instead, the victors set their sights on President Joe Biden and the economy.

“The Republican Party in the state of Colorado is born again,” exclaimed state Rep. Colin Larson during a speech on Tuesday at an event for successful U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea. “We have a new day dawning here where pragmatic, issue-oriented, serious candidates will win the day.”

O’Dea won the most convincing victory of any of the major races. He did so while saying repeatedly and clearly that the 2020 elections were legitimate. His rival, Ron Hanks, is among the state’s most prominent election deniers.

“I think the party is making this sort of existential decision here tonight,” said Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Colorado political analyst. The question, he said, was: “Should we stay with the grievance and be worried about the 2020 election, or should we try to look beyond that and see what might move moderates and swing voters?”

Also victorious was Heidi Ganahl, the nominee for governor. Ganahl has refused to share her opinion of the 2020 national elections, while her rival Greg Lopez has repeated false claims.

And in the secretary of state race, voters roundly rejected Tina Peters, the Mesa County Clerk facing criminal charges for allegedly tampering with her own county's election systems as she searched for evidence for bogus theories. They instead nominated Pam Anderson, a former Jefferson County clerk who enjoys wide respect among her peers and has repeatedly voiced her confidence in the current election system.

“This is the Republican Party voters have been waiting for,” said House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, who also survived a primary challenge from the right. “This is the Republican Party that is talking about the things that matter to families: What's the cost of living?”

Andrew Kenney/CPR News
GOP Senate candidate Joe O'Dea declares victory at his election night party, June 28, 2022.

Some voters agreed, saying they wanted candidates who can win elections, not just pass ideological tests.

“Electability is a huge issue. And electability equals ability to moderate and compromise. Especially in Colorado. Colorado's a pretty moderate state,” said Lexi Tahven, a Douglas County voter who backed O’Dea — even though she’s more conservative than him on abortion.

All of the races were settled early in the night by convincing margins, allowing centrist Republicans to breathe a sigh of relief.

“I think there was a lot of handwringing going on across Colorado by Republicans this evening,” said Republican consultant Cinamon Watson. “We are looking towards the future.” 

Democratic attempts to pick the candidates come up empty

Just hours before the polls closed, the picture was far less clear. The establishment campaigns had spent much more money than their rivals — but the waters were muddied by millions of dollars of additional spending from outside groups.

An alliance of Democratic-aligned groups aired an onslaught of ads that played up the “conservative” credentials of right-wing candidates like Lopez and Hanks. The apparent goal was to push forward candidates who would be easier for Democrats to beat in the general election.

“If my friends in the Democratic Party had been successful in intervening in these Republican primaries to nominate weak candidates for them to run against in November, I think it would've been a challenge for my party and for the state,” said former Republican Gov. Bill Owens in an interview.

“But tonight the electorate saw through, frankly, millions of dollars spent in that intervention,” Owens continued.

Democratic attorney Doug Friednash, who served as former Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, defended the party’s use of these tactics.

“Democrats didn’t write that playbook,” he said. “I think it’s smart. (The) question is whether folks think that’s ethical or not. I think it’s a tool in the toolshed and something that was savvy to do.If they’re successful in making those investments they’ll save a lot of money and posture and position their candidates to win.”

However the night’s results had others questioning whether Democratic tactics may have sparked a backlash.

Byron McElhinney, a 66-year-old unaffiliated voter who leans conservative, said that he voted for Ganahl and O’Dea in the Senate primary. He wanted to ensure that the liberal spending didn’t affect the race.

“I want to have Republicans win this election cycle,” he said, adding that immigration control is his top issue. “I think as long as there's no major upsets, I think they will win this year.”

Unaffiliated voters like McElhinney may have been key for the centrist candidates’ victories; they participated in record numbers in the Republican primary. Those unaffiliated voters “helped moderate the process and give us much better candidates in November than we might otherwise have had,” Owens said.

In all, unaffiliated voters made up more than 30 percent of the Republican electorate, compared to about 20 percent in 2018. Many unaffiliated voters told CPR News that they jumped into the GOP contests in order to defeat extreme candidates.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Heidi Ganahl reacts to learning she’s won the Colorado Republican Party’s primary election for governor, and talks to supporters at the Wide Open Saloon watch party in Sedalia, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. She will face incumbent Democratic Governor Jared Polis in the fall.

“It looks like they broke hard for Joe O’Dea and potentially even Heidi (Ganahl) and Pam Anderson. It seems like they had a tremendous impact on the outcome tonight,” said Kyle Kohli, executive director of the conservative group Compass Colorado.

Indeed, some of the candidates nodded toward independent voters as a key to Republican success in November. 

“Colorado wants its leaders to be independent,” O’Dea said. “And that's why tonight, when they counted, the independents showed up. They voted for me in this primary and we're gonna work hard to keep them in our coalition.”

Addressing the Republican rift

As the night wrapped up, the candidates looked forward to the general election. They’ll generally focus voters on the idea that Gov. Jared Polis, President Joe Biden and Sen. Michael Bennet have made life more expensive for Coloradans while failing to combat crime.

But they still will face a rift within their own party.

“There is this move away from the establishment branch of the Republican party,” said Gary Carlile, 62, a Republican who dropped off a ballot for Lopez and Hanks in Colorado Springs on Tuesday. 

He said the establishment Republicans are “pay-to-play, while these guys are the patriots.” It would be “insanity,” he said, to keep nominating establishment Republicans with the expectation of different results.

One of the losing right-wing candidates, Tina Peters, has already tried to blame her loss on wholly unsubstantiated cries of election fraud.

Turnout for this year’s  Republican primary is on track to be slightly higher than it was for the last midterm elections in 2018. Meanwhile, turnout in the Democratic primaries — which had few contested races — is significantly lower.

CPR News reporters Tony Gorman and Bente Birkeland contributed to this article.