Walker Stapleton.

(AP Photo/File)

Posted: 2:30 p.m. 4.10.2018 | Updated 6 a.m. 4.11.2018 — The Colorado governor’s race has taken a surprise turn: Republican candidate Walker Stapleton has moved to toss out petitions qualifying him for his own party’s primary ballot over concerns about illegal signature gathering.

Stapleton, who some see as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, will instead join a crowded field of candidates vying for a spot in the primary at the Republican state assembly Saturday.

“We’ve won straw polls from Weld County to Mesa County,” Stapleton said at a press conference Tuesday. “I feel good about our grassroots efforts. I feel good about going to assembly.”

The Secretary of State certified that Stapleton had enough signatures to make the ballot earlier this month. But on Tuesday, Stapleton asked Secretary of State Wayne Williams to disqualify those signatures. He also accused Kennedy Enterprises, one of the signature gatherers his campaign contracted, of lying about how it had circulated petitions.

“We have the letter and we are looking into it,” said Lynn Bartels, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office. 

Kennedy Enterprises is also at the center of a lawsuit questioning signatures gathered for Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s re-election campaign. A hearing for the lawsuit was held later Tuesday evening. The judge ruled in favor of Lamborn, keeping him on the party's primary ballot.

Voters in Lamborn’s district say that the firm used an out-of-state signature collector who was not legally qualified for the job. Stapleton’s campaign hired that same firm for its signature gathering operation.

The Stapleton campaign filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed, but withdrew the motion Tuesday morning. That’s because preparation for the case forced an admission that the firm had in fact engaged in suspect gathering practices — an admission Stapleton said was relayed to him on Monday night.

Specifically, it revealed that the firm had employed Daniel Velasquez, who was not qualified to circulate petitions in Colorado. Another signature gatherer made it seem that they, and not Velasquez, had circulated the petitions, according to the letter from Stapleton to the Secretary of State.

On Tuesday, Stapleton said the firm had changed its story and could no longer be trusted. He added that Dan Kennedy, the company’s CEO, has lied to him, his campaign and the secretary of state’s office.

Kennedy Enterprises did not respond to a request for comment.

Stapleton also plans to sue the firm. “I am unfortunately a victim of this misconduct,” Stapleton said. “There may be other victims, too.”  

Stapleton clarified that there is nothing wrong with the petition themselves. Rather, he said the problem was limited to how Kennedy Enterprises had gathered the signatures.

Candidates for governor can reach a primary ballot through petitions or by gaining 30 percent of the vote at their party’s state assembly. Stapleton has name recognition, but he’ll be up against other candidates who have planned on the assembly route for months. His entry is a particular threat to Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

In a statement Monday, Coffman said Stapleton hired “shady petitions gatherers” and should not enter the assembly process.

“Once again Walker Stapleton has shown his true colors. He’s proven to Colorado voters that he can’t be trusted to play by the rules,” Coffman said.

She also said the Secretary of State’s office and the state GOP should not pick “winners and losers by manipulating the caucus and assembly process after the fact.”

The state Republican Party had planned for last-minute additions to the assembly this weekend, said spokesman Daniel Cole.

“For the party this is business as usual,” Cole said. “Candidates can announce their intention to go through the assembly today, they could announce it tomorrow, they could even announce it the day of the assembly. We've been preparing for that contingency. It doesn't present problems for us."

Bartels, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, said the office conducted a standard review of Stapleton’s signatures. It also looked into claims from the Doug Robinson campaign — first reported by Denver7 News — that Kennedy had used Valesquez to gather signatures. Bartels also says staff interviewed Kennedy and he denied that anyone by that name was gathering signatures. The office also tried, without success, to contact Velasquez. Without any evidence to continue, the office stopped investigating the matter and certified Stapleton for the ballot.

Eric Walker, the Colorado Democratic Party spokesman, said the revelations are further proof that Stapleton is running “one of the sleaziest campaigns that have ever been run.” He pointed to one story that suggests Stapleton may have gained bonus ad time through his position as state treasurer.

“The sound you hear is all the wealthy, Republican elite lighting their hair on fire because Walker Stapleton lit their money on fire,” said Walker.  

CPR's Nathaniel Minor contributed to this report.