Joe Oltmann Heidi Ganahl

Conservative Daily podcast host Joe Oltmann, left, pumps his fist in reaction to a point made by Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl, who welcomed Oltmann's endorsement on Nov. 7, 2022. Weeks earlier, Ganahl's campaign cancelled her running mate's appearance at a campaign event after learning Oltmann would be sharing the stage.

Colorado Republicans are charting a course forward from the shambles of the 2022 election, when Democrats won every statewide office on the ballot, increased the party's share of the state's congressional delegation and grew the party's majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Earlier this week, activists claiming to represent the Republican Party's grassroots threw down a gauntlet at a press conference held in a parking lot across the street from state GOP headquarters in Greenwood Village

"We are gathered here today to send a clear message of a declaration of war," said a member of the GOP's state central committee from Adams County, who went on to accuse the state party's current leadership of "treachery" and "abuse of power."

More than a dozen speakers argued that Colorado Republicans lost big last month because the party nominated candidates who weren't conservative enough, some condemning the state's semi-open primary system — which lets unaffiliated voters vote in either major party's primary — and others blaming the Republican establishment for forcing the party's nominees to keep their baseless election conspiracy theories to themselves.

The event's marquee speaker was outgoing Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who faces trial on seven felony counts stemming from accusations she tampered with her county's election equipment last year in an effort to prove that Colorado's elections are rigged.

Peters denies the allegations and contends the charges are politically motivated. The same day the disgruntled Republicans rallied, a second former Peters deputy pleaded guilty on related charges and agreed to testify against her former boss at the upcoming trial, set for early March in Grand Junction.

At the press conference, Peters tore into state GOP chair Kristi Burton Brown for telling Republican candidates to stop talking about election fraud. If only they had, she maintained, the election might have turned out differently.

"People asked me who to vote for during this election cycle, and I said I would never vote for anyone that doesn't acknowledge that there is fraud in our elections," Peters said.

Peters told Colorado Politics she's mulling a bid for state party chair but will only mount a run if the people let her know that's what they want.

Burton Brown declined to comment on the press conference, and she hasn't said whether she intends to seek a second two-year term steering the state GOP.

If Peters does seek the state party post, she could encounter some scheduling conflicts, since her trial and the Republicans' party elections fall within weeks of each other, though a former three-term Colorado Republican Party chairman told Colorado Politics that she might be able to manage it.

"The good news for Tina, if she runs for state chair, I don’t think there’s anything in the bylaws that prohibit a state chair from serving from a jail cell," Dick Wadhams said after watching a remote stream of the press conference. He also suggested that the angry Republicans are missing the mark if they think Colorado voters want a GOP more aligned with Peters and her views.

Republicans won't have a chance to test the theory for four years on the statewide level, since the next general election doesn't feature any statewide offices on the ballot. Colorado voters won't get a chance to pick the state's next governor, U.S. senator, attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer until 2026.

The results of the November election, however, might provide a clue.

While nearly all the Republicans' statewide nominees rejected election deniers — secretary of state nominee Pam Anderson, who beat Peters in the primary, largely based her campaign on her contention that Colorado's elections are safe and secure — this year's top-ticket GOP candidate bookended her candidacy by casting doubt on the integrity of elections, and voters rewarded her with a landslide loss.

Outgoing University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl spent more than a year winking and nodding at election conspiracy theories and closed out her bid by cozying up to some of the most prominent theorists.

Heading into the 2022 election, Ganahl was the only Republican holding statewide office and the last Republican candidate to win statewide, having secured her at-large seat on the CU Board of Regents in 2016. Her six-year term is expiring and with it, the seat she holds is vanishing, after the board reconfigured to shift a seat to represent the state's new congressional district.

It's been 32 years since a GOP gubernatorial nominee has lost by as wide a margin in Colorado as Ganahl, who lost to Gov. Jared Polis by 19 percentage points in final, unofficial results.

The last Republican to perform as poorly as Ganahl in a governor's race was John Andrews, the former state Senate president who lost his 1990 bid to deny Democrat Roy Romer a second term by 26 percentage points.

Ganahl kicked off her campaign by refusing to say whether she thought the 2020 presidential election was legitimate, calling the question "divisive."

At an early primary debate, Wadhams, one of the moderators, pressed Ganahl and the other hopefuls on stage to say once and for all that they didn't buy the stolen election claims swirling around the right. Ganahl said Biden was the president — without saying whether his election was legitimate — and then pivoted to talking about election fraud, which exasperated Wadhams.

"Frankly, she didn't answer the question," he told Colorado Politics after the debate. "Everything we do and say in the primary has to be done with an eye toward the unaffiliated voters. No candidate can pussyfoot through it."

In her first official act after winning the nomination this summer, Ganahl named a running mate whose only claim to fame prior to joining the ticket was a history of denying the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Aurora veteran and business owner Danny Moore was removed last year by fellow commissioners as chairman of the state's Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission after social media posts surfaced that showed Moore questioning the validity of Joe Biden's win and casting doubt on the integrity of U.S. elections.

Days after he accepted the lieutenant governor nomination, Moore published an opinion column asserting that Biden's election was legitimate. For months, however, the Ganahl campaign refused to make Moore available for interviews with any but the friendliest media outlets, and the pallor of election denial continued to haunt her campaign.

While she mostly avoided the topic through the fall campaign — saying she didn't believe there was enough fraud to change the election results and declaring "Joe Biden is president" a few times — Ganahl embraced the state's leading election deniers and courted their endorsements in the final days of her campaign.

On the Saturday before Election Day, Ganahl appeared on a podcast hosted by Sherronna Bishop, a Peters ally and nationally prominent organizer of efforts to cast doubt on voting systems, promising to form a state election integrity commission immediately if elected.

“I want to earn the trust of your supporters,” Ganahl told Bishop, whose house was searched last fall by federal agents in an investigation linked to allegations involving Peters.

Peters endorsed Ganahl the next day in an online video, saying she'd spoken with Ganahl before making her decision.

On the eve of the election, Ganahl welcomed an on-air endorsement from Joe Oltmann, the Douglas County-based host of the Conservative Daily podcast and the originator of the false claim that Dominion Voting Systems equipment was somehow manipulated to steal the 2020 election. Oltmann also called last year for Polis and other Democratic officials to be hanged, though he later said he was joking.

A few weeks earlier, Ganahl's campaign cancelled Moore's appearance at an event after learning that Oltmann would be sharing the stage, but on the day before ballots were counted, her campaign issued a statement saying she was "working very hard to unite our entire party and bring everyone together," adding: "Everyone deserves to have their voices heard.”

The next day, Colorado voters rendered their verdict.

Ernest Luning has covered politics for Colorado Politics and its predecessor publication, The Colorado Statesman, since 2009. He's analyzed the exploits, foibles and history of state campaigns and politicians since 2018 in the weekly Trail Mix column.

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