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El Paso County Republican Party Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins addresses the El Paso County Assembly on March 19 at Vista Ridge High School.

El Paso County Republican candidates aiming for major voting reforms and to protect the community from federal overreach arose victorious in assemblies earlier this month and will face more experienced politicians with larger political war chests and name recognition in the upcoming primaries.

Local GOP party Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins and a nonprofit called Faith Education Commerce United that is closely aligned with Tonkins backed candidates who are proposing changes, such as a return to hand-counting ballots and other major reforms.

The chairwoman has appeared alongside favored GOP candidates at some events that opponents were not invited to attend. The preferred candidates also received lists of voting delegates key to campaigning ahead of the assemblies before their opponents. Many well-known local politicians skipped the assemblies, choosing to petition on the ballot because they were wary of bias.

El Paso County GOP chair blasts Lamborn after he cites 'troubling irregularities' in assembly process

The administration of the assemblies also has morphed into a source of contention in recent weeks, sparking complaints and a lawsuit.

FEC United founder Joe Oltmann framed the assemblies as a success on his podcast earlier this month and celebrated the candidates his group backed locally and elsewhere.

“What was awesome was that nearly all of our candidates won,” he said.

Oltmann made statewide news in December when he talked about building gallows for treasonous politicians on his podcast.

The group is working for change nationally through local elections.

Some of the candidates the group is backing and who won at assembly include county coroner candidate Dr. Rae Ann Weber, who is not a forensic pathologist; sheriff candidate Todd Watkins, who is promising to stand up to federal overreach and defend citizens from federal agents; county clerk and recorder candidate Peter Lupia, who wants to return to hand-counting ballots and advocate the state for an end to mail-in voting; and county commissioner candidates Lindsay Moore and Dave Winney, who want eliminate Dominion voting machines in El Paso County.

Numerous new faces also arose victorious in races for state House seats.

The rise of new candidates echoes the 2010 midterm elections as the national tea-party movement gained traction following the 2008 election, said Professor Josh Dunn, chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

But this year, he said he isn’t seeing as much unity within the Republican Party. The split has been apparent among local Republican candidates, with many of those preferred by FEC United — mostly newcomers — taking far-right stances on the results of the 2020 election, claiming it was stolen; election security in general; and the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Dunn said, following the assemblies the newcomers have tough campaigns ahead because they don’t have the benefit of widespread name recognition and campaign dollars.

El Paso County incumbents and more experienced politicos bypassed the assemblies altogether, although in a competitive environment, assemblies can offer an opportunity for candidates to knock other competitors off the ballot even if they have secured a place themselves through petitions.

Some of the county candidates who chose to skip assembly included clerk and recorder candidate Steve Schleiker; County Commissioner Holly Williams, who is facing Moore; and Undersheriff Joe Roybal, who is running for sheriff. These candidates also have well-funded campaigns already. For example, Roybal had $25,451.95 on hand, Williams had $38,485.59, and Schleiker had $41,754.81, the most recent Secretary of State’s Office reports show.

Perhaps most notably, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn decided not to participate in the assembly for the 5th Congressional District on Saturday because of demonstrated bias, he said.

“Among many troubling irregularities, I have witnessed a shocking lack of transparency and basic competence in the handling of the delegate and alternate list for the 5th CD Assembly,” he said. The delegates vote on candidates to determine who will make the ballot and having the lists ahead of time allows candidates the opportunity to campaign.

Tonkins shot back, saying all the candidates for the congressman’s seat have been treated fairly and Lamborn was only refusing to participate because he was at risk of not receiving 10% of the vote.

Other candidates also have raised formal concerns about recent assemblies.

A case was filed in Denver District Court over who was allowed to vote in House District 21, in southern El Paso County. At assembly, incumbent Mary Bradfield missed the ballot by less than 1 percentage point and the only person to make the ballot was private-security company owner Karl Dent, who is embroiled in domestic violence and animal abuse cases.

A similar case asking for a candidate to be added to the ballot was filed two years ago, and in that case the state refused to overturn an assembly’s vote.

Complaints were filed with the state party over the County Commission District 1, northern El Paso County, and the House District 15, western El Paso County assemblies over how votes were conducted. In the county district race, it was hard to tell who was a voting delegate because the gym was saturated with visitors and the delegates were not properly seated, the complaint said.

Similar problems were alleged in House District 15.

“Nobody signed for any ballots, credentials were not verified, and nobody knows how many ballots there were to begin with,” the complaint claimed.

However, the state party does not plan to take any action on the complaints, Executive Director Joe Jackson said, because the power lies with the credentialing committees for each district. The party asked those with complaints to file in district court.

Tonkins has denied all claims of bias in the past, despite appearing alongside some candidates at events.

During some of those events incumbents, such as Lamborn, have been lampooned for being “Republican in name only,” or a RINO.

The frustration with establishment politicians can play in favor of newcomers.

“Sometimes being able to claim the mantle of the outsider can be used to your advantage,” Dunn said. Some voters might prefer candidates who haven’t been long entrenched in politics, viewing them as less likely to be swayed from their positions on policy or other matters, he said.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or 719- 429-9264.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or 719- 429-9264.

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