PARKER, Colo (AP) — In a basement event space in the Denver suburb of Parker, Tina Peters surveyed a crowd of Colorado Republicans last week and made an unusual pitch for why she should become chair of their beleaguered party: “There's no way a jury of 12 people is going to put me in prison.”
Peters was referring to her upcoming trial on seven felony charges related to her role in allegedly accessing confidential voting machine data while she was clerk in western Colorado's Mesa County. The incident made her a hero to election conspiracy theorists but unpopular with all but her party's hardest-core voters.
Peters, who condemns the charges as politically motivated, finished second in last year's GOP primary for secretary of state, Colorado's top elections position.
Now Peters has become part of a wave of election deniers who, unable to succeed at the polls, have targeted the one post — state party chair — that depends entirely on those hardest-core Republicans.
Embracing election conspiracy theories was a political albatross for Republicans in states that weren't completely red last year, with deniers losing every statewide bid in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But the movement has focused on GOP state party chairs — positions that usually are selected by only dedicated activists and have the power to influence the party's presidential nominating contest and some aspects of election operations, such as recruiting poll watchers.
“The rise of this dangerous ideology nationwide and the rise within party machinery are ominous,” said Norm Eisen, a prominent Washington lawyer and former ambassador who is executive chair of States United Democracy Center, which tracks election deniers. “It's an outrageous phenomenon.”
Kristina Karamo, a former community college instructor who lost her bid last fall to become Michigan's secretary of state by 14 percentage points, won the chair of the Michigan Republican Party a week ago. She beat a fellow election denier, failed attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno.
In Kansas, Mike Brown, a conspiracy theorist who lost his primary bid for secretary of state, was named chair of the state party.
“We can't just say, ‘Oh, it’s time to get over 2020 and be done with that,'” said Aaron Wood, a self-described Christian conservative father also running for Colorado GOP chair, who organized a slate of candidates to take over the party's top posts. “Until I have 100% confidence that the election has integrity, I will not be done with that.”
The wave of election deniers follows a push by Trump during his administration to stock the roster of party chairs with loyalists, several of whom supported his attempt to overturn the 2020 election and remain in the White House. Of those, Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona GOP, did not run again and was replaced by another Trump loyalist, former state Treasurer Jeff DeWitt. In Georgia, chairman David Shafer has announced he won’t seek another term this June, amid scrutiny over whether he could be indicted for efforts to help Trump overturn the 2020 election.
As in most states, the new Georgia party head will be selected by leaders of local county parties. Many of those are Trump loyalists who also backed Shafer's bid to overturn Trump's 2020 loss in the state. But Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who defied Trump's request and easily beat a primary challenger last year backed by Shafer, has marginalized the state party, creating a parallel structure to raise money and turn out voters.
That's an example of how the once powerful post of state party chair has changed.
“It used to be adjacent to public service, to be the state party chair, and now it's something where you get to dunk on Democrats on Twitter,” said Robert Jones, a Republican pollster in Idaho.
In that state, Dorothy Moon, an election denier and former state representative who made an unsuccessful primary run for secretary of state, became the Idaho GOP chair last year.
Still, Eisen noted that state parties have important roles in appointing poll workers and poll watchers in many states. A perennial fear has been that conspiracists could fill those positions and disrupt elections, though that did not happen in 2022 despite a prominent conservative effort to find more poll watchers.
“Maybe the Karamos and the Browns and the Moons will implode,” Eisen said. “There is a kind of incompetence that goes with this ideology. But it's a concerning trend given the power these state parties have.”
Parties also have a major role in structuring their primaries. In Michigan, the party apparatus that Karamo now leads has the power to move its nominating contest to a closed convention, where activists select the winner.
“Donald Trump would love there to be a convention for Michigan’s delegates,” Jason Roe, the former executive director of the state party, said in an interview.
Ironically, Trump had endorsed DePerno, a lawyer who unsuccessfully sued to force a new count in 2020. Instead, Karamo, whom the former president had supported in her secretary of state race, won. She has described abortion as “child sacrifice” and Democrats as having a “Satanic agenda.”
Last wek, on the podcast of Trump adviser Steve Bannon last week, Karamo said Michigan was “ground zero for the globalist takeover of the United States of America.”
In Colorado, many Republican strategists say they are prepared for Peters or another election denier to win the party chair position next month.
“People seem almost resigned that the party is going to fall into the hands of this crowd for the next two years,” said Sage Naumann, one of the operatives, who said usually a chair's impact on elections is “neutral,” but that could change.
“If they're constantly making controversial statements, then they can be detrimental,” Naumann said.
The insurgent candidates running for Colorado's chair argue things can't get worse for the GOP in the state. Republicans lost every statewide race by double digits in November and have their smallest share of seats in the Legislature in state history.
The candidates for party chair claim the Colorado GOP has been too timid and needs to be more outspoken and conservative — a risky bid in a state that has been rapidly moving to the left. As part of that, they seek to restrict the primary to only registered Republicans, shutting out voters not affiliated with any party who have been eligible to participate. That would require overturning a voter-approved ballot measure, which activists failed to do in a lawsuit last year. They hope to have a better shot with the party chair's support.
At the debate last week in Parker, former state Rep. Dave Williams said: “It's time we had a warlike leader who is going to go toe-to-toe” with Democrats.
Williams later added: “Joe Biden is not a legitimate president.”
Only one candidate, Erik Aadland, a military veteran who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year, cautioned about the election denier rhetoric. He noted that Democrats effectively used a tape of him questioning the validity of the 2020 election against him in his race. In an interview, he said specifically that he worried about Peters' candidacy.
“It's not healthy, the words we're using, the rhetoric we've been using,” Aadland said. And, he added, “I don't think it'd be healthy to have a chairwoman under seven indictments.”
Peters, however, reveled in her national profile. She noted that she had just started a podcast that had 60,000 downloads on its first day and that she raised $250,000 to fund a recount in three days after the 2022 primary —a recount that confirmed her loss.
During a separate debate Saturday, she demonstrated the appeal of her message to voters whose beliefs are increasingly unpopular in a liberal state.
“It’s not your fault that we lost this election in 2022. It’s not my fault that we lost this election in 2022,” she told another crowd of Republican voters at a suburban pizzeria. “It’s because of the machines.”
Cappelletti reported from Lansing, Michigan. Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.
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This story has been corrected to reflect that Tina Peters finished second, not third, in last year’s Republican primary for Colorado secretary of state.