Conservative activist Joe Oltmann of FEC United, a Colorado group with an active and armed citizen defense wing, called this week for his “traitor” political opponents to be hanged.
“(T)wo inches off the ground, so they choke to death,” Oltmann said on his podcast, emphasizing to his co-host that he meant this literally.
Those remarks have been met with silence from Republican leaders who say they’d rather not pay attention to that sort of rhetoric. They say it doesn’t represent the party and that voters in the state don’t want to discuss the sorts of extreme ideas Oltmann, a prominent voice in favor of the unproven claim that the 2020 election was rigged in Democrats’ favor, espouses on a regular basis.
Average voters are “actually are talking about education and crime and how expensive it is to live in Colorado,” Colorado Republican Party chair Kristi Burton Brown told The Denver Post on Wednesday.
As much as she and many other GOP leaders interviewed this month by The Post say they would like to distance themselves from FEC United, the ties between it and the conservative mainstream of Colorado are substantial. A lot of what Oltmann represents — chiefly election denial and the fervent belief that the country is besieged by treasonous Democrats and phony Republicans — is popular among the conservative base. And it figures to be a potentially major factor in 2022 elections here and around the country.
Archived screengrabs of FEC United’s website show many well-known Republican officials in Colorado signed onto its “Save Colorado” pledge last year, although that pledge list no longer appears on the site. Anyone who signed the pledge and then was deemed to have broken loyalty to the group could face recall petitions, a primary election opponent, “using social media to expose your breach” and “unleashing our army of freedom fighters against you,” the site stated.
Among those who signed are at least five active or recent state lawmakers: Reps. Kim Ransom of Douglas County and Mike Lynch of Larimer County; former Reps. Richard Champion of Arapahoe County and Lori Saine of Weld County, the latter of whom is running for Congress in the new 8th District; and former state Sen. Vicki Marble of Larimer County. Also signed on were commissioners from at least five Front Range counties and Parker Mayor Jeff Toberg.
Much more than signing on to a loyalty pledge, Burton Brown, the Republican party chair, actually led FEC United last year. In sworn court depositions this fall, Oltmann and another leader of the group, Stewart Butler, testified about it, and Burton Brown has confirmed it in statements to the press. Oltmann characterized her work as “basically the foundation of what we’re doing as an organization.”
In a three-minute interview with The Post, Burton Brown said her time with the group was “very brief” but declined to say when exactly it began and ended. She said she only had a “verbal understanding” and that she never signed a contract with FEC United.
“I think it’s fair to say FEC has clearly shifted their mission from when I was briefly involved with them,” Burton Brown said. “At that time they were very focused on parents’ rights and education and helping small businesses get back to work.”
But at that time — fall of 2020 — FEC also organized the “Patriot Muster” rally in downtown Denver, which made national news when a security guard for a 9News crew fatally show a protester. Present at that rally were members of the United American Defense Force, an armed militia force within FEC. The liberal news outlet Colorado Times Recorder reported that just before the “Muster” Burton Brown, then the state party vice chair, told an audience of FEC members, “(W)e have people in this room and all across the state who can intimidate the left.”
The group’s acronym name FEC stands for “Faith, Education, Commerce” — the sorts of topics Burton Brown and other mainstream Republicans said drew them in.
“I’m not aligned with the current mission,” Burton Brown told The Post. “I disavow violence in politics.”
Burton Brown is less forceful on election conspiracies. Her response when asked about the 2020 presidential outcome, is, “I believe Biden won the 2020 election,” but she is careful to go no further than that.
It’s not far off from how Heidi Ganahl, the GOP frontrunner to challenge Democratic Gov. Jared Polis next year, sees it. She’d rather not publicly discuss election matters, she told a group of voters in Durango recently, and instead wants to focus the campaign on issues including crime and cost of living. When reporters have asked her about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, Ganahl has declined to respond and in one case she called a reporter’s questions on that issue “divisive.”
But she assured the Durango crowd that she’s with them on all the other things that matter to the Republican base, even if she keeps quiet about it.
“So, you’re going to see me talk about things that the unaffiliated voter cares about, and you might be like, ‘Heidi, get feistier, talk about different, you know, things that we care about.’ Y’all, I care about everything that you care about,” she said in Durango, according to audio of the event obtained by 9News.
Election denialism is now at the core of the Republican base. A CNN national poll from September found that 59% of Republicans and conservative independents said “believing that Donald Trump won the 2020 election” was either “very” or “somewhat” important to how they defined what it means to be a Republican. Another poll, released last month by NPR, showed 68% of Republicans and conservative independents agreed with the statement that “There were real cases of fraud that changed the results” of the 2020 presidential election.
The Public Religion Research Institute found in a survey published last month that about one in five Americans — and just shy of one in three Republicans — agrees with the statement, “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
Numbers like that show why so many leaders in the party won’t disavow lies and conspiracy theories concerning elections, said David Flaherty, a conservative pollster in Colorado.
“Heidi obviously made her decision on how she wants to answer that question. We’ll see how that plays out when Republicans choose their nominees for these offices,” Flaherty said. “Studying the Republican primary electorate, I do think you do not want to refute the opinions, the beliefs of the Republican primary base. It could absolutely cause you a loss next June.” Colorado’s 2022 primary elections are held June 28; the general election is Nov. 8.
Former Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson is a rare example of a Republican politician banking on that risky approach. She’s hoping to unseat Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold and taking the unusual step of unequivocally rejecting lies about the 2020 election. She goes another step beyond that.
“It’s my belief that it was the most secure election we’ve had to date,” Anderson said in an interview Wednesday.
She is hopeful she can keep beating that drum without alienating voters, she said, but acknowledged there is a subset that has “so much invested in the outcome of that single presidential race that they are not going to believe (me), because they have been misled.”
Anderson has no primary opponent, but Republican operatives say they won’t be surprised if someone challenges her from the right.
If that happens, Flaherty predicted, “I’m not saying Pam Anderson is going to lose, … but, yes, without question, saying that the election was not stolen, that Joe Biden won fair and square, could be a problem for a primary candidate in Colorado. There’s no doubt about it.”
Kevin McCarney, chair of the Mesa County Republicans, also spoke of great peril in underestimating the potency of the base. His county is represented in Congress by Lauren Boebert, an unflinching ally to Donald Trump and easily the most popular — and most controversial — elected Republican in the state.
Her politics “resonate huge,” he said. “Maybe four years down the line I could see her running for Senate.”
Ryan Lynch, a veteran Colorado political consultant who has run campaigns for more moderate Republicans such as former Secretary of State Wayne Williams and current state Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson, said the views of the far right pose a challenge for Republicans who seek to regain control of the state party. He sees some disconnect between average voters and the few hundred people with greatest influence over a party whose chair used to lead FEC, whose face is Boebert and whose gubernatorial nominee has more than nodded at election deniers.
“I think the FEC-type rhetoric doesn’t appeal to the majority of Republicans, but does appeal to the overwhelming majority of the activist base, and those are the folks pulling the levers of the county parties,” Lynch said. “They’re the chairs, vice chairs, caucus-goers, state delegates. I think your mainstream suburban Republican way more closely aligns with Kevin Priola than they do with a (state Rep. and current U.S. Senate candidate) Ron Hanks or a Lauren Boebert or a Joe Oltmann.”
The reality that Boebertism, which is mostly indistinguishable from Trumpism, is so popular among the base helps explain why several county-level party chairs told The Post that Oltmann’s comments about hanging people, or Burton Brown’s previous affiliation with his group, neither set off alarms nor warrant any real discussion.
“Nobody talks about it. I haven’t heard a word about it. I just read about it in the paper. I think one person sent me an email,” said Kaye Ferry, chair of the Eagle County Republicans and a critic of Burton Brown. “There’s no reaction to these things. The world is changing so much that it’s almost hard to recognize it.”
Said Mesa County’s McCarney, who supports Burton Brown, “I haven’t seen any of that type of stuff. If they have a militia, that’s fine. I don’t care because we as a party have never condoned violence of any kind.”
As to Burton Brown’s past leadership at FEC, McCarney added, “I know I’ve been involved in stuff where, if I find them objectionable, I cut myself off. It is what it is.”
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