The first forum for Republican candidates looking to unseat U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) took place in Lakewood Tuesday night. The indoor event had about 90 attendees, only 5 of them wearing masks, and was hosted by Foothills Republicans, a conservative organization based in Golden.

The event featured five of the seven GOP candidates: former Fort Collins City Council member Gino Collins, former radio host Deborah Flora, state Rep. Ron Hanks (R-Cañon City), Colorado Christian University professor Dr. Gregory Moore, and businessman Peter Yu.

The GOP U.S. Senate candidates from left: Peter Yu, Gregory Moore, Ron Hanks, Deborah Flora, Gino Campana

Two of the Republican Senate candidates, former El Paso County GOP chair Eli Bremer and construction company owner Joe O’Dea, were unable to attend the forum but gave an introductory speech remotely.

Bremer said he had contracted COVID-19 while on the campaign trail and O’Dea said he had to miss the event due to a medical reason.

Former chair of the Colorado Republican Party Dick Wadhams moderated the event. Attendees included current chair Kristi Burton Brown, FOX 31 Denver political analyst — and conservative activist — Michael Fields, and state Rep. Richard Holtorf (R-Akron). Fields and Burton Brown were seated together during the forum.

The most common recurring themes the candidates touched on during the forum were sharing gripes over mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates, school curriculums, and crime rates in Colorado.

Every candidate warned that continued Democratic rule would restrict freedoms and lead to the U.S. becoming a totalitarian state. Other common themes included concerns about Afghanistan, China, immigration, and gun control.

Notably, despite most of the candidates in the race so far refusing to fight back against election fraud conspiracy theories — even though the 2020 election results were proven legitimate by fact-checkers, election officials, and U.S. courts — none of the candidates mentioned election fraud or even election integrity during the forum, except for one: Ron Hanks.

Hanks is a prominent member of the election fraud conspiracy theory movement. He crossed police barriers at the Jan. 6, 2022, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, is suing the state of Colorado over the 2020 election results, and said yesterday that he is training poll watchers to be “bulldogs.”

Hanks was not only the sole candidate at the forum who brought up election integrity concerns, but he did so repeatedly.

The event was formatted as a question-and-answer forum. Wadhams asked seven questions of the candidates, and each candidate was allowed to answer every question. The candidates were also given time for opening and closing statements.

Colorado state Rep. Ron Hanks (R-Cañon City)

Hanks would routinely shoehorn in election fraud conspiracy theories in unrelated questions.

For example, in response to a question about whether the candidates would have voted for the bipartisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year, Hanks was able to include a baseless connection to election fraud during his answer that he would not have voted for the bill.

“The problem is we have with a Federal Government that is auditing itself. Sounds kind of like the Dominion voting machines we have out here in Colorado,” Hanks said. “When any government entity audits itself you can have absolutely no confidence that the money they say they’ve spent is all that they’ve spent.”

Hanks continued his answer by providing yet another baseless conspiracy theory.

“The other part about this bill is that it is not going to infrastructure,” Hanks said. “It is all going to kick back organizations that are part of the Democrat party. It is a self-licking ice-cream cone. And we have to stop this.”

The full text of the bill can be read here.

All of the candidates, with the exception of Moore, said they would not have voted for the bill if they were in office. While sponsored by Democrats, the bill had 19 Republican senators and 13 Republican representatives vote to pass it.

Gino Campana speaks to the crowd

Another question: How would the candidates appeal to suburban and unaffiliated voters in Colorado?

Campana said that he is fighting for the “American Dream,” and that all voters want that option for their children. Flora said as a suburban mom herself, she understands what those families care about. Hanks said this:

“I would suggest that our issues are no longer Republican vs. Democrat. It is an American consensus that we have a serious problem with our national government. Election integrity is a very good example of that,” Hanks said. “We are going to have common ground with people on this issue. This is not a Republican issue anymore.”

According to a November 2020 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), only around 31% of Americans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. And most of that number are Republicans.

When reached for comment, Colorado Democratic Party spokesperson Nico Delgado criticized Hanks’ insistence on bringing up election fraud conspiracy theories.

“The GOP kicked off their first primary forum with a mix of unproven and unknown candidates with Ron Hanks and his election conspiracy theories center stage,” Delgado said. “While candidates desperately tried to prove themselves, Hanks kept revisiting the Big Lie and he’ll continue to do just that as long as the GOP stays silent in fear of losing a base that’s loyal to Donald Trump.”

One of the final questions of the night was whether the candidate would still support the winner of the Republican primary if they themselves lost. Campana, Flora, Moore, and Yu all firmly said they would support the winner of the primary. Hanks did not commit to an answer.

Lastly, even in Hanks’ closing statements, he previewed Colorado’s 2022 legislative session, which begins today, by saying he is going to introduce bills relating to election integrity.

“I have a lot of bills coming through. They are going to work on election integrity,” Hanks said. “I’ve basically cloned the Arizona anti-counterfeit ballot paper. I think that’s an important step. We’re also going to do a voter roll purge. Election integrity is important. I will not shy away from that.”