Immigration policy dominated the discussion among five of the Republican candidates vying to win Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District primary election in June, and it included some eyebrow-raising statements. 

The candidate forum, which took place Monday night at Appleton Christian Church in Grand Junction, included all but one of the Republicans hoping to become their party’s nominee following Congresswoman’s Boebert decision to abandon her hometown district for redder pastures on the Eastern Plains. 

While their positions on immigration varied, the candidates found more consensus around their doubts about Colorado’s election system. Four of the five participants spoke in favor of banning the mail ballots used by nearly all Coloradans, based on the debunked conspiracy that they have been used to rig elections. All but one of the candidates advocated for a return to hand-counting paper ballots, a process which has been proven to be less accurate and far more expensive than Colorado’s current system. Hanks, Andrews and Varela all promoted elements of another debunked conspiracy theory: that the Dominion Voting machines used by nearly all counties to tabulate their elections could be manipulated to rig the results.

The forum was hosted by Stand For The Constitution (SFTC), a far-right Grand Junction group that promotes the Big Lie and supports former Mesa Clerk Tina Peters. STFC meets weekly at the church, to “actively defend the Constitution and our conservative values through prayer and action.” More than 150 people attended the event. 

Each candidate began with an opening statement, followed by questions from moderators Bob Dalley, President of SFTC, and Tom Shereen.

The candidates focused much of their discussion on immigration, offering policy positions ranging from enforcing existing law to feeding some migrants to wolves. 

Joe Granado, a retiree from Fruita drew grumbles from the audience when he reminded his colleagues that Republican leaders recently failed to pass the bipartisan Senate proposal to address the border.

“Our Republican party chose to punt that issue when they had an opportunity to do something about it,” Granado said. “In my opinion it was a good bill. It was better than what we have had.”

Russ Andrews, a businessman from the Roaring Fork Valley, said his priority if elected, is to build “Trump’s wall,” and, feed the “predators, and drug dealers” crossing the border to “our new wolves” – a declaration he repeated three times during the forum. He also said he would end asylum laws, and that the United States should only allow people in who can help us – like doctors and nurses.

Hanks said he moved to Grand Junction, in the 3rd Congressional District, in January, after U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert announced she was switching districts to run in the 4th Congressional District. Hanks cited the border as America’s “number one” problem.

Ron Hanks. Photo: Sharon Sullivan

“All those people coming from Ecuador,” etc., “are mere reinforcements for enemy combatants already here,” Hanks said. He later said that a 9-11 event, and civil war was coming.

Stephen Varela, of Pueblo, said the immigration system is not broken, but that the Biden administration is not enforcing the law. 

“We are creating a system encouraging illegal immigration,” he said. 

Curtis McCrackin, of Cedaredge, said he’s pro-immigration, but it needs to happen according to the rule of law. He said his primary reason for running is to balance the federal budget.

“The money in this country is not being spent according to the authority of the Constitution – 34 trillion of debt is not healthy, not showing wisdom,” McCrackin said. “Something’s got to change. It has to start in this room, electing different leaders.”

Forgiving student loan debt is not something the country should be spending money on, he said.

Perhaps eager to show off his Second Amendment chops, Andrews bragged that his “kids all know how to load their own ammunition,” adding that “I will never vote against our Second Amendment.”

McCrackin later mentioned, also with apparent glee, that his adult daughters, when they came to visit, said they wanted to go shooting.

Noticeably absent from the forum was Grand Junction attorney Jeff Hurd, who decided in August to challenge Boebert in the primary. 

Local Republican activist Nova Tucker read her own statement in support of Hurd, who she said was already scheduled for an event he was attending in Pueblo. Tucker said Hurd would help secure the border and remove anti-energy policies.

“He knows the district; He grew up here,” Tucker said. “Jeff is good at solving problems. He’s not flashy, loud, but smart.”

Tucker didn’t address election fraud conspiracies, but she previously helped organize local election deniers who canvassed Mesa County voters, and in 2021, sold “Truth and Justice” T-shirts at a rally to raise money for Peters’ legal defense fund.

Andrews said that Hurd “blew us off,” adding, “If Jeff Hurd was here tonight I’d remind him of the number of lawyers in Congress,” and that we don’t need anymore.” He said voters should instead vote for an engineer like himself.

When candidates were asked how they would cross party lines to advance priorities important to Western Slope residents, Hanks responded “What we need is a House majority that does not need to cross the aisle. Trump will be our President. He needs a House of Representatives that will work with him.”

Hanks said he would eliminate the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and would also consider chopping the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Varela, who is a member of the Colorado Board of Education for the 3rd Congressional District, said he would eliminate “lots of departments” but did not say which ones he would cut. He claimed that boys are being feminized in schools, and that “boys don’t want to be boys anymore.”

Andrews slurred the Departments of Education and Agriculture by referring to the first as the “Department of Indoctrination,” claiming, without evidence, that it is “training kids to hate themselves,” and for that reason he would eliminate the department. He also said he would eliminate the Department of Agriculture, which he called the “Department of Food Stamps.”

Hanks proclaimed that he fully believes that Trump won the 2020 Presidential election, a conspiracy claim that has repeatedly been proven false. He admitted that he went to Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, for what he called a “peaceful protest” encouraged by Trump.

“I don’t accept endorsements from politicians from out-of-state,” Hanks said. “The only endorsement I’ll take is from Donald Trump.

“What’s important is getting ready for another 9-11, and the civil war,” Hanks said.

Hanks mentioned he has promoted legislation that would require same-day voting with a photo ID, and the use of paper ballots.

Stand for the Constitution Facebook post, 9/16/21

Granado said that while he has voted via mail-in ballots himself, he agreed that they should be banned. Andrews also said voting machines can be manipulated, and that elections should be conducted with paper ballots counted by hand. 

Varela said he also supports paper ballots and same-day elections. He additionally said that Dominion machines are corrupted – a false claim that has been debunked repeatedly. 

Varela said he wishes indicted former Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, “all the best.” Peters faces 10 criminal counts, including seven felonies, related to an election security breech in her office.   

Peters’ jury trial was recently postponed to late July.

Two and half years ago in the same church, SFTC held a rally for Peters that also featured one of the candidates, then state Rep. Ron Hanks. 

When asked if they consider themselves to be “MAGA, America First” candidates, everyone declared their priority of putting America first. While Hanks and Andrews both confirmed both terms, McCracken and Granado put their own spin on the “America First” phrase. McCracken said simply that he has always been a Republican and voted for Reagan twice. Granado’s response was the most original, taking a longer view of the concept:  

“Certainly, I’m an American First Republican,” Granado said. “America has always been great to me. I was a migrant farmworker with my dad and siblings. I love this country. Our ancestors were here and loved this country before it was America.”