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El Paso County Republican candidates are concerned the GOP leadership hampered individual campaign efforts ahead of Saturday assemblies, gatherings candidates rely on to make the June primary ballot.

The party assemblies where candidates for offices such as county commissioner, sheriff and state representative compete for votes from elected delegates to make the ballot are expected to be contentious this year amid a climate of deep local party division. The assemblies will also wield power, naming candidates to the ballot in races to replace House Reps. Tim Geitner and Shane Sandridge, who have decided in recent days not to run for reelection, leaving no time for candidates in those races to petition.

Some county candidates bank on the assemblies entirely to make the ballot, because petitioning can be expensive and out of reach for some. 

In weeks leading up to the assemblies, candidates would normally have had the opportunity to lobby delegates , but many say they received their lists of delegates at the last minute and, in some cases, weeks after their competitors. Candidates acknowledge putting the lists together based on the March 10 caucuses is challenging, but some were concerned about fairness when they started to receive campaign information from others before they got their lists.

"I think it needs to be fair for every single candidate," said Juli Henry, who is running in House District 21 and received her lists late. She also couldn't get information from the party about when the assembly for House districts will be held.

The short windows of opportunity to campaign followed instances of county Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins and her allies showing favor to certain candidates in recent months, prompting many more candidates to gather petitions this year rather than relying solely on the assemblies to help ensure they will appear on the ballot. 

"Vickie Tonkins, the chair of the El Paso County Republican Party, continues to demonstrate bias and favoritism in contradiction to the bylaws and duties and responsibilities of her office," said Karl Schneider, county party vice chairman.

Candidates have been worried about Tonkins' apparent bias because she appeared at events in February alongside a select group of candidates. She appeared at those events after the GOP's executive committee chastised her in a letter for giving the "improper" impression at a January party meeting that she supported some Republican legislators and opposed others. GOP rules prohibit party officers from taking sides in primaries.

Tonkins has previously denied wrongdoing. 

The candidates she favored — Todd Watkins, who is running for El Paso County sheriff; Peter Lupia, a county clerk and recorder candidate; state Rep. Dave Williams, challenging U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn; and Ron Hanks, running to challenge U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. — have appeared together at events that other Republican candidates for the same offices have not been invited to attend. 

The selected candidates lean to the right of some of their opponents, with Lupia promising to return to hand-counting ballots and to advocate for an end to mail-in voting, and Watkins promising to be a "constitutional" sheriff who will stand up to federal overreach. 

All five candidates are looking to the caucus and assembly process to make the primary ballot and have not submitted petitions to the county.

El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker, who is running for clerk and recorder, received campaign emails from Watkins and Williams at least three days ahead of campaign materials from other candidates. Schleiker said while he did not receive an email directly from Lupia, friends of his received a campaign-related email from Lupia, also ahead of campaign materials from other candidates.

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Additionally, Schleiker said he never received a delegate list from the county GOP headquarters; instead, he received it from his campaign manager.

"The irony of this is how in the world certain candidates already had these lists when many of us who are running for elected offices don't even have that," Schleiker said. "They were already emailing things out several days before us."

El Paso County Commissioners Holly Williams and Cami Bremer, who are running for reelection, were among those who received their delegate lists late and said the recent redistricting process that created new precincts compounded the problem.

The first list Williams received from the county party headquarters, she said, was just nine days ahead of Saturday's assembly and included more delegates outside her district than delegates within her district.

Williams said she did not get an accurate delegate list until Monday.

"When I obtained the correct list, I was told that the individuals who run the commissioner district election assisted headquarters by pulling out precincts in the commissioner district," she said.

The state Republican Party designed the system that tracks county delegates, and it doesn't account for individual county commissioner districts, Williams said.

Bremer criticized that move, saying it delayed commissioner candidates from lobbying their delegates by at least four days.

"I know it's difficult to tabulate caucus data ... but I'm disappointed in the lack of responsiveness and lack of attention to detail. Once the countywide list is completed, it can be sent to every candidate. Let us play with the data."

State Rep. Mary Bradfield said she got her delegate lists late, after her primary opponents had sent emails to delegates and alternates. 

"In the past, any delegate lists go to candidates and district leaders all at the same time, and why not? All are entitled to this information," she said in an email. 

Other candidates said they had received their delegate lists late or not at all, but declined to be identified for fear of retribution from the county party. 

Tonkins did not respond to The Gazette's request for comment.

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

Mary Shinn has worked at The Gazette since 2020 covering city hall, local politics and environmental issues. Previously, she worked for The Durango Herald from 2013 to 2020 covering city hall, education, environment and agriculture. In 2013, Shin

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