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.
Peters is just one of multiple candidates for the Colorado position who have repeated former President Donald Trump's lies that President Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.
"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 percent 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.