The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With violent rhetoric and election denial, podcaster becomes GOP force

Joe Oltmann has built a sprawling political network in Colorado marked by false 2020 election claims and suggestions that opponents be hanged

Podcaster Joe Oltmann, center, leads an influential and growing political movement in Colorado, one that will face a critical test of its influence in the state’s primary on June 28. (Olivia Sun/Colorado Sun/Report for America)

From a corporate office park in the Denver suburbs, podcaster Joe Oltmann spins a daily vision of America’s dark and violent future.

“Pretty soon we’ll have gallows being built all over the country. We can take care of all these traitors to our nation,” he told listeners during an episode late last year.

“Stretch that rope,” he intoned during another, suggesting that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) be hanged, before going on to explain that it was just a joke.

The violent rhetoric has contributed to such a tense political climate that Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) — a frequent target of Oltmann’s denunciations — now travels with a security detail, a first for the office she said.

Oltmann, a businessman who gained a national profile on the far right after he claimed he had personal knowledge that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, is hardly a fringe figure. He now leads an influential and growing political movement in Colorado that is shaking up the state Republican Party.

Oltmann’s political organization — FEC United, standing for “Faith, Education and Commerce” — is less than two years old, but it has been advocating for candidates up and down the Colorado ballot, from key statewide positions to obscure county jobs.

It has challenged GOP incumbents who want to pivot from the 2020 election obsession and will face a critical test of its influence in the state’s primary Tuesday, when candidates Oltmann has supported will be on the Republican ballot. Success for the group would add Colorado to the growing ranks of states where election deniers have triumphed in Republican primaries.

“The level of his influence is extremely high,” said Chuck Broerman, the elected clerk and recorder of Colorado’s El Paso County and a former chairman of the county GOP.

Broerman said he and his daughter were jeered at a local GOP meeting this spring after he earned the anger of Oltmann and his supporters for repeatedly confirming that there were no problems in the 2020 vote in his county, which Trump won by 11 percentage points.

The Colorado primary will take place against the backdrop of hearings in Washington by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. In those sessions, lawmakers have stressed that the menace unleashed in the lead-up to that day has not been extinguished.

“The idea that political violence is being normalized is incredibly dangerous for the future of our country,” Griswold said of Oltmann’s rhetoric.

Oltmann did not respond to a detailed list of questions requesting comment, but he alleged on his podcast on Wednesday that The Washington Post had contacted him “because they’re deathly afraid of what’s happening in Colorado.”

While Oltmann at times insists he does not advocate violence, a review of his rhetoric shows that he often issues threats to his political enemies or foretells a dark future when violence will be necessary.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Joe, are you advocating for violence?’ And I’m going to tell you, ‘No.’ But if you want to take our country, it will have to be with violence,” he said at a rally in Douglas County in March 2021, according to a video posted online by the Colorado Times Recorder. “If you’re going to take our way of life away from us, you’re not going to do it without blood spilled.”

For a brief moment after violence erupted on Jan. 6, 2021, it appeared Oltmann might face lasting consequences for spreading lies about the election in the lead-up to the attack. Facing a backlash, he told podcast listeners that he had been forced to resign from a data company he had founded.

But instead of a career ender, election falsehoods have morphed into rocket fuel, reflecting sentiment within the Republican Party that concerns about Jan. 6 have been overblown and that the insurrection may have even been justified. A survey conducted this month by YouGov found that less than half of Republicans believe the Jan. 6 attack was “not justified”; about three-quarters say “leftists” deserve blame for the attack, roughly three times the percentage who blame Trump.

The story of Oltmann’s rise shows how the stolen-election myth has vaulted previously unknown figures into positions of prominence within the GOP. It also provides a window into the state of the Republican grass roots — where belief that the 2020 election was rigged has become widespread, and comfort with extreme and violent rhetoric is growing.

The 48-year-old’s political ascent has been a strikingly rapid one.

Oltmann was a local businessman with eclectic holdings — a gun store, a car repair shop, a data marketing firm — when, in 2020, he first received some attention in Colorado for helping to organize anti-pandemic-lockdown events for a group called Reopen Colorado. He then became active at pro-police rallies amid Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.

But it was the presidential election that brought Oltmann to the national stage. Six days after the vote, he told listeners of his “Conservative Daily” podcast that he had weeks earlier infiltrated a meeting of “antifa journalists.” On the call, he said, he heard a man identify himself as Eric “the Dominion guy” and reassure the others that they need not worry about the election.

“Trump is not going to win. I made f---ing sure of that,” Oltmann claimed the man said.

Oltmann told listeners that he had identified the man as Eric Coomer, the director of product strategy and security for Dominion Voting Systems. There was no evidence to support his accusation. No other witness to the supposed call has ever emerged, and Coomer quickly denied the allegations.

But Oltmann’s claims catapulted him to a new level of stardom within the world of right-wing media. He was quickly booked on national shows hosted by Michelle Malkin and Eric Metaxas. His assertions were cited by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Trump ally Sidney Powell. His podcast briefly hit No. 8 on Apple’s ranking of popular downloads.

In December 2020, Coomer filed a defamation suit against Oltmann. Around that time, back in El Paso County, Broerman said he got a request from a top state party official to speak with Oltmann about his election concerns.

Broerman had never heard of the podcaster but figured it was important to hear out anyone who might have identified vulnerabilities in the vote. Instead, he found Oltmann’s complaints vague, peppered with technical language about voting machinery that didn’t match Broerman’s knowledge of the system.

“I felt like he was trying to buffalo me that he knew more than he did,” the clerk said.

After less than 10 minutes, Oltmann abruptly declared that he had another call and hung up, Broerman recalled.

Despite the lack of evidence for his assertions, the Colorado podcaster was a headliner at a rally in Washington on the evening of Jan. 5, 2021, explaining his theories that the election was stolen to a crowd of thousands gathered to object to the congressional certification of the electoral college votes the following day.

As violence unfolded on Jan. 6, he was at the State Department, briefing officials about his election theories alongside a Michigan lawyer now running for state attorney general, as The Post previously reported. Oltmann has not explained how he got the meeting but has described huddling with department leadership in a wood-paneled office suite, a measure of his access to Trump administration officials.

Senior Trump official at State met with election denial activists Jan. 6

What happened next typified how the Republican Party has responded to that day. In a Facebook Live video he hosted five days after Jan. 6, Oltmann told supporters that he had to step down from his company “to protect their interests,” citing what he called false accusations that he was an extremist.

But the defamation lawsuit against him was slow moving; a judge decided it could go forward in May, nearly 18 months after it was filed, ruling that there was prima facie evidence that Oltmann had “spread political disinformation at Coomer’s expense.”

Meanwhile, members of the Trump-supporting grass roots quickly came to believe that the events of Jan. 6 had been overblown or were not the work of the then-president’s supporters. Oltmann’s popularity in Colorado soon began to swell again as he traveled the country and shared the stage with national election-denial figures like Powell and MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell.

“Sidney, it might be a good idea to connect,” he wrote to Powell two days after Joe Biden was inaugurated, in an email released as part of the defamation case. “You … need to be aware of what we’re doing in Colorado in gaining access to the Dominion systems under the radar. We have several county clerks cooperating.”

At that time, Broerman said, county clerks across Colorado were under intense pressure to allow pro-Trump activists, including those who said they were affiliated with Oltmann’s FEC United, to access their voting machines to try to prove fraud. He declined. “I have a responsibility for that equipment. It’s part of federally protected infrastructure,” he said.

A few months later, however, a different Republican clerk in Colorado, Mesa County’s Tina Peters, allegedly orchestrated the secret copying of hard drives from her county’s Dominion Voting Systems machines. It was the first known case among several similar instances around the country of election deniers tampering with voting machinery to try to prove that fraud took place in 2020.

In March, Peters was charged with 10 counts, including seven felonies, related to the episode. But Oltmann has embraced her as a rising political star, hosting her on his podcast and appearing at joint public events where she has received wild applause. Peters, who has denied wrongdoing, is now running to be the Republican nominee for secretary of state, a position that would give her sway over future Colorado elections.

Oltmann’s network has focused on election rules and administration in campaigns for a wide array of offices.

“It’s amazing. Whether they’re running for coroner or sheriff or clerk, their platform is focused on elections,” Broerman said.

An elections supervisor embraced conspiracy theories. Officials say she has become an insider threat.

After Michigan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley was arrested this month and charged with four misdemeanor counts related to his alleged conduct during the Jan. 6 riot — including damaging federal property — Oltmann gave him a platform to appear on his podcast and explain that the criminal charges had made him only more popular among Republican voters. “They’re trying to stand in your way. And it’s having the opposite reaction. Obviously, the support is growing,” Oltmann told him. Kelley has denied that he committed a crime on Jan. 6.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the extremist group the Oath Keepers, who has been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with Jan. 6, called in to Oltmann’s show Wednesday from a Washington-area jail, where a judge has ordered him detained until trial. “He is in jail, still in good spirits, being held as a political prisoner for going to the Capitol on January 6 to stand up for the rights of Americans,” Oltmann said.

Oltmann’s group has received key support from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R), the controversial far-right Colorado congresswoman. “You are so valuable … I have your back,” she said in a recorded message for FEC United in January 2021, the Colorado Times Recorder reported. She has also appeared as a guest on Oltmann’s show.

Meanwhile, FEC United has grown more active in local politics, with members showing up at school board meetings around Colorado to complain about mask mandates in schools. During a speech last year, Oltmann bragged that the group had endorsed 53 candidates for school board elections in 2021, and he claimed that all 53 had won. He did not name them.

As Oltmann’s political influence has grown, so too have the avenues he has introduced to monetize his political platform.

He maintains a GiveSendGo page, soliciting frequent donations to his legal defense. The “Conservative Daily” podcast is supported by advertisers. FEC United also collects a fee from members. Oltmann claimed last November that 279,000 people were paying $60 a year to be part of the group, with more than 500 joining every day.

Oltmann has insisted that his political activism has negatively affected his business career and that he has made financial sacrifices in its pursuit. But his frequent appeals for contributions have earned new critics — including, in recent weeks, Max McGuire, who had acted as Oltmann’s co-host on his podcast since its launch but quit this spring after Oltmann supported Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

“I have a serious problem with anyone who asks people, many of whom are on a fixed income, to donate to them, while they continue to live extravagant lives,” McGuire wrote on Telegram. He declined further comment.

Oltmann said this week on his podcast that he acts “unselfishly.”

“It’s not for advertising clicks,” he said. “It’s not for personal gain.”

Oltmann talks with some frequency about the need to hang people to send a message.

“I went and bought a bunch of rope,” he said on his podcast late last year. “That way I can pull people behind my car when their body parts fall off, so it’s far enough behind, doesn’t get any blood on it,” he continued.

“I’m kidding everyone. I’m kidding! It’s totally a joke!” he then added.

But a few days later, he continued the theme: “I want people to go out there and get some wood. The gallows are getting wider and longer. We should be able to build gallows all the way from Washington, D.C., to California,” he said.

Among those he has labeled a traitor is Polis. After saying “stretch that rope” with reference to the governor, he added: “I’m being funny. Why can’t you be a little funny?”

A spokesman for Polis declined to comment.

Oltmann also threatens to commit violence personally against those who might threaten him.

“I’m not afraid to punch a communist in the face,” he told podcast listeners in April. “I’m not afraid, if someone comes to my house, to let them come back out in a large bag. … I may go to jail. I may go to jail — but you will drink through a straw for the rest of your life.”

After Peters was arrested, FEC United hosted an “emergency meeting” in her defense at a church outside Denver. Peters arrived at the meeting a few hours after she was booked by police. She was greeted with a standing ovation. From the stage, several speakers denounced Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state, accusing her of engaging in election fraud.

“You know, if you’re involved in election fraud, then you deserve to hang,” said one speaker after referencing her. “Lock her up!” the crowd chanted in response, reprising the 2016 Trump campaign rally chant used about Hillary Clinton.

“It was so depressing,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party who said he voted for Trump in 2020 but has warned of the danger of Oltmann’s rise. “The crowd was laughing and applauding. It was great fun.”

Oltmann’s association with John Tiegen, a former Marine and founder of the United American Defense Force, has also worried his critics, who describe the group as a militia. Its members sometimes attend events armed and wearing military-style fatigues. On its website, the UADF says it is a “humanitarian aid organization” created to assist first responders and “defend and protect what is ours.” Tiegen did not respond to requests for comment.

During a deposition in his defamation case, Oltmann said he is merely a member of the group. But in Colorado corporate records, UADF lists its address as a wedding venue operated by Oltmann’s wife. And during an appearance on Oltmann’s podcast in August 2021, Tiegen called the UADF the “protection division” of FEC United and claimed that the group had several hundred members.

Griswold said the UADF essentially serves as an armed wing of Oltmann’s empire. Amid growing threats, the secretary of state began traveling with a security detail last year, her office said.

“Any person, when they see an election denier group with a militia arm call for them to be hanged, would take that extremely seriously,” she said.

In April, 3,800 Republican activists gathered in Colorado Springs for the GOP’s assembly meeting. Candidates wishing to get on the June ballot could either gather signatures on petitions or seek 30 percent of the vote at the assembly.

The gathering gave Peters its loudest cheers, and delegates tried to nominate Oltmann for governor. He declined, choosing to speak instead on behalf of Peters and state Rep. Ron Hanks, an election denier who attended the rally for Trump in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and is seeking the GOP nomination to face U.S. Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D) in November.

Peters won 60 percent of the state Republican assembly vote, and Hanks won 39 percent, meaning both will appear on the primary ballot.

Wadhams warned that the rise of Oltmann’s candidates could lead to a wipeout for the party in Colorado, an increasingly Democratic-leaning state. “It’ll be the final nail in the coffin of unaffiliated voters looking at Republicans as a bunch of conspiratorial nuts,” he said. “I’m not sure we can recover from that.”

Three days after the assembly, Oltmann explained on his podcast that he is not ready to run for office.

“I was like, I can’t run. I don’t have time. FEC is sweeping the nation,” he said. “I have to be in that.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this story misidentified the platform that Joe Oltmann uses to solicit donations to his legal defense. It is GiveSendGo, not GoFundMe.

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