The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colorado recall becoming referendum on guns

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate. There are 20 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the Senate, meaning Democrats would maintain control even if Morse and Giron are recalled.

In the wake of mass shootings in suburban Denver and Newtown, Conn., last year, Colorado became one of the few states to pass new gun control legislation. Now, the architects of that legislation face recall elections that have become proxy wars for conservatives angry about the new gun rules, among other liberal initiatives the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed earlier this year.

On Sept. 10, voters will head to the polls to decide the fates of state Senate President John Morse, of Colorado Springs, and Sen. Angela Giron, of Pueblo, the first two legislators to be subject to a recall in Colorado’s 137-year history. After the legislative session, conservative activists gathered more than 10,000 signatures on recall petitions targeting Morse, and nearly 13,500 signatures targeting Giron, well over the threshold required by state law to force both senators onto the ballot.

The outcome of the recalls will influence the future of the debate over gun control legislation in Colorado and in other states; if two pro-gun control state legislators lose after backing the new laws, other gun control advocates may hesitate before they pursue their own measures. That fact has drawn the attention of outside groups on both sides of the aisle. Altogether, the two sides have spent nearly $2 million on the two races since Aug. 1, according to the Colorado secretary of state’s office — most of it coming from high-profile outside groups with a stake in the gun debate.

Gun rights organizations have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars through local front groups; the National Rifle Association alone has spent more than $108,000 on campaign advertisements and mailers, while Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group run by brothers Charles and David Koch, has mailed its own advertisements to area voters.

On the left, labor and teachers unions have funded a group called We Can Do Better Colorado. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has sent $250,000 to two groups opposing the recalls. And on Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would contribute $350,000 to another Democratic outside group, Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy. Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, backed the gun control package, which expanded background checks on gun purchases and limited the size of ammunition magazines, that passed the legislature earlier this year.

“The flash point is the unconstitutional gun control legislation [Democrats] pushed through,” said Ryan Call, the chairman of the state Republican Party. “They took a bill that came in from an out-of-state organization on gun control and they rammed it through without any debate, without any discussion, without any amendments from law enforcement.”

Voters will face a two-step process in deciding whether to oust the two incumbents. First, they must cast a ballot on whether to recall Morse and Giron. Second, they must choose a candidate to replace the incumbent. The replacements are almost afterthoughts: Former Colorado Springs city councilman Bernie Herpin is the only candidate on the ballot in Morse’s district, while conservative activist George Rivera is the only alternative available in Giron’s district. If voters decide to recall the two Democrats, the two Republicans will win by default.

“When John Morse and the Colorado legislature decided to strip away the rights of law-abiding citizens, I had to step up and run to replace John Morse in the state Senate,” Herpin said in an email. “John Morse has been a failed state senator and ignored his constituents.”

On paper, Democrats should have a healthy advantage. Though Colorado Springs has a reputation as a conservative bastion, Morse’s district includes the liberal enclave of Manitou Springs; President Obama received 59 percent of the vote in Morse’s district, according to an analysis by the liberal Daily Kos website. Obama received 58 percent of the vote in Giron’s Pueblo-based district.

But recall elections are strange animals. An irregularly scheduled election held early in a school year for two low-profile offices is a recipe for low turnout, and almost by definition the party that is out of power is more motivated to show up and cast a ballot.

Making matters more complicated for Democrats, the condensed timeline means regular absentee voters won’t receive a ballot in the mail. For an overwhelming number of Colorado voters, that’s a huge change: 77 percent of Coloradans who cast a ballot in 2012 did so by mail. Now, they will have to go to a physical polling place. “There just isn’t enough travel time in the mail” to send absentee ballots, said Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler. Military and overseas voters will still be able to cast an absentee ballot, most likely over the Internet.

Operatives from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee are already on the ground in hopes of lending Morse and Giron a hand by boosting turnout.

Ironically, while the recall efforts ostensibly began as a reaction to gun control legislation, both sides are playing down their positions on the issue. Groups attacking Morse have accused him of supporting big tax increases and dredged up an old ethics complaint. Morse himself has focused on his career as a law enforcement officer and chief of the Fountain Police Department. A recent television ad for Giron touted her work on behalf of children’s groups.

“The far right conservatives used gun votes as a proxy for staging the recall, but they’re not really talking about guns,” said Craig Hughes, a Democratic political consultant based in Denver. “They just used that to open the door to try to take two Democrats out, [using] any means they can to try to get a little more power back.”

Public filings show Democrats have vastly outspent Republicans. Estimates from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks broadcast television advertising spending, show that Democratic groups opposing the recalls have spent about $275,000, compared with just $12,000 in advertising for Republican groups that support the recalls. The estimates were compiled for the Atlas Project, a liberal-leaning group in Washington.

Despite the absence of guns in those television advertisements, there’s no question that the legislature’s actions on guns spurred the conservative backlash, and the first legislative recalls in Colorado’s history. The developments come at the same time as a group of activists in northern and eastern Colorado are publicly working to secede from the state over the legislature’s actions.

“Democrats campaigned saying they were going to focus on jobs and the economy, and then they run these kinds of legislation that’s causing businesses to leave the state,” said Call, the GOP chairman.