Tuesday’s recall elections in Colorado—the first ones in state history—resulted in two Democratic state senators losing their seats. It also resulted in an excruciating amount of spin about what the losses meant for gun-control efforts in other states and at the federal level. Colorado was among the first states to pass gun-control legislation in the wake of two mass shootings, one of which occurred at a movie theatre in a Denver suburb.
But though the recall was undoubtedly prompted by anger over the vote, as I wrote last week, the actual elections results were never going to tell us much about gun-control opinions one way or another.
While the National Rifle Association and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns both got involved in the race, the elections quickly became about a broader swath of issues. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded Tea Party group, lambasted the two senators for their positions on taxes and Obamacare, getting pretty far afield from guns. Even ads from the NRA itself weren’t particularly gun-focused.
Additionally, these elections were unprecedented—Colorado had never held a legislative recall before—and a number of court decisions made the actual administration of the elections unusual. Most significantly, a last-minute judicial decision, over how long candidates had to gather signatures, wound up precluding mail-in ballots—even though a vast majority of Coloradans vote by mail and the state is currently transitioning to an all-mail-ballot elections system.
In the end, turnout was the lowest since a 2011 tax referenda. While the recall activists were engaged and energetic, the general public evidently was not. These elections don’t help us predict much about future fights, like 2014, when turnout will be significantly higher and elections administration significantly more predictable. Whether or not gun control is the most salient issue in the state is highly debatable, and the legislation that prompted the recalls may not loom so large a year from now.
But if there is one gun-related takeaway, however, it’s that Bloomberg can’t be the savior of the gun-control movement—big money won’t be enough to build energy and enthusiasm.
The retiring mayor has been among the most vocal advocates for stricter gun regulation. He has promised to get involved in races across the country. In national politics, that’s meant promises to go after the conservative U.S. Senate Democrats up for election next year who voted against federal gun-control legislation; few Senate Republicans are up for re-election. That’s nonetheless an awkward position, since most analysts argue that should they lose, the Democrats will be replaced by Republicans who are even further to the right on gun control. Colorado’s recalls gave Bloomberg the chance to reward instead of punish, by helping Democrats who had voted for gun-control legislation keep their seats.
That’s what makes these losses so notable—out-of-state groups poured money into the Democrats’ coffers. Bloomberg alone gave $350,000, more than the NRA put into the state. Overall, the anti-recall forces spent over $3 million, five times more than their opponents. Bloomberg sent in a dozen organizers to get out the vote two weeks before the election. According to the Atlas Project, a Democratic consulting group, Democrats aired 3,569 TV ads for the recall, including 969 in the week before the election. Republicans aired a paltry 486. Despite all of that, turnout was extremely low and their side lost.
To a certain extent, gun-control supporters are replicating a conservative playbook, trying to get specific laws passed in every state. (Think voter ID, abortion bans, and various other conservative measures that spread through the states quickly.) The trouble was, in Colorado, these senators were answering to a specific constituency—a small group of activists angry about their votes and a larger constituency who didn’t seem to care enough one way or another. Money went heavily into TV ads, rather than building grassroots support for the Democrats’ decisions. A poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling done the week before the recall but released afterwards, showed that 33 percent of Democrats in Giron’s district supported the recall, a strong sign that this was district of conservative Democrats with little party allegiance.
Even with the role of big money, the Colorado recalls seem to indicate that if not all, then at least some politics are still local. Politicians who take tough votes still have to sell their decisions back home with voters. Even buckets of money delivered by Bloomberg himself don’t change the need for elected officials to work with their constituents.