Coming Out Guns Blazing in Colorado's Recall Elections

AP Images/Michael Ciaglo

This Tuesday, in a low-turnout election, voters in two Colorado districts will decide whether they want to recall their state senators. Based on the outcome of those two elections, media around the country will determine whether gun control legislation is a safe political bet for elected officials who want to keep their seats; pro- and anti-gun control groups will see if flexing their muscles with large donations has all been for naught.

You might say the stakes in Colorado’s first-ever legislative recalls are high. But they probably shouldn’t be.

Back in March, the two Democratic state senators now facing recall—Angela Giron and Senate President John Morse—both helped pass gun control legislation that limited the size of ammunition magazines and extended background checks. The legislation came less than a year after a gunman opened fire in a Colorado movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 70, and three months after the Newtown elementary school shootings. Colorado is also the state where the infamous school shooting at Columbine High School happened in 1999. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper pushed the measure hard and a brand new Democratic majority in the state House as well as the pre-existing Democratic majority in the Senate, passed the controversial bill.

But while Democrats currently run the state, Colorado has long been associated with a kind of Mountain-West libertarian streak, and the measure sparked outrage among conservatives. While Giron’s district leans Democratic, Morse—a former law enforcement official and gun owner—comes from a more split district.

The races quickly took on national prominence. For decades, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has dominated gun policy debates, threatening to take down any lawmakers who voted for tightened regulations.  After the shootings in Newtown, however, the NRA was met with huge pushback. Several states passed stricter gun laws and there was a major effort to pass a federal gun control law—until the bill failed to gain the 60 U.S. Senate votes necessary to prevent a filibuster. 

Colorado has become, as The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis puts it, “the main venue for both sides to make a statement about the state of gun politics today.” For the pro-gun control players, the recall is an opportunity to show lawmakers don’t have to be afraid to vote for such legislation, because they can count on a strong defense—New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the most outspoken gun control advocates and the founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has donated $350,000 to protecting the Democratic senators’ seats and Eli Broad, a California businessman normally associated with education reform, has donated $250,000.

But there’s a flipside—this is also a chance for the NRA to show the consequences of crossing gun-rights advocates. The group famous for Charlton Heston’s “cold, dead hands” has given over $350,000 to its local committee, which supports the Republican challengers. Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party group that spent $33 million on the 2012 elections, has also gotten in on the act, though because of its tax status, it does not have to disclose its spending. In total, over $2 million has been donated to the recall efforts—including thousands of small checks—and some of the ads targeting Morse have been particularly misleading.

But these races are not an effective referendum on gun control, however much national groups and the media want them to be. For one thing, the gun law is unpopular in the state, but so is the recall effort—judging which sentiment will determine the recall outcome is tough. Morse, one of the senators facing recall, and the Senate president, is term-limited and only has a year left to serve; plenty may decide spending thousands of dollars when he’s out the door anyway is a waste and vote against the principle of the recall election itself. According to an August 22 Quinnipiac poll, while 54 percent of state voters oppose the new gun law, compared with 40 percent who support it, the gap is even greater on approving the recall. Around the state, 54 percent said Morse should not be recalled while on 35 percent said he should be. Giron, the other Democrat, had a similar margin of support: 52 to 36. While the pro-recall groups successfully prompted recall elections in these two cases, they failed to get the necessary signatures to recall other Democrats.

The race will come down to very few voters and will be impacted by a number of idiosyncratic administrative decisions—more evidence that these two races shouldn’t be seen as bellweathers of a larger dynamic.

The most significant administrative snafu affecting the recall elections was an unintended consequence of a new elections law, passed by the Democrats earlier this year, which was supposed to make the move to all-mail balloting. However, the law also shortened the number of days candidates had to collect signatures from the 15 days prescribed in the state constitution to 10. When the Libertarian Party sued for being denied ballot access, District Judge Robert McGahey ruled the party should have been allowed the full 15 days, it meant there wasn’t enough time to correct and send out mail ballots to include the party’s candidate. The decision threw a major wrench into both sides’ strategies; now they have to get people to polling places. While the elections administrator in Giron’s district has opened 10 centers for five days of early voting, with one that’s open for nine days, including the weekend. Meanwhile, Morse’s district’s elections administrators have opened only four polling centers for four days of early voting, and for only nine hours on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the race has expanded to be about more than gun control. Americans for Prosperity has criticized the Democrats for their positions on taxes, Obamacare, and other policies with little relation to the number of rounds in a magazine. “While the Second Amendment may have sparked the recall, we have a litany of complaints across the board,” said a group spokesman according to The New Republic.

Liberals have also broadened the debate, focusing on the Republican challengers’ positions on abortions. Planned Parenthood has sent out 27,000 mailers and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee hammered Republicans for “being too extreme”—a line of attack that worked well for Democrats during the 2012 elections. Environmental group Conservation Colorado also gave $75,000 to a group opposing the recall.

In real terms the stakes aren’t astronomical—even if both Morse and Giron lose, Democrats will still control both houses of the state legislature, though their 20-15 majority would fall to just 18-17. But the outcomes will also be interpreted as saying something about the guns—if the Democrats win, it shows gun control is politically palatable; if they lose, it shows the NRA still has muscles to flex.

Even so, the results might not have nearly as much to do with gun control as anyone wants to imagine. Rather, in small counties, in a low turnout election, with elections administration screwed up and everyone scrambling, it’s hard to say if there’s any actual lesson to learn.

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