Colorado voters recalled two Democratic state senators on Tuesday over their support for gun control legislation passed early this year.
State Senate President John Morse from Colorado Springs and state senator Angela Giron became the first two legislators in the history of the Rocky Mountain State to be recalled from office. They were defeated in heavily contested races that featured heavy spending by outside groups like the NRA and the Michael Bloomberg backed organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG).
The contests were widely viewed as referendums on Colorado’s gun control legislation which was introduced in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre in December. The state's new laws, passed as part of a flurry of liberal legislation after Democrats took control of state legislature in the 2012 election mandated universal background checks paid for by gun buyers as well as banning magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition. While three other solidly Democratic states, Connecticut, Maryland, and New York, also passed gun control legislation this year, Colorado was the only swing state to do so. As a result, it was seen as a key battleground by both the gun lobby and gun control advocates and the first electoral test of whether Newtown actually changed American politics.
Voters recalled Morse by a tight margin of 51% to 49%, while Giron lost by a slightly larger tally of 56% to 44%. The NRA was quick to hail the historic recalls as a victory for the gun-rights movement. In a statement, they declared the result to be “a resounding defeat” for Bloomberg.
Republicans had won Democratic strongholds and were sending a message to incumbent Governor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic state legislature, and even to Washington, D.C.
Mark Glaze, the Executive Director of MAIG, viewed the election results through a rose-colored lens. He thought the group’s efforts in Colorado to pass gun control laws and then aid legislators facing recall had been a “net positive.” After all, he pointed that out that Colorado’s gun control laws would still be in effect and that they had managed to ward off attempts to recall several other legislatures. To him, it was more important that his group had planted its flag in these races. “The NRA has owned this issue for these kinds of contests” in the past, he said. Now, with the involvement of his group “elected officials that take risks to keep the public safe will have all the support that they ask for.”
One veteran D.C. operative scoffed at the well-financed efforts of gun control advocates, describing the Colorado recalls as ground zero in the battle over gun rights. “The NRA was all in,” the operative said. “If the result is a surprise, there’s a level of incompetence from New York or Denver that can only be called malpractice.”
Tuesday’s elections were held in two very different districts. Morse represented some of the most left-leaning parts of deep red Colorado Springs and had a relatively transient population with traditionally low turnout. On Election Day, Democrats struggled to turn out targeted voters in a district where Republicans had the advantage in early voting. Giron represented Pueblo, a heavily Hispanic and traditionally Democratic area; but she had a tense relationship with party elders in an area where local Democrats tended to be more conservative.
Perhaps the biggest advantage for recall supporters was the amount of grassroots organizing that was done in petitioning for the elections. The effort to gather signatures had energized the conservatives and meant large numbers of voters were identified months in advance of the unprecedented election. In contrast, while recall opponents outspent supporters by a 5 to 1 margin, they were not able to rely on the same grassroots support.
There was also a plethora of procedural litigation, which meant that there were no mail-in absentee ballots and dates for early voting weren’t set until less than two weeks before Election Day. As a result there were inconsistent procedures in each recall, for example, Giron’s district had early voting on the Sunday before the election while Morse’s didn’t.
Colorado political insiders had different takes on what the election would mean in the highly-contested purple state in the future. One Democratic operative was relatively unconcerned with the long-term consequences. They pointed out that neither of the districts were bellwethers for the state and would have been far more concerned if the recalls had happen in swing areas in suburban Denver—in fact, the Democrat said there was a case to be made that the party shouldn’t have even held on to Morse’s seat in 2010.
Owen Loftus, the communications director for the Colorado Republican Party, had a far more sweeping interpretation. In his opinion, Republicans had won Democratic strongholds and were sending a message to incumbent Governor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic state legislature, and even to Washington, D.C. He was confident that this was an important omen for 2014, which showed Colorado Republicans were “organized, excited, and ready to win.”
2014 is a long way off and a low-turnout, special election is an imprecise harbinger of future results—after all, in the year before George Bush’s re-election, Democrats picked up Republican-held congressional districts in South Dakota and Kentucky while Republicans won a congressional seat in Queens in 2011. But what is clear is that the NRA still carries plenty of political weight—even after Newtown and even in the state where the Aurora massacre occurred. Gun-control advocates may be starting to fight back against NRA groups but they’re still a long way away from being able to match them.