Colorado recall under way: Will it send a message on gun control? (+video)

Early balloting reportedly has begun in earnest in advance of the closely watched recall votes Tuesday in the districts of two Colorado state senators who supported gun-control legislation. 

By , Staff writer

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    These photo combo of 2013 file photos shows state Sens. Angela Giron (D) of Pueblo, and John Morse (D) of Colorado Springs, who are facing recall elections, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, in a battle that has attracted major players from around the nation, reflecting the sustained intensity over the issue of gun rights.
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Early voting is under way in two Colorado districts whose state senators face a recall vote – a first in the state’s history.

The elections, which officially take place Tuesday, have drawn national attention and large outside financial contributions, with many pundits seeing them as precedent-setting elections in a bellwether state, with implications well beyond these districts, especially in the national gun-control debate.

The two state senators facing recalls – John Morse and Angela Giron, representing Colorado Springs and Pueblo – are both Democrats who supported gun-control legislation this past winter, including a bill that limits the size of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, and another that expands background checks to private gun sales.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Second Amendment? A quiz.

The bills – in a Western state with a long history of gun ownership, but also direct experience with shooting tragedies – were a notable victory for gun-control advocates, and caused an intense backlash from some gun enthusiasts.

Now, six months later, two of the bills’ supporters are fighting for their political lives – though observers differ on what it all means.

“Ultimately there’s really nothing at stake. It doesn’t change the balance of the state senate” even if both senators lose Tuesday, says Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. “But what happens is that people in Pueblo and Colorado Springs were forced to go through these activities and forced to foot the bill for them,” about half a million dollars, Mr. Palacio says. “That’s a high price to pay for what I’ve been calling temper tantrums by the far right.”

Still, the elections are drawing huge amounts of outside funding – from gun-control proponents like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and philanthropist Eli Broad on the anti-recall side, as well as from the NRA and Americans for Prosperity. (A recent Denver Post review of finance reports shows that opponents of the recall have raised nearly $3 million, while proponents have raised about $540,000.)

A big reason for that spending is the message that both sides believe could be sent by a successful recall – particularly one that includes Mr. Morse, the president of the state senate. Such a recall, believe some observers, could be a powerful deterrent for lawmakers in other swing states when it comes to gun control, and in Colorado, could send a message – on issues beyond just gun control – that some voters believe lawmakers have swung too far to the left.

“The fact that these recalls are even happening are a clear victory for gun owners, both in Colorado and nationwide,” says Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. His group has promised that “this recall sets the stage for the massive purge of Democrats that will take place in Colorado’s 2014 election.”

Critics of the recall worry that it could also set a dangerous precedent for voters thinking that recall is the answer if they don’t like a politician’s votes.

The outcome of this election “is going to tell us whether or not we’re going to have a recall every single time we disagree on an issue, or whether we’ll allow our legislators to actually govern,” says Jennie Peek-Dunstone, campaign manager for Pueblo United for Angela. “If we recall someone every time we disagree, it will be impossible for government to function, and it will be very expensive for the taxpayers.”

While gun-control measures were the catalyst for the recall petitions, the backlash seems to have been fueled by anger over a number of bills the Democratic legislature has passed in the last term, including new green-energy requirements for rural electric cooperatives, civil unions for same-sex couples, and same-day voter registration. And, in many ways, it’s exposing a stark rift in a state that is moving to the left and becoming more urban, alienating some conservative rural voters. In several Northeast Colorado counties, there is even a secessionist movement underway.

“The new gun laws were just the catalyst. A lot of people are very upset about being ignored, so finding vocal moral support hasn’t really been a hard sell,” Tim Knight, who many call the “founder” of the recall effort, told the National Review in a recent interview, adding that Morse has “made everyone mad.”

Mr. Palacio calls the recalls an “emotional response” that is “fueled by the same people that are pushing for several counties to secede.”

Still, the recalls are drawing national attention because of what they mean for gun control – especially since the only movement on gun-control measures is currently happening at the state level.

“It’s important that the gun lobby lose every fight like this, that we continue to deflate them,” says Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has been actively canvassing and calling voters in the two senate districts, urging them to go to the polls in support of Morse and Giron. “A win for them will make them have the false assumption that this is the way it will be across the country.” Still, Ms. Watts notes, “even if these people are recalled, the laws don’t change. This great sweeping legislation still stands, and the impact still stands.”

Given the number of voters involved in the districts, who wins on Tuesday will be almost completely about turnout, and which side gets more voters to the polls. Unusually for a Colorado election, mail-in ballots are not being allowed, but reports so far show strong turnout in early voting, with more than 20,000 voters casting their ballots in the Giron election and nearly 10,000 in the Morse election as of Monday morning.  

“Turnout is high, people are energized, and we have a lot of volunteers on the ground trying to remind people they need to get out and vote,” says Palacio.

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