Colorado’s Civil War

A recall election turned a local fight into the latest front in the national gun control debate

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Ed Andrieski / AP

Colorado State Senators Angela Giron and and John Morse who are facing recall elections.

All politics is local, the saying goes. But is it true anymore? Voters in Colorado may decide today.

Bigfoot out-of-towners have been pouring tons of money into two state senate districts, aiming to influence a rare attempt to recall sitting lawmakers. Though the recall effort began as a grassroots protest against the narrow passage of a gun control bill earlier this year, once the necessary petitions were signed and certified, the fight went national. One of the richest men in the world, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has pumped at least $350,000 into an effort to defeat the recall through his Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization. He is matched by one of the richest lobbies in Washington, the National Rifle Association, which has poured a similar amount into winning the recall.

And that’s where the politics of this unplanned late-summer brawl start to be really interesting. But to get the nuances we need to start at the beginning.

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Early this year, after President Obama made gun control legislation a key point in his State of the Union message, Colorado’s Democratic legislature mustered the votes to pass a bill expanding background checks and banning magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. When Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in March, many Coloradans suspected that he had at least one eye on some higher office, because Hickenlooper had never been known as a gun-control booster.

Nor had Colorado been known as a gun-control state: one organization that pushes for tougher limits on gun ownership gave the state a D on its report card; another granted one star out of a possible four. Hunting is a major pastime in the outdoorsy Mile High State, where highway signs just west of Denver point the way to Buffalo Bill’s grave. Revulsion over the mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater, the earlier Columbine High School rampage, and the massacre of little children in Newtown, Conn., pushed the bill through. But those events had less impact elsewhere than many pundits had predicted, and the Colorado Democrats who pushed the law found themselves at the head of a parade that had no tail.

The reaction was intense. People who wanted high-capacity firearms rushed to gun stores to beat the July 1 effective date for the new limitations. Applications for purchase permits jumped by more than 80,000 from the same period a year earlier. Sheriffs in 54 of Colorado’s 64 counties joined a lawsuit challenging the new regulations as unworkable and unconstitutional. And in two state senate districts, gun rights voters who felt their views had been scorned quickly collected thousands of signatures necessary to recall Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo. It’s the first legislative recall in Colorado history.

Why those two in particular? Because each one represents a wrinkle in the fast-changing fabric of Colorado politics. A generation ago, this was a state in relatively peaceful balance. The Democrats concentrated in Denver, Boulder and Pueblo, while Republicans were scattered across the high prairies and ranchlands and suburbs. Statewide races tended to be decided by personalities and the issues of the day; during much of the 1980s, Colorado’s U.S. senators were the liberal Democrat Gary Hart and the conservative Republican Bill Armstrong—an almost inconceivable spread in these days of regional polarization.

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As Colorado’s cities have grown, through migration and immigration, the Democrats have gotten the upper hand, though—at least for now. Four of the last five governors have been Democrats; both U.S. senators are now Democrats; and the party has a majority in both chambers of the state legislature.

Conservatives are feeling embattled in a state where they have always felt at home. In the rural northeastern part of the state, there’s a movement to secede from Colorado and set up shop as State No. 51. The recall efforts are a more pragmatic reaction, given the politics of the two districts.

Morse, the Senate president, represents the most conservative of Colorado’s big cities. Colorado Springs is home to a large number of military retirees and has been a magnet for evangelical Christians over the years. The fact that any Democrat can win there is proof of the shifting electorate, but Morse’s wins have always been squeakers, which makes him potentially vulnerable.

Ousting Giron is more of a longshot, according to polls, but what puts her at risk is the fact that Pueblo Democrats are not as reliably liberal as Boulder Democrats. Despite years of industry trouble, steelmaking is still the dominant private enterprise in town, and the steelworkers union is vital to the local party. It’s reasonable to think that blue-collar Democrats might feel differently about gun rights than their fellow partisans in the faculty clubs and organic food markets of Boulder.

These are the currents running beneath the storm of publicity stirred up by Bloomberg and the NRA. Eager to join the fray, defeat the gun lobby, and keep a firm grip on the statehouse, other big-money Democrats have opened their checkbooks, too—including Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, who is in for at least $250,000. All told, liberal groups and individuals have put more than $2 million into campaigns that normally cost less than one-tenth of that.

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On the conservative side, some late money has been arriving to augment the NRA funds from Americans for Prosperity, a group associated with the billionaires David and Charles Koch. But it is unlikely that the right will match the left in total spending. Too many GOP office holders are nervous about the precedent that would be set by a successful recall. As recall organizer Tim Knight told Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review magazine: “The Republicans don’t want anything to do with us because they think, ‘Next they’ll recall us’.”

Can outside money drive a local election? And if so, which way will the election be pushed? Polling stations in both districts have been open for days, and they report heavy turnout. There is no question the new law kicked over a hornet’s nest of angry gun owners, which in turn has motivated the other side. But when the ballots are counted tonight, the deciding votes might well belong to Coloradans who don’t like having their politics turned into a national plaything.