COLORADO SPRINGS — Gun-rights advocates and conservative voters here and in Pueblo sent a shock wave across the state and nation Tuesday when they succeeded in recalling two state senators who supported modest gun-control measures passed last spring.
Supporters of state Senate President John Morse, including some of the state’s top Democratic officeholders and strategists, stood reeling at his downtown election-night headquarters here as Morse delivered his concession speech.
Bleached by television lights, he thanked his campaign team and attempted to cheer the crowd by referring to Angela Giron, the senator from Pueblo also facing recall, whom he clearly assumed would face down her opponents and continue to carry the torch for Democrats in the Senate.
“Angela legislates from the heart and she wears her heart on her sleeve. She carried so many important bills last session,” he said. “It was a phenomenal session and next session will be even better.”
Democrats were prepared for Morse to lose. He represents a split district in a famously conservative town. He won his last election by 300 votes. But they saw Giron as a generally popular official, a Latina from a heavily Latino working-class Democratic stronghold city.
In the end, however, Morse came closer to winning than did Giron. He lost to City Councilman Bernie Herpin by 2 percentage points. Giron lost by 12 points to retired Deputy Police Chief George Rivera.
The successful recall votes — the first-ever legislator recalls in the state — come as a second chapter in the story of gun politics being written by Colorado for the nation. First, Colorado Democrats passed gun-control legislation when federal efforts withered. Now, Republicans have won two state Senate seats in what they will characterize as a high-profile referendum on any new gun-control laws at all.
Democrats here, as they have in the past across the country, will be forced to weigh whether passing laws that close loopholes on background checks for gun buyers and that limit legal ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, for example, is worth sacrificing political capital that has been used to bring change in other significant policy areas.
As Morse walked through the crowd after his speech, reporters’ eyes moved from their mobile phone and laptop screens to one another’s faces. The story of the night was unfolding in Pueblo.
“Is it true?” Morse said to a staffer when asked about the meaning of Giron’s coming loss. “Have you heard that?”
“Yeah,” said the staffer staring back.
“And that’s it?” he said.
“Geesh,” said Morse without another word. His eyes went wide and then he headed out the door.
Giron’s loss signaled that the state Democratic machine, so successful over the last decade at turning out voters and winning seats in this formerly red state, had hit a bump. More than that, the obvious shock of the loss, the searching for words all around when it came time to comment, signaled that Democratic research and strategy had been off the mark.
Campaign people here noted that the recall elections were being held in September, that Coloradans used to voting with mail ballots had been forced by the courts this time to vote in person, that the districts where Morse and Giron were not representative and that turnout was low.
“This is about a recall, a one-issue election,” state Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino told the Independent. “The low turnout means a vocal minority has a disproportionate say. There are 58 Democrats in the General Assembly. This election doesn’t change the fact that Democrats control both chambers. It doesn’t change the laws. It doesn’t change public opinion.”
When Michael Bennet won election to the U.S. Senate from Colorado in 2010, his race was touted by Democrats as a model for the nation. Bennet had never previously run for office. He is not the kind of charismatic politician who lights up a room with passion or artful anecdotes. He also weathered a nasty primary. Yet he defeated a popular grassroots conservative candidate in a year when Tea Party candidates swept into office around the country.
The sense has been that Democrats aren’t supposed to lose in Colorado any more.
Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, up for reelection in 2014, sent out a five-sentence release after the recall results were broadcast.
“Tonight, voters in two Senate districts have spoken,” he was quoted to say. “We are certainly disappointed by the outcome of the elections. It’s now time we refocus again on what unites Coloradans — creating jobs, educating our children, creating a healthier state — and on finding ways to keep Colorado moving forward.”
Hickenlooper has been a popular figure in the state for years and routinely topped state and national polls. In recent months, after the legislative session that saw Democrats pass the gun-control bills, same-sex civil unions legislation, a measure granting in-state tuition for undocumented students and a sweeping election-reform law, Hickenlooper’s poll numbers dropped.
That dip was easy to write off.
Then this summer, ten rural Colorado counties passed initiatives proposing secession from the state.
Now Morse and Giron have lost their Senate seats.
Suddenly, a slew of hardline Republican candidates slated to run against Hickenlooper and U.S. Senator Mark Udall — people like anti-illegal immigration warrior Tom Tancredo, gun-toting state Senator Greg Brophy and Weld County D.A. Ken Buck, who lost to Bennet — have been cast in a different light.
Political observers and party strategists who yesterday saw a crowded stage of Republican extras may now be seeing a whole new show.