Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
Million-dollar campaigns, saturation advertising and massive canvassing have become commonplace in U.S. elections, especially in a swing state such as Colorado. A campaign underway there has all of the above - in a recall vote for two state senators that has become a showdown over gun policy and political dominance in a changing state.
Democratic state Sens. Angela Giron and John Morse voted to require universal background checks for gun purchases and to ban large-capacity ammunition magazines. Colorado passed the restrictions in March, within a year of mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. Gun control opponents have mounted a campaign to kick them out of office; voting ends Tuesday.
A welter of national groups are pouring at least $2 million into Tuesday's recall election, the first in Colorado history. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of a mayors' gun control group, contributed $350,000; his fellow billionaire Eli Broad contributed $250,000. The gun control group founded by former representative Gabrielle Giffords is running ads, as is VoteVets and a labor organization. The National Rifle Association will spend about $500,000 on mailings, TV ads and phone banks.
"This was an incredibly passionate issue, very high profile," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "It just went right up the flagpole. It was unbelievably hot immediately."
Opponents of the recall say it's an effort to intimidate state legislators in Colorado and elsewhere who might vote for more stringent gun laws. Dudley Brown, head of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, is happy to have the Colorado recall seen as a national example. "We're certainly a bellwether state, and it's going to send a signal all around the country that this is a really dangerous thing for your political career to vote against the Second Amendment," he said.
Tim Knight, one of the original activists in the recall effort, says he is angry about the gun laws, but the recall is a more general protest about government overreach. "I don t think it's intimidation. I think it's accountability," he said. The recall "is going to remind every legislator that they actually work for the people."
Jennie Peek-Dunstone, who heads Giron's campaign, expects the election will be close. She agrees the key issue is not gun policy but governance. "It's a battle over whether or not we're going to govern with integrity, which is not relating to any one issue," Peek-Dunstone said. "What's unfortunate is that what you're seeing is that a group of people who would disagree on one issue could have their temper tantrum and force taxpayers to spent half a million dollars because they can't wait for the election next year."
State Democratic chair Rick Palacio said recalls aren't the way to settle what he calls a policy dispute. "These aren't issues that rise to the level of recalling a sitting legislator," he said.
Morse, the state Senate President whose district includes Colorado Springs, can't run for re-election in 2014 because of term limits. Giron from Pueblo is in her first term in the Legislature.
Tamra Farah, coordinator of the effort to unseat Morse, said a recall is a valid option, provided by the state constitution, for voters unhappy with their representatives. "That's what they chose as a district, and that's their freedom," she said.
"Why the push, why now? Colorado didn't want to put up with waiting any longer," Knight said. Signatures from 16,000 people on petitions forced the recall.
Mail-in ballots, which most Colorado voters use for regular elections, are not allowed in the recall, so both sides are focused on voter turnout. If the recall succeeds, the two legislators would be replaced by Republicans, shifting control of the state Senate to the GOP. If that happens, "my fear is that the recall process is used continuously," Palacio said. "I would imagine that Democrats could be tempted to try to use it in the future if things go the pro-recall way. That's not the way we should govern."
The Colorado recall will send a message to other states, Ciruli said, "when there's no progress being made in Washington and the states are the only place where there is any hope of getting anything done." But the recall reflects a political landscape that is distinctly Colorado, where Democrats, boosted by young and Hispanic voters, have been on a winning streak.
"It is an absolute test for the progressive agenda," Ciruli said. "It's not exactly the whole state getting up and voting here. Nonetheless, it's turned out to be something we're all watching. ... How much has Colorado really changed?"