DENVER – Two Colorado state lawmakers who backed gun-control measures in the aftermath of the mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut last year have been ousted in recall elections.
Pueblo voters in Democratic Sen. Angela Giron’s district approved her recall, with results coming in late Tuesday. Returns earlier showed Democratic Senate President John Morse also lost his seat in Colorado Springs.
Voters in Morse’s district chose former Republican City Councilman Bernie Herpin as his successor. In Giron’s race, voters chose Republican George Rivera, a former Pueblo police officer, to replace her.
Morse was an appealing target for a recall because he narrowly won re-election in 2010. He supported several Democratic-sponsored gun bills this year, including new limits on the size of ammunition magazines and expanding background checks to online and private firearm sales.
Giron’s working-class district favors her party but includes Democrats who are big supporters of the Second Amendment.
Angered by new limits on ammunition magazines and expanded background checks, gun-rights activists filed enough voter signatures for the recall elections – the first for state legislators since Colorado adopted the procedure in 1912.
The recalls were seen as the latest chapter in the national debate about gun rights – and, for some, a warning to lawmakers in swing states who might contemplate gun restrictions in the future. But gun-rights activists’ efforts to force recall elections for two other Colorado Democrats failed this year.
Tuesday’s vote also exposed divisions between Colorado’s growing urban and suburban areas and its rural towns. Dozens of elected county sheriffs have sued to block the gun laws, and some activists are promoting a largely symbolic measure to secede from the state.
Morse recall organizer Timothy Knight said voters were upset that Colorado’s Democrat-majority Legislature seemed more inclined to take its cues from the White House than its constituents. The gun laws passed this year with no Republican support.
“If the people had been listened to, these recalls wouldn’t be happening,” Knight said.
Both legislators voted for 15-round limits on ammunition magazines and for expanded background checks on private gun sales after the 2012 mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown, Conn. The legislation was signed into law by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The National Rifle Association and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lined up on opposite sides of the recalls.
Reported contributions to Morse and Giron totaled about $3 million, dwarfing the amount raised by gun activists who petitioned for the recall, though some independent groups didn’t have to report spending. The NRA and Bloomberg contributed more than $300,000 to the pro- and anti-recall campaigns.
Preliminary figures showed about 17,000 people – just 15 percent of registered voters – cast ballots in Morse’s election, and that more Republicans turned out to vote than Democrats.
Turnout in Pueblo, a more Democrat-friendly city than Colorado Springs, was about 30 percent, with more than 32,000 people voting.
Unlike most recent elections, there are no automatic mail ballots, so voters had to cast their ballots in person.
“This is a good, old-fashioned knock-and-drag operation – knocking on doors and dragging them to the polls,” said Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio, who worked Giron’s district Tuesday.
Morse, a former police chief in a Colorado Springs suburb, was first elected to the Senate in 2006.
The recall movement began in Durango, when local people tried to recall state Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, because of his votes on bills to limit the size of ammunition magazines and require background checks for all gun sales.
The Durango group failed to gain enough petition signatures to send the McLachlan recall to a vote. Front Range activists also failed to gather enough signatures against Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster. But their petition efforts paid off against Giron and Morse.
Because McLachlan won by a slimmer margin than any other House Democrat, gun-rights activists targeted him as a possible swing vote. McLachlan sponsored the amendment that raised the limit on ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, up from 10 in the original bill. But otherwise he stood with most other Democrats on the bills.
Hickenlooper initially rejected calls for stronger gun-control laws after 12 people were killed and 70 injured in an Aurora movie theater in July 2012. The governor changed his mind right before the December 2012 Newtown massacre, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Hickenlooper, who is up for re-election in 2014, kept a low profile in the recalls. A recent statewide poll by Quinnipiac University suggested that 52 percent of voters disapproved of his gun policy while only 35 percent approved.