DENVER (AP) — In a state darkened by the shadow of nightmarish mass shootings, two Colorado lawmakers who voted in favor of new firearms restrictions are fighting to keep their jobs.
Senate President John Morse in Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron in Pueblo face recall elections Tuesday in a battle that has attracted major players from around the nation, reflecting the sustained intensity over the issue of gun rights.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has contributed $350,000 in support of the lawmakers. Recall backers, meanwhile, have raised nearly a half million dollars, most of which has come from the National Rifle Association.
The contributions have raised the stakes in a fight over a pair of seats in the state Senate that don't even stand to tip the balance of power in the Democrat-led chamber.
"Colorado has become one of those swing states, a critical swing state, so the symbolism is really perfect," said Joshua Spivak, who tracks recall elections nationwide at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.
The elections will gauge how voters have reacted to the gun restrictions Colorado Democrats passed this year, most notably new 15-round limits on ammunition magazines and universal background check requirements. The measures were a response to mass shootings at a suburban Denver movie theater and an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. — and in Colorado, the Columbine High School shootings are never far from mind when gun rights are discussed.
The political tests come in a battleground state that has increasingly voted Democrat, and they are happening in districts that are emblematic of Colorado's nature. Morse was re-elected in 2010 by just a few hundred votes in an area not entirely friendly to Democrats. Giron's district, albeit favorable to Democrats, includes strong support from both parties for the right to bear arms provided by the Second Amendment.
Colorado residents have pushed for recalls of local elected officials before, but their frustrations have never reached the state Capitol until now.
Challenging Morse in Colorado Springs is former Councilman Bernie Herpin, and in Pueblo, former police officer George Rivera is challenging Giron.
Turnout has been steady in early voting, with few problems reported. Three people in Pueblo County who checked in to vote Saturday apparently never cast a ballot, a situation that prompted Gov. John Hickenlooper to issue a warning against anyone who could try to use such missing ballots as a means to challenge the election's results.
A spokesman for Hickenlooper said there have been reports of similar problems in El Paso County, but a spokesman at the county clerk's said he wasn't aware of any.
The money from Bloomberg, an advocate for stricter gun laws with his group Mayor's Against Illegal Guns, is formidable compared to any single contribution that recall backers have publicly disclosed. In all, Morse and Giron's supporters have raised about $2.5 million, including Bloomberg's contribution and $250,000 from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.
And while recall backers have been mum about their spending, Democrats think the amount is formidable, noting that some of their opponents are nonprofits that don't have to disclose their contributions.
President Barack Obama's administration lobbied Colorado lawmakers during debates on the gun bills this year, and he used the state as an example while pressing Congress for new restrictions on firearms in the spring.
A few weeks ago, the father of a Columbine shooting victim sent an email letter through the president's "Organizing for Action" account, decrying Congress' rejection of new gun laws.
"These tragedies keep happening, and so far, Congress has failed to take common-sense action to stop them," said Tom Mauser, whose son, Daniel, was among the students killed in 1999.
Despite the powerful lobby supporting firearm restrictions, Second Amendment advocates believe that momentum is on their side. They note that this is the first time Colorado lawmakers have ever faced a recall election and say they are part of a motivated voting bloc, ready to punish lawmakers who advanced gun-control measures.
"They were so appalled by their actions that they decided to organize a recall election and express their displeasure that way," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, which has contributed about $361,700 to support the recalls. "This is democracy playing out in an orderly manner, and we are proud to be a part of that effort and representing the interests of our members in these legislative districts."
Victor Head, a 29-year-old plumber who organized the recall effort against Giron, said he and his friends were so enraged by what they saw at the state Capitol that they came to the simple conclusion: "No more sitting on the couch and shaking our fist at the TV."
While Head said the original goal was accountability, the significance of the elections is not lost on him that this is a referendum on how far lawmakers can go in passing stronger gun laws. Outside of the liberal-friendly confines of the East Coast, Colorado is the only state to pass gun restrictions in reaction to recent mass shootings.
"Colorado is a test case. I think everybody can admit that," Head said.
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