WASHINGTON -- The first recall election in Colorado's history on Tuesday marked a stunning victory for the National Rifle Association and gun rights activists, with the ouster of two Democrats -- Senate President John Morse (Colorado Springs) and state Sen. Angela Giron (Pueblo). The two lawmakers were the target of separate recall fights over their support for stricter gun laws earlier this year.
"The highest rank in a democracy is citizen, not senate president," Morse said in his concession speech, as his supporters solemnly watched, some shedding tears.
What originally began as local political fallout over the Democratic-controlled legislature's comprehensive gun control package quickly escalated into a national referendum on gun policy. Morse and Giron both voted in favor of the legislation, signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in March, which requires background checks for all firearm purchases and bans ammunition magazines over 15 rounds.
Gun rights activists initially sought to recall four Democrats they perceived as vulnerable, but only collected the required signatures to challenge Morse and Giron.
Language for the "yes" ballots, authored by proponents of the recall, said the lawmakers were guilty of contempt for "the constitutional liberties of the people" and "firearm manufacturers and for the rights of Colorado citizens." Those working against the recall used the "no" ballots to cast their opponents as "extremists" who were willing to make guns available to felons and "spouse abusers."
While voter turnout is typically low in recall elections, Democrats accused pro-recall activists of engaging in voter suppression tactics. A big blow to Morse and Giron was a ruling that prohibited voting by mail in the election, even though Colorado voters have overwhelmingly relied on mail-in ballots in the past. The decision ignored a state law passed earlier this year that guaranteed a ballot by mail to every registered voter in Colorado, including in a recall election.
A get-out-the-vote canvasser for Giron, who requested anonymity out of safety concerns, said gun rights activists also engaged in "extreme voter intimidation" at polling centers in Pueblo on Tuesday.
"We had to call the police on a van of four huge guys staking out our staging location," the canvasser told HuffPost. "Volunteers are being followed, threatened, having their pictures taken and yelled at. We're now being told that it's bad enough to call 911 immediately."
Lawmakers and advocates across the country eagerly awaited Tuesday's results, which many felt carried significant implications for the national debate on gun policy following December's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In April, the United States Senate failed to pass a measure to expand background checks, spurring anti-gun violence groups to mount a campaign to match the intensity of the NRA and to promise political retribution for the senators who voted against stricter gun laws.
This national focus meant outside spending reached unprecedented levels in the Colorado recall, with both sides viewing the election as must-win.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch supporter of stricter gun laws, donated $350,000 to Morse and Giron. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad gave a separate $250,000 check to help the legislators, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) repeatedly issued fundraising calls for Giron in emails to her supporters. The Denver Post reported Monday that those in Morse and Giron's corner had collected nearly $3 million, while proponents of the recall raised about $540,000.
"One thing is clear from the Morse defeat: Mike Bloomberg is political poison," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said in a statement.
The NRA spent heavily on the recall effort, reporting at least $360,000 and funneling unspecified dollars through its nonprofit arm. The billionaire conservative Koch brothers also entered the fray, using their advocacy group Americans For Prosperity to target Morse and Giron. Due to the organization's nonprofit status, AFP also did not have to report its spending to the Federal Elections Commission.
In an interview with HuffPost last month, Giron acknowledged that the recall's outcome could send "reverberating messages to legislatures across the country." But she said the vast amount of money being spent by both sides underscored that the election had developed a much broader focus than gun policy.
"I think it's a lot about Democrats vs. Republicans, and has grown very partisan," she said.
Indeed, the Koch brothers' involvement had little to do with guns, and AFP primarily focused its attacks against Morse on other issues that made him a vulnerable target in his conservative-leaning district. The group distributed fliers and doorhangers likening Morse to Bloomberg on virtually every issue except guns, instead concentrating on issues like taxes and health care.
One coalition of Colorado Springs law enforcement officials even took advantage of the recall effort to go after Morse for touting his experience as a former police officer in his campaign ads. The group endorsed Morse's recall, citing its opposition to his votes on sentencing for convicted criminals and legislation he sponsored to soften prison terms and limit the number of people who could be incarcerated in state prisons.
For Giron, the gun vote was key and made her a primary target of the Pueblo Chieftain, the most influential newspaper in her district. During Colorado's gun debate, the outlet's general manager wrote to Giron expressing his opposition to the gun control measures. He identified himself as a gun owner who was "responsible for the entire newspaper, including the newsroom." As Giron stood by her support for stricter gun laws, the Chieftain published unflattering photos and coverage of her on its front page for more than a week.
Colorado's history on gun rights has long been a source of friction in a state that was home to two of the most deadly mass shootings in U.S. history. A turning point came on July 20, 2012, when a gunman walked into a late-night show at a movie theater in Aurora, killing 12 people and leaving more than 70 injured. A few short months later, the wounds of the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 were reopened as victims watched families in Newtown, Conn., go through an all too familiar struggle.
A Quinnipiac poll released last month found that 82 percent of Colorado voters supported expanded background checks for gun sales. But respondents were split down the middle on the 15-round magazine limit.
Proponents of the recall were defiant in their victory over Morse as results became clear Tuesday night.
"After tonight, no one should underestimate the political potency of the gun control debate," Republican strategist Kurt Bardella, who served as a communications consultant on the recall, said in a statement.
Mark Glaze, a spokesman for Bloomberg's anti-gun violence group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, cautioned against applying too many conclusions from Colorado to the broader gun debate.
"There's an understandable impulse to extrapolate the Colorado results into a national trend. The only trend here is the NRA wasn't able to defeat as many legislators as it went after," Glaze told The Huffington Post in an interview. "A national coalition against gun violence provided counterweight to the NRA in these recalls for the first time. The NRA cherry-picked the most vulnerable legislators in Colorado, including a Senate president who represents one of the most conservative congressional districts in the country."
A statement put out by the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund lauded Morse's defeat as "historic."
The people of Colorado Springs sent a clear message to the Senate leader that his primary job was to defend their rights and freedoms and that he is ultimately accountable to them -- his constituents, and not to the dollars or social engineering agendas of anti-gun billionaires.
This story was updated with Giron's recall results and with information on a media campaign against her. Statements from the NRA were also added.