DENVER — A Rocky Mountain earthquake in the form of Tuesday's successful recall drives targeting two prominent Democrats who advocate gun control has shifted the state and national political landscape going into the 2014 elections.
The shocking defeat Tuesday night of two state lawmakers in Colorado's first-ever legislative recall election despite a 7-1 spending advantage by gun control proponents represented a double blow for Democrats. It could hobble the party's political dominance in the state and reshape the political debate over gun laws nationally in the 2014 midterm elections.
Senate President John Morse and state Sen. Angela Giron lost their seats despite massive outside help from gun control forces, led by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Gun rights advocates seized on another win after the U.S. Senate rejected a package of gun control measures pushed by President Obama in the months after the December shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
"This clearly affects the national gun debate in that this alternate strategy of Mayor Bloomberg to take this fight to the states instead of Washington has obviously taken a hit," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "The recall is now a new tool for passionate believers in the Second Amendment."
The results also are seen as a vote of no confidence in the Colorado Democratic Party's aggressive legislative agenda after a session that was widely described as the most liberal in state history. The party pushed through an activist liberal agenda on gun control, energy, immigrant rights and other issues after gaining control of the state legislature in November.
Mr. Bloomberg, the billionaire New York City mayor who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, was seen as the behind-the-scenes driver of the state legislature's gun control package. He also donated $350,000 to a group fighting the recall.
But his involvement seemed to backfire during the campaign as gun rights advocates painted him as a symbol of out-of-state interference in local matters. A pro-Democrat robocall issued shortly before the election by former President Bill Clinton further contributed to the perception that Coloradans had lost control of their state.
"The Democrats lost not only because of the passion behind the gun issue, but there was also a sense among voters that they felt like they were not being heard," Mr. Ciruli said.
The recall races attracted national attention, and gun rights groups said Wednesday that the results would have widespread ramifications.
"This was a huge victory for civil rights over extremism," Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said in a statement. "And the well-financed gun prohibition movement knows it. In reality, what [Tuesday's] election shows is that big money, the kind shelled out by anti-gun New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, really can't buy an election."
Nowhere was that more evident than in the Giron recall in heavily Democratic Pueblo. Ms. Giron lost by a whopping 56 percent to 44 percent.
"I was dumbfounded by the results of the recall out of Senate District 3," said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, who was not involved the recall. "I underestimated the power of conservative Democrats to basically turn on a Democratic incumbent."
It emerged Wednesday that the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling had picked up an anti-Giron surge in a survey of the district before the vote, but so doubted its findings that it did not publicize them.
Mr. Wadhams said the recall went beyond guns: "It portends a backlash against some of the Democratic excesses of the past year. What the Democrats didn't understand is that there are large numbers of culturally conservative Democrats in that Giron district, and they didn't like what they saw coming out of the state legislature."
Indeed, analysts repeatedly referred to the Democrat-controlled legislature's overreach in explaining the recall outcome. In addition to restricting access to firearms and ammunition, the legislature doubled the renewable-energy mandate on rural areas, allowed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and took a crack at eliminating capital punishment.
The recall also upends assumptions about swing-state Colorado's move to the left. Mr. Ciruli said those who colored Colorado increasingly blue may want to think again.
"I definitely think there's been a reset," said Mr. Ciruli. "My sense is that Colorado is back in play. This state now looks like it has recalibrated."
Democrats scrambled to push back against such speculation, insisting that the recalls were lost because of right-wing efforts to confuse voters. Activists on both sides went to court at least three times to figure out how to run the election under the state's new Democrat-drafted elections law, which was passed with no Republican votes.
"The recall elections in Colorado were defined by the vast array of obstacles that special interests threw in the way of voters for the purpose of reversing the will of the legislature and the people," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who heads the Democratic National Committee. "This was voter suppression, pure and simple."
The recalls were conducted as walk-in elections because of time constraints involved with mailing ballots. Future Colorado elections will be all-mail with same-day voter registration under the new law.
"This election was not only an unnecessary cost to taxpayers, but a disservice was done to the voters in these districts, too," said Michael Sargent, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "More voters will turn out in the 2014 election, and Democrats across the country are poised to build on the gains they made in the 2012 elections."
Democrats also blamed the National Rifle Association, although the NRA was scarcely involved until the last month of the campaign, when it sank $350,000 into ads and mailers. Pro-Democrat groups spent an estimated $3 million on the two recalls, only to come up short.
In Pueblo, the resource disparity was stark: Three plumbers, led by 28-year-old Victor Head, used spray paint to make their yard signs and aired homegrown ads during midnight showings of "Dog the Bounty Hunter," while the Giron campaign ran a polished, professional effort.
That the plumbers won anyway should serve as a cautionary tale to politicos nationwide about the power of the grass roots, Mr. Ciruli said.
"This reconfiguration tells Democrats in Colorado and other states that if you get too aggressive, if you look like you're insensitive to the grass roots in general, you could be in trouble," he said.
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