The Colorado Recalls Explained

Yesterday voters in Colorado recalled two State Senators. One result was not a surprise, and the other is a shock. Of course the votes are Second Amendment victories for the right to arms, but more fundamentally, they are Fourteenth Amendment victories for Due Process of Law.

Former State Senate President John Morse represented Colorado Springs, plus the somewhat hipster mountain community of Manitou Springs. While El Paso County is strongly Republican, the interior city of Colorado Springs has been center/center-left for years. Senate District 11 was carved to make the election of a Democrat possible, and it worked. Voter registration in SD 11 is about a third, a third, and a third among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, with Democrats having the largest third and Republicans the smallest. Morse barely won re-election in 2010, and might have lost if not for the presence of a Libertarian on the ballot.

As the conventional wisdom expected, voter turn-out was relatively low. Morse was recalled by  51-49%. The conventional wisdom of Colorado politics had been that Morse would probably lose, but that the election would be tight, and there was a chance that he might win. As things turned out, Republicans turned out greatly in excess of their registration percentage, and that was probably the difference.

Both sides had hard-working GOTV programs, but apparently the Democrats did not succeed in convincing enough of their less-enthusiastic voters to vote. This is in contrast to 2012, when Obama won the district by 21%.

Pueblo, the largest city in southern Colorado, delivered the result that stunned almost everyone. For more than a century, Pueblo has been a Colorado stronghold of working-class union Democrats. Like most of southern Colorado, it has a large Hispanic population. Obama won Senate District 3 by 19% in 2012. In 2010, Democratic Senator Angela Giron won her race by about 5:4. This year, Giron chaired the Senate’s State Affairs Committee, helping to shepherd gun control bills to the Senate floor.

Pueblo’s Senate District 3  typically has a much higher turnout rate than SD 11 in Colorado Springs. The same was true today: about 36,000 votes cast in Pueblo, compared to 18,000 in Colorado Springs.

Based on the latest campaign disclosure reports, Morse/Giron enjoyed an 8:1 spending advantage over recall advocates, in terms of direct contributions to campaigns. Michael Bloomberg contributed $350,000 to fight the recalls, about equal to the $361,000 contributed by the NRA, which is probably about $3 per NRA member in the state. Another wealthy contributor gave $250,000 to oppose the recalls.

When early voting began in Colorado Springs,  Republicans quickly developed a lead of several hundred voters over Democratic turnout. Democrats outperformed Republicans on Monday, and also today, but not by enough. Morse lost by 343 votes.

Meanwhile in Pueblo, Democratic turnout in early voting was ahead of Republicans by several thousand. Although Republicans were outperforming their registration percentage, they never came close to closing the large Democratic lead. The Colorado conventional wisdom was that Giron was probably safe, and was certainly relatively safe compared to Morse. While the Colorado Springs results started coming in soon after 7 p.m., Pueblo results were delayed. With only one precinct reporting, Giron had a 69-31% lead. Things seemed to be going as expected.

But about the same time that Senator Morse was delivering his concession speech, a landslide of Pueblo results started coming in. Giron quickly fell very far behind. She was recalled from office by 56% to 44%.

It’s one thing for a deliberately polarizing legislator like Morse to lose a close race in a swing district. It’s quite another for Giron to lose by 12 points in a district that is 47% Democratic and 23% Republican. One reason is that in blue collar districts like Pueblo, there are plenty of Democrats who cling to their Second Amendment rights. As the Denver Post noted, 20% of the voters who signed the Giron recall petitions were Democrats.

The Colorado Senate is now 18-17 Democratic, and 19-16 pro-Second Amendment. On gun issues, and on many others, the balance of power is now held by moderate Democrats, rather than by the hard left faction formerly led by Morse.

The Republicans (for a change of pace in Colorado) ran near-flawless campaigns with strong candidates: new Senators Bernie Herpin (Colorado Springs) and George Rivera (Pueblo). I’ve long known Herpin for founding and leading the Pikes Peak Firearm Coalition, and I have high respect for him. He has dedicated a quarter century of his life as a civic volunteer to defense of the Second Amendment. At the same time, he has a sense of what is politically realistic in a given situation, and does not press issues for the mere emotional satisfaction of being “hardcore.” Thus, in the Republican nomination process, he was opposed by Dudley Brown’s fund-raising organization Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Brown’s preferred candidate, a believer in the nutty legal theories of “sovereign citizens,” would certainly have lost the recall election.

In Pueblo, the new Senator is George Rivera, a retired police officer, and former Democrat who left the party during the Clinton administration.

While both races became nationalized and attracted lots of outside money (an economic boon that far exceeded the expense of holding special elections), the recall movement was created by citizen activists making their first ventures into politics. The recall group Pueblo Freedom and Rights was led by Victor Head, who runs a family plumbing business.

It would be accurate to say that the recall campaign was driven by opposition to the anti-gun bills which Morse and Giron pushed through the legislature. But this is only the first part of the story. As it turns out, Morse and Giron sealed their fates on March 4, the day that the anti-gun bills were heard in Senate committees. At Morse’s instruction, only 90 minutes of testimony per side were allowed on each of the gun bills. As a result, hundreds of Colorado citizens were prevented from testifying even briefly. Many of them had driven hours to come to the Capitol, traveling from all over the state.

That same day, 30 Sheriffs came to testify. They too were shut out, with only a single Sheriff allowed to testify on any given bill. So while one Sheriff testified, others stood up with him in support.

Admirably, Morse had urged his Committee Chairs to be polite and courteous to all witnesses, and they were. But President Morse did not follow the standard practice of the Colorado legislature, by which any citizen who wishes to testify is allowed to be heard, at least briefly. The patient endurance of Colorado legislative committees which have heard hour upon hour of testimony on bills about gay rights, motorcycle helmets, and other social controversies is a tribute to our republican form of government.

When Morse shut that down, and Chairperson Giron went along, they crossed the double-red line of Colorado government. Had the seven gun control bills (one of which I testified in favor) been heard on March 4-6, instead of being rammed through committees on March 4, the recall might never have happened. It’s one thing to lose; it’s another to thing to lose when you didn’t even have the opportunity to present your reasoning. While the gun control bills were before the Senate in March, President Morse urged his caucus to stop reading emails, to stop reading letters from constituents, to stop listening to voicemails, to vote for the gun bills and ignore the constituents. Giron, presciently following this strategy, had allowed citizens to raise Second Amendment concerns at a single town hall meeting, and thereafter refused to discuss the issue at public fora.

If an 8:1 Bloomberg money advantage can’t buy an election, then elected officials will be more reluctant to support repressive gun bills. As Giron told The New Republic, “”For Mayors Against Illegal Guns, if they lose even one of these seats, they might as well fold it up. And they understand that.”

There were other issues too, including the dubious claim the Republicans Herpin and Rivera would take away women’s birth control pills, as well as discredited financial ethic charges against Morse.

The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was the secondmost important reason why Morse and Giron were removed from office. The first reason was the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment principle of Due Process of Law. The opportunity to be heard is the fundamental to Due Process of Law, and not solely in adjudications. When Morse and Giron squelched the testimony of law-abiding citizens and of law-enforcing Sheriffs, they grossly abused their constitutional office of being law-makers. And so, for abuse of office, John Morse and Angela Giron have been recalled from office by the People of Colorado, to be replaced by legislators who will listen before the vote.