by Nathaniel Rakich
The next major battle in the larger conflict over gun policy comes to a head today in Colorado. On Tuesday, September 10, the Centennial State becomes the epicenter of the gun safety debate as voters in two state Senate districts decide whether to recall Democrats John Morse and Angela Giron. These senators’ support for comprehensive gun safety legislation has placed them squarely in the crosshairs of Colorado GOP activists. These legislative recalls — the first in Colorado history — have transformed over the past several weeks from local grassroots movements to a proxy war over gun policy nationwide. A loss by the Democrats on Tuesday could embolden national anti-gun-safety groups as well as energize the Colorado GOP going into 2014. The Atlas Project took a look at spending, advertising, demographics, voter history and other items to bring you this data-infused overview of these races.
Furious over the Democratic legislature’s passage of universal background checks and ammunition-magazine limits, Colorado Republicans initially sought to recall four Colorado legislators. Only two recalls ultimately qualified for the ballot: against Senator Giron in SD-03 and against Senate President Morse in SD-11. Both districts are Democratic-leaning, but they contain enough Republicans to keep things interesting on Tuesday — especially one of them:
- The Pueblo-anchored SD-03 is usually a reliably Democratic district. The district’s registered voters are 45.2% Democratic, 22.9% Republican and 31.9% other. Its Democratic Performance Index (DPI) is 59.6%, and President Obama’s 2012 two-way vote share here was 59.7%. The worst two-way performance by a recent Democrat within its lines was John Kerry’s 54.9% in 2004. In 2010, Giron got 55.0% of the vote in the old district and 55.3% within the lines of the current, post-redistricting one. While Giron should take nothing for granted, a loss by her on Tuesday would buck a decade of precedent.
- The Colorado Springs–based SD-11 has a swingier history. Registered voters here are only 33.2% Democratic, 25.1% Republican and 41.7% other. With a DPI of 53.3%, it is only slightly Democratic-leaning, although President Obama got 61.2% of the two-way vote here in 2012. In 2010 (his last election), however, Morse barely eked out the win with 50.6% of the two-way vote (52.1% under the current lines). As a result, Morse is seen as the more vulnerable of the two.
Both districts also have sizeable minority populations. In SD-03, 39.7% of the voting-age population is Hispanic compared to 55.6% who are white; in SD-11, a smaller 21.2% are Hispanic and 63.1% are white. (African Americans account for 9.4% of the voting-age population in SD-11, while they are only 1.9% in SD-03.) Exit polls from 2012 suggest that this diversity will help the Democrats.
However, the enthusiasm gap and likely low turnout of the oddly timed election will probably help Republicans. According to Catalist, the most reliable voters in these districts are more Republican than registered voters there as a whole, and Republicans are a plurality of reliable voters in SD-11. The chart below breaks down each district into its three biggest vote-history universes: voters who turn out only in presidential years; voters who turn out every two years; and “super voters” who turn out for even irregularly timed elections. (This number is determined by looking at voters who voted in Colorado’s 2011 referendum election as well as in the 2010 and 2012 generals.)
“Super voters” are the closest approximation for a low-interest recall turnout model and present a concern for Morse (if not for Giron). In fact, super-voting Republicans in SD-11 so outnumber Democrats (40.9% to 34.9%) that, even if we were to add the Democrat-heavier midterm voters to that total, Republican registered voters would still edge Democratic ones 37.0% to 35.2%. The bottom line for both districts is that their on-the-surface Democratic advantage becomes much weaker when presidential-only or sporadic voters are stripped away.
Hoping to take advantage of these numbers — and become their area’s next state senators — are Republicans George Rivera in SD-03 and Bernie Herpin in SD-11, the only challengers to qualify for the ballot in each race (although some candidates who fell short are still waging write-in campaigns). Their actual campaigns, however, are a minimal part of the forces in Colorado that are pushing the recall. Instead, outside groups have dominated activity on both sides. On the right, the NRA was one of the groups that effected the recall in the first place; in support of progressives, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given $350,000 to anti-recall efforts. The involvement of national interests has brought spending to unheard-of levels for state-legislative elections. The following chart shows fundraising and spending levels for the races as of September 3.
This is another favorable indicator for Democrats, as Republicans trail badly in the money race. In total, Democratic groups have raised over $2.6 million and spent almost $2.3 million in the two races. Republican interests have raised not even $523,000 and spent less than $482,000. Clearly, Democrats are taking the recall threat seriously and are both better funded and better organized.
Much of those hefty sums has been spent on advertising. According to CMAG, the recalls have seen 2,490 spots air on broadcast TV as of September 3. Democrats dominate the airwaves with 2,346 of those spots. Despite with the national attention and conservative groundswell generated by these recalls, Republicans have aired just 144 spots on broadcast. All of that Republican advertising has come from outside groups, too, whereas most of the Democratic ads (1,252 spots) have originated from campaigns. Overall, outside groups account for 49.7% of the broadcast spot count. (A complete compendium of all advertising in the recalls can be found at the end of this post.) Note that these numbers do not account for the spots run only on cable, for which we do not have data.
Some of the advertising has gotten extremely negative, especially on the Republican side. Only two of the nine Democratic ads that have aired on broadcast TV were negative, but all six Republican ads have been. Of particular note is a one-minute excoriation of Giron and Morse by outside group Free Colorado. The ad is a loud, intense slideshow of all of Giron’s and Morse’s supposed sins, embellished to be as grating and shocking as possible. The allegations include “paying political thugs to harass concerned citizens,” and the ad misquotes Morse quoting Robert Kennedy. Overall, though, voters may not see this as an overly negative recall: because Democrats have aired so many more ads than Republicans, the total positive spot count comes to 1,813, while the total negative spot count is 677.
In general, the messaging on the Democratic side has emphasized Giron’s and Morse’s accomplishments and records on public safety. Their campaigns have also emphasized the cost of the recall election and have labeled their opponents as radical interests from faraway Denver. The two negative ads on the Democratic side, both from outside group We Can Do Better Colorado, focus on Rivera’s and Herpin’s extreme positions on issues like women’s health.
Meanwhile, there is little mud that Republicans’ negative ads have not slung at Giron and Morse. They have associated them with “East Coast liberals” like Bloomberg; accused them of overreaching with their supposedly unpopular, “anti-gun” agenda; and attacked them for not listening to their constituents and calling the public’s input “toxic,” “vile” and “disgusting.” (These comments referred to the threats and hate mail received by Democratic state senators in the wake of the gun bill.)
Ethics have also emerged as a secondary issue in the race. Conservative outside group I Am Created Equal has aired one radio ad and one TV ad slamming Morse for using his legislative per diem on personal days. The Herpin campaign also sent out a mailer highlighting this ethics complaint. However, the Republicans conveniently did not note that the four-year-old complaint, brought by a right-wing group, was dismissed by a bipartisan committee. Meanwhile, Herpin himself is currently facing a campaign-finance complaint of his own — this one filed just two weeks ago.
The fact that these are Colorado’s first-ever legislative recalls has meant an utter lack of precedent for their administration. Consequently, court rulings have shaped the races in a major way. Initially, the recalls were delayed as Giron and Morse argued that the recall petitions against them were unconstitutional — a claim that was eventually denied. More recently, a court scaled back some of the restrictions put on the recall election by Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler. Among Gessler’s election-administration guidelines thrown out by the judge was his decision not to accept yellow cards mailed to voters as voter ID at the polls; the cards are now an acceptable form of identification for the recall. Gessler’s stricter definitions on residency were also dismissed, as the judge said that they had no basis in state law. Finally, absentee ballots were made available to anyone who wants one; previously, Gessler had only allowed voters who were going to be out of the district on Election Day to request an absentee ballot. These rulings, which could make it easier for people to vote and therefore perhaps increase turnout, were seen as wins for progressives.
Republicans have had their share of favorable court decisions too. An August 27 ruling clarified a question over how to count the votes once they come in. The confusion stemmed from the structure of the recall ballot, which will feature two 300-word statements (one advocating for each side) and ask the yes-or-no question, “Shall [Angela Giron/John Morse] be recalled from the office of State Senate, District [3/11]?” Then, a second question asks “yes” voters to choose their replacement for the recalled senator. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that all votes on the second question must be counted, even if the voter votes “no” on the first question or leaves it blank. This likely harms Giron and Morse, as recall supporters who forget to answer the first question would have previously had their votes discounted.
But the most discouraging court ruling for Democrats was the August 12 decision that effectively banned the Colorado tradition of voting by mail. The Colorado Libertarian Party successfully argued that it is constitutionally allowed up to 15 days before an election to gain ballot access — delaying the printing of ballots. This meant there would be no time to mail ballots to all voters as provided for in Colorado’s 2013 election-reform bill. As a result, the recalls are unusually being conducted almost entirely at polling places. This has changed the way the recall campaigns are being run, forcing a more traditional campaign focused on raising awareness and getting people to the polls.
A major concern for progressives is that the lack of vote by mail will drive down turnout among voters who are used to receiving their ballots automatically by post; we have already seen that a low turnout model looks unfavorable for Democrats, especially Morse. Recall opponents also worry that the only voters motivated enough to physically go to a polling place and vote will be the districts’ riled-up Republicans.
Catalist data shows that these fears have some basis in reality. In 2012, 62.5% of SD-03 voters and 63.9% of SD-11 voters cast their ballots by mail, so the ruling seems likely to impact turnout. Furthermore, it could shrink Democratic turnout disproportionately, since those who voted by mail in 2012 were more likely to be Democrats:
A recall electorate limited to just Election Day voters would be less Democratic than the overall composition of each district — but, interestingly, it would probably not be more Republican than average, if 2012 trends hold. Instead, it is “other” voters who turn out disproportionately on Election Day. The highly partisan nature of the recalls makes this spike unlikely to carry over, however. (As we saw earlier, other voters make up the smallest share of the “super-voting” universe.) Still, Democrats require the support of at least a few other voters to reach 50% (going by Election Day voters in SD-03 and by both Election Day voters and super voters in SD-11), so Giron and Morse have likely been emphasizing persuasion in their campaigns. Alternatively, the campaigns can also easily point Democratic mail voters toward another method of voting. In-person early voting remains an option and is well underway.
All in all, despite some apparent Democratic advantages on paper, Tuesday’s outcome in these unpredictable, unprecedented elections is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, there has been no public polling in the districts, although a statewide poll found opposition both to the recall as a political weapon and to the gun legislation that Giron and Morse are associated with. Although the poll’s statewide scope limits its value, it does speak to the extra significance that these recalls have assumed. As the campaign has ramped up, the presence of outside groups has nationalized the contests, and a win or loss now represents a win or loss for each side of the national gun safety movement. The defeat of either Giron or Morse could also embolden Republicans nationwide, encourage the use of recalls as a valid electoral tool and signal to the moribund Colorado GOP that they finally found a live issue they can use to defeat Governor John Hickenlooper or Senator Mark Udall in 2014. With their potentially resounding implications, these recalls have become much more than just two state Senate elections. They will be well worth watching on Tuesday night when the results start trickling in.
Appendix: Broadcast TV Advertising in SD-03 and SD-11
CMAG data: Copyright 2013 by KANTAR MEDIA INTELLIGENCE. All rights reserved.
Ad: You Don’t Stop
Sponsor: Pueblo United for Angela
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 346
Air Dates: July 30 to August 13
Description: A positive spot from the Giron campaign about her record.
Ad: No One
Sponsor: Pueblo United for Angela
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 404
Air Dates: August 13 to August 18, August 20 to August 25
Description: A positive ad from the Giron campaign featuring a constituent talking about Giron’s work with the Boys and Girls Club.
Ad: Works Harder
Sponsor: Pueblo United for Angela
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 144
Air Dates: August 28 to September 1
Description: A positive ad from the Giron campaign with a different constituent praising Giron’s record from her first ad.
Ad: Serve and Protect
Sponsor: John Morse
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 358 (314 of the 30-second version, 44 of the 60-second version)
Air Dates: July 30 to August 15
Description: The Morse campaign’s first ad, a positive spot about his career accomplishments and record on public safety.
Sponsor: Vote Vets Action Fund
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 213
Air Dates: August 19 to August 30
Description: Local Army veteran Holly Flores praises Morse for his commitment to veterans as well as his record on the entire spectrum of issues.
Ad: Fighting for Us
Sponsor: Americans for Responsible Solutions
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 348
Air Dates: August 21 to present
Description: Gabby Giffords’s gun-safety group highlights Morse’s positive accomplishments with interviews of residents who appreciate his work.
Sponsor: Public Campaign Action Fund
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): N/A (has not yet aired on broadcast TV)
Air Dates: Had not yet aired on broadcast TV as of September 3
Description: A comical and colorful depiction of ethical questions surrounding Bernie Herpin, who took a $25,000 trip paid for by utility ratepayers.
Anti-Rivera and Herpin
Ad: Birth Control
Sponsor: We Can Do Better Colorado
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 268
Air Dates: August 15 to August 18, August 20 to August 28
Description: An ad attacks the Republicans who hope to replace Giron and Morse for their stance on women’s issues, including birth control.
Ad: Colorado Extremes
Sponsor: We Can Do Better Colorado
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 265
Air Dates: August 27 to present
Description: An ad highlighting the extreme positions of Herpin and Rivera while playing clips of extreme athletes wiping out.
Ad: Victor Head
Sponsor: Pueblo Freedom and Rights
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 8
Air Dates: August 25 to August 28, August 30 to September 1
Description: The three Pueblo plumbers who organized the anti-Giron recall effort explain their motivations in a low-budget ad.
Ad: She Said What?
Sponsor: Pueblo Freedom and Rights
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 4
Air Dates: August 29 to August 31
Description: Tracker video of Giron evading a question on “Second Amendment rights” elicits an incredulous response.
Ad: Who’s Pulling John Morse’s Strings?
Sponsor: National Association for Gun Rights
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 85
Air Dates: July 30 to August 25, August 27
Description: A negative ad against Morse, depicting him as a puppet of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Sponsor: Rocky Mountain Gun Owners
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 22
Air Dates: August 19 to August 22, August 24 to August 27, August 29 to present
Description: A negative ad that twists a Morse quote about “toxicity” from his constituents and ties Morse to “East Coast liberals.”
Ad: Morse Ethics Investigation
Sponsor: I Am Created Equal Action
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 15
Air Dates: August 23 to August 29
Description: A conservative activist speaks directly to the camera — jarringly, with no background music — and pulls no punches with direct attacks on Morse for an old ethics charge that was dismissed by a bipartisan panel.
Anti-Giron and Morse
Ad: Free Colorado Recall Video
Sponsor: Free Colorado
Spot Count (as of 9/3/13): 10 (does not include on cable)
Air Dates: August 28 to August 30 (began airing on cable August 23)
Description: Second Amendment group Free Colorado goes up with a dramatic one-minute ad slams both Giron and Morse as scheming, evil politicians.