This Local Election Could Determine the Future of Gun Control

Why Michael Bloomberg has gone all-in on a Colorado race

by Alec MacGillis | August 28, 2013

Angela Giron, one of two Colorado state senators who is up for a recall election on Sept. 10 as a result of voting for new gun restrictions earlier this year, did not hesitate when I asked her over the weekend what the recall meant for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the rest of the national gun-control movement.

“For Mayors Against Illegal Guns, if they lose even one of these seats, they might as well fold it up. And they understand that,” she said.

Indeed they do. Reports filed Tuesday night with the Colorado Secretary of State show that Bloomberg has donated $350,000 to one of several groups fighting against the recall. And he’s not the only one writing big checks from out of state: philanthropist Eli Broad gave the same group $250,000. Meanwhile, on the other side, the National Rifle Association reported sinking more than $100,000 into the recall effort, while Americans for Prosperity, the group funded by the Koch brothers, is also very active—it’s running the most aggressive field operation against the two senators, though it doesn’t have to report what it’s spending because it is technically only “educating” voters about the senators’ positions, not explicitly advocating for their recall.

It may seem like the gun control issue has faded away entirely since legislation to expand background checks fell five votes short of a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate in April. In fact, it has simply decamped for the season to Colorado. Gun control proponents are still laying the groundwork for bringing a revised version of the background check legislation, Manchin-Toomey, back up for another vote, which they’d been hoping to do in July, assuming immigration reform had passed by then. But of course immigration reform has not passed, and now a new fiscal fight looms on the calendar, too.

This leaves the showdown in Colorado as the main venue for both sides to make a statement about the state of gun politics today. On one level, it seems absurd for state legislative races to take on such significance—and to prompt such massive spending (Giron, of Pueblo, reported raising $586,187, and her fellow Democrat, Senate President John Morse, a gun owner and former police officer from Colorado Springs who is being targeted even though he is retiring next year under term limits, raised $453,149. Their money came not just from big donors but from hundreds of small checks, many outside Colorado.)

But the showdown is just a sign of how much the gun issue has become a battle of perceptions. For years, the National Rifle Association thrived by developing a reputation for punishing any elected officials who dared to vote for restrictions on firearms. Of late, though, there have been signs that its reputation was outpacing the reality, as more and more candidates who have voted for gun control measures have managed to withstand the NRA barrage. The whole overriding aim of Bloomberg’s group is to turn the tables—to show not only that elected officials who vote against the NRA can survive, but that ones who vote with the group will pay a price for that, to change the political calculus so that even the most self-interested politicians rethink their stance.

The problem for Bloomberg’s group is that there have been relatively few places for it to bring this strategy to bear. Of the Republican senators who voted against Manchin-Toomey and are from purple-ish states where that vote could hurt them (such as New Hampshire, Ohio, Nevada, Arizona), none are up for reelection next year. The vulnerable anti-Manchin-Toomey senators who are up for reelection are Democrats Mark Pryor, of Arkansas, and Mark Begich, of Alaska—MAIG is running ads against them, but in doing so is incurring plenty wrath from some of its natural allies, who argue that the ads will simply depress Democratic support for those senators and increase the likelihood that they will be replaced by Republicans tied even more closely to the NRA.

Colorado, on the other hand, presents a much cleaner picture for Bloomberg: Two legislators in a relatively gun-friendly state who voted for sensible new controls–background checks on most private sales and a 15-round limit on ammunition clips–are being threatened as a result of that, and must be defended if legislators in Colorado and elsewhere are to believe that they can support similar measures without fear of repercussions. And it’s in the NRA’s strong interest to destroy such assurance before it leads to total erosion of its aura of invincibility.

Not surprisingly, Bloomberg’s heavy investment in the race has become an easy target for the pro-recall side. “Mr. Bloomberg’s money and his 'consultants' have poured into these recall districts, creating a David versus Goliath battle. Certainly, the recalls in Colorado are about unworkable restrictions on gun owners, but they’re also about who should influence our state government—our own citizens or the rich and powerful from the East,” declared Jon Caldara of the conservative Independence Institute in Denver.

In response, the senators are emphasizing the distinctly local motivations that helped give rise to the legislation: the shooting massacres at Columbine High School and a movie theater in Aurora. “This was a response to a Colorado problem,” says Ellen Dumm, a consultant working for the anti-recall side. “The Aurora shooting didn’t happen in New York. [The legislation] was a very common-sense approach to what happened here. It didn’t come from New York.”

The recall has, over time, drawn in plenty of issues other than guns. The candidates running to replace Giron and Morse are strongly anti-abortion, and this has drawn in Planned Parenthood, which recently sent out 27,000 mailers. Conservation Colorado, an environmental group, has donated $75,000 to one of the anti-recall groups. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity and other pro-recall groups are invoking Obamacare, taxes and renewable energy mandates, among other issues. “While the Second Amendment may have sparked the recall, we have a litany of complaints across the board,” said Sean Paige of Americans for Prosperity, which has made more than 5,000 phone calls and knocked on more than 3,500 doors, in addition to running radio ads in Pueblo (again, the spending is secret, given that the group’s efforts, as Paige puts it, have “nothing to do with the recall per se.” OK.)

That the race has branched into other issues makes predicting its outcome even trickier. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Coloradans statewide opposed the new gun restrictions, 54 percent to 40 percent, but that they also opposed the recall by a nearly 2-1 margin (the senators are doing their best to remind voters that the recall gambit is costing the state some $200,000.) The race is especially hard to predict given that the election will be a highly unusual one—most Coloradans typically vote by mail, but the recall proponents successfully pressed to require in-person voting for this election, calculating that this will aid the side with the more motivated supporters, which, when it comes to guns, has long been assumed to be the anti-restrictions side. Giron told me she was confident of her chances of surviving, as long as she was able to get to enough voters in person. “The only way we can do this is if we get people at their door and talk to them,” she said. “Because [the pro-recall side] has a simple message—‘they’re trying to take our guns away.’”

All that can be said for sure at this point is that the race is going to be getting very rough in the home stretch. One new TV ad running against Morse accuses him of declaring that gun owners are a “sickness on our souls.” In fact, here is what he said, in a floor debate on the legislation:

Robert F. Kennedy said after Martin Luther King’s assassination that violence breeds violence, repression breeds retaliation and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls. Cleansing a sickness from our souls doesn’t come easily. It’s gruesome. During the last three months, we’ve experienced hatred and vitriol that I haven’t seen since I was on the street as a police officer; it’s included wishing rape, torture and death on legislators and their families; it’s reached its heights just this week as we’ve been considering these bills in committee and we’ve been preparing to consider them today on the floor. Sickness.

The anti-recall side is seeking a cease-and-desist order against the ad, saying it’s a blatant mistruth. Meanwhile, Magpul, an ammunition manufacturer that already donated 20,000 high-capacity magazines to the recall effort, is reportedly readying a $50,000 ad buy.

MAIG versus Magpul: the stakes couldn’t be clearer.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.

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