The term “the third rail of American politics” has long been associated with talk about cutting Social Security — a charged issue that could lead to severe consequences for any elected official who dares to touch it.
But soon, a couple of Colorado Democrats could end up learning the hard way about another “third rail” issue, as they face recall elections over their votes on gun legislation that was passed this year.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for John Morse of Colorado Springs, who is the Senate president, and state Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo. And their potential ousters could have lasting ramifications in the state and across the nation.
“The message could be that it is just political poison to support any form of gun control, no matter how reasonable it may look to people,” said Bob Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College.
“If either is eliminated, the message is going to be: No matter how big or politically strong you are, you can be knocked out over gun issues,” Loevy said.
Morse and Giron are the first lawmakers to face a recall in Colorado. Their district-only elections are scheduled for Sept. 10.
Both supported legislation that requires universal background checks on all gun sales in the state, and were behind a separate law that places limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines — such as the ones used in mass killings at an Aurora theater and at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Morse also sponsored a bill that would have placed liability on assault weapon owners and manufacturers whose guns are used in crimes. However, Morse ended up killing his own legislation.
Republicans were unanimous in their opposition to the gun bills.
The gun debate stirred passions like no other issue this legislative session.
“In my seven years in office, I’ve never seen an issue have this kind of emotion,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, a former House speaker.
That’s about the only area of gun legislation that McNulty and state Sen. Evie Hudak agree on. The Westminster Democrat voted for each one of her party’s gun-control bills this session. Her own bill, which placed stricter limits on domestic violence offenders’ access to guns, also became law.
“I received so many threatening emails, with extremely bad language used against me,” Hudak said. “My best friend thought I should wear a bulletproof vest.”
Recall organizers initially targeted Hudak as well, but that effort failed. Since then, Hudak says she’s been knocking on doors in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, in support of her colleagues’ efforts to thwart the “ludicrous” attempts at recall.
Hudak and state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, point out that Morse is term-limited and will be out at the end of next year, regardless of what happens Sept. 10. Giron is up for re-election next year.
“If it’s just about a vote, you have elections and term limits,” Newell said. “It’s not a wise use of taxpayer dollars. We take about a thousand votes every single session. If you are recalled over every single vote? Oh my gosh. It would be dysfunctional.”
But McNulty believes that recalls are “a longstanding right in the state of Colorado.” McNulty also notes that, for as much attention as the recall elections are getting, they are rare and difficult to pursue.
“I don’t think people take this lightly,” he said. “But if (elected officials) are out of step with their district, then the recall election should be there.”
Like Loevy, McNulty thinks the recalls could have a lasting impact on future gun-control efforts.
“I think it certainly does send a message to folks who push policies that infringe on law-abiding citizens’ ability to hold firearms, that you will need to think twice,” McNulty said.
“I’m not concerned about the policy issues at all,” she said. “The recalls send a message of fringe, special-interest groups being obtrusive.”
Regardless of what happens, a precedent may already be set.
“People are going to realize that there is this other way of punishing politicians over doing something they don’t like,” Loevy said.