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Colorado recall elections seen as test of power of gun lobby

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Two Colorado state legislators, who got into the cross hairs of the gun rights lobby for supporting stricter firearms laws after a massacre at a movie theater last year, face a fight for their jobs on Tuesday in recall elections aimed at unseating them.

The recall races, the first in Colorado history, are at the epicenter of the national fight over gun control and could serve as a test of the sway of lobbyists on both sides who have thrown their voices and money into the race. In addition to the National Rifle Association, the country's biggest pro-gun lobby, the races have drawn in money from both the East and West coasts.

The recall targets the president of the state senate, Democrat John Morse of Colorado Springs, who helped lead efforts to pass gun-control measures that were later signed into law, including banning ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds and requiring background checks for private gun sales and transfers.

Also targeted for recall, in races that have seen a blistering campaign of negative ads from both sides, is Democrat Angela Giron of Pueblo, who also backed the gun control bills. Early voting is already under way.

The gun control measures were passed after 12 people were killed and 58 injured in a rampage at a Denver suburban movie theater that police said was carried out by a 24-year-old graduate student armed with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a pistol.

Gun rights advocates sought the elections as a way to send a political message to current and future legislators that the bills had gone too far with efforts to curb firearm access. Opponents view the recall effort as a bullying tactic.

"It's possible that there will be regular elections in even-numbered years, and recall elections in odd-numbered years," Morse said of the efforts to unseat him. "That's not the right way to run a democracy."

Morse's Republican opponent, former Colorado Springs councilman Bernie Herpin, said it was Morse's own "unresponsiveness" to constituents on gun control and other issues that prompted the recall effort.

"When you (have) 10,000 valid signatures on a recall petition, that's a powerful message," Herpin said.

The issue came to a head in Colorado after Republicans and gun-rights activists accused Democrats of ramming through the gun control legislation in the wake of the massacres at the movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school last year.

"This recall sets the stage for the massive purge of Democrats that will take place in Colorado's 2014 election," the National Association for Gun Rights, which supports the recall efforts, said in a statement.

"Politicians in all states are realizing they grossly underestimated the power and voice of the gun-rights constituency, and are now hunkering in their bunkers as they try to avoid the political repercussions," it added.

OUTSIDE MONEY

The races have seen more than $3.5 million donated on both sides, most of that from opponents of the recall efforts, to the tune of $3 million, according to figures from the Colorado Secretary of State's office released on Monday.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, wrote a $350,000 personal check to the anti-recall campaigns. Los Angeles billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad kicked in another $250,000 to stave off the recalls.

The lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association has spent $368,000 to support the recall efforts.

"These are local elections that have national implications," said Joshua Dunn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. "You can tell that by all money coming in from interests on both sides."

The campaign has not been a friendly one. One television ad, paid for by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, accused Morse of taking marching orders from "East Coast liberals like billionaire playboy New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg."

A fundraising letter from the political action committee Emily's List, which promotes women candidates for office, said protesters had used "extreme tactics" to bully and intimidate Giron. The letter did not elaborate.

A Quinnipiac poll of voters across Colorado conducted last month showed opposition to recall efforts, with 60 percent of respondents saying that when voters disagree with a legislator they should wait for re-election rather than mount a recall.

The survey, of 1,184 voters statewide with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent, gave no indication of how the legislators facing recall might fare on Tuesday.

Morse is seen as the more vulnerable of the pair, as a quarter of his district sits in Colorado Springs, long a Republican stronghold, although registration in the Senate district is split almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Further south in Pueblo, where Giron faces a recall vote, Democrats hold a registration advantage. Her opponent, George Rivera, is a former deputy police chief of Pueblo and former Democrat who said Giron is out of step with voters.

He said her support for other laws had hurt district residents, including legislation to allow cities in the Denver area to draw water from the Arkansas River basin at the expense of local communities. But the primary issue remained gun control.

"That was the match that lit the fuse," he said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)

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