Did guns beat money in Colorado recalls?

by and
JohnPMorse_headshot AngelaGiron_headshot
John Morse and Angela Giron left their jobs in the Colorado state Senate after supporting gun control. (Official file photos.)

This year, two Colorado state senators became the beneficiaries of at least $4 million in contributions, much of it from out-of-state interests including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Despite the influx of cash, they lost their seats in September recall elections that became a proxy for the bitter national gun debate.

Political Party Time: Sandy Hook hasn’t dampened pols’ enthusiasm for gun fundraisers.

In an unusual political twist, the anti-recall forces appear to have vastly outspent the gun rights advocates. Pro-gun groups active in the recall reported collecting some $606,000, two-thirds of which can be traced to the Washington-based National Rifle Association. All of the money was focused on determining the political futures of Colorado Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron, two Democrats who prior to this year had raised a combined total of $361,500 for their earlier campaigns. See the details, compiled from campaign finance records available via Sunlight’s Influence Explorer — for Giron here and Morse here.

Contributions to Recall groups

Recall Group Total Receipts Pro or Anti Recall
Committee to Recall John Morse $30,017 Pro
El Paso Freedom Defense Committee $84,119 Pro
National Rifle Association Committee to Restore Coloradoans’ Rights $397,153 Pro
Pueblo Freedom and Rights $95,017 Pro
A Whole Lot of People for John Morse $872,612 Anti
Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado Independent Expenditure Committee $59,036 Anti
Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado Issue Committee $20,000 Anti
Pueblo Taxpayers for Responsible Government $14,800 Anti
Pueblo United for Angela $756,234 Anti
Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy $726,189 Anti
We Can Do Better Colorado $505,325 Anti
We Can Do Better Coloraso Issue Committee $403,647 Anti
We Can Do Better Independent Expenditure Committee $131,195 Anti
To avoid double counting, totals have been adjusted to account for transfer of funds between groups.

Colorado has made for an interesting laboratory of gun politics for two reasons: 1) The state is famously purple in its political habits and 2) Colorado has seen two of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings, including the 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre that left 12 people dead. In the wake of that incident and the Newtown shootings, the state legislature last spring passed sweeping gun measures that strengthened background check requirements and put limits on magazines.

The Colorado recall fights became stand-ins for the national gun debate in a year when there weren’t many other elections for interest groups to test their strength. They also turned into case studies how outside interests swamp local elections in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to fully measure. Although reported contributions and expenditures suggest an extremely lopsided — and unsuccessful — campaign by anti-recall groups, the operative word here is “reported.”

Much of the money — how much isn’t really clear — spent by outside groups in the recall race came in the form of undisclosed dollars. There were no limits on contributions to these races and much of the advertising was classified as issue advertising and did not trigger official state reporting requirements. That meant that groups such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, on the pro-recall side, and Americans for Responsible Solutions, on the anti-recall slate, were active but did not report their spending to state authorities.

Some of this “dark” activity is captured by Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth, which tracks spending on political ads disclosed by broadcast stations. As of August 2012, the Federal Communications Commission required stations affiliated with the four largest broadcasting networks and located in the 50 largest markets to post their political ad files online with the FCC. But Colorado Springs, the TV market that covers the area where the recall elections took place, is not one of the top 50 markets. So volunteers from The Citizens Project of Colorado Springs visited local stations to retrieve and copy paper files, which Sunlight uploaded into its tracker.

Two of the most deadly mass shootings in recent memory occurred in the Denver suburbs:  In 1999, two students gunned down 13 people at Columbine High School before committing suicide. After last year’s Aurora shootings — and, as it turned out, just one day before the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School — Gov. John Hickenlooper issued his call for a state discussion of gun control. On March 20, Hickenlooper signed three bills that together made sweeping changes to the state’s gun laws, including one that extended background checks for private and online gun sales, and another to prohibit large capacity magazines. Immediately efforts were underway to recall legislators who voted in favor of the legislation, and the state quickly became a magnet for out-of-state cash.

The patterns revealed in the reported money are stark: These were races paid for largely by groups outside the state. On the anti-recall side, 79 percent flowed in from out-of-state, largely from big donors such as Bloomberg, who kicked in $350,000 to an issue group Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy. Eli Broad, a California-based philanthropist, gave $250,000 to the same group, which served largely as a vehicle to transfer funds to the campaign committees affiliated with Giron and Morse. Because these were set up as issue committees, there were no limits on donation size. Less than one percent of the cash came from donors of $50 or less.

Large contributions from groups outside the state also came in through institutional donors. But gun control groups, including the big-spending Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the pro-gun control group founded by Bloomberg and other big city mayors in 2006, were conspicuously absent from the state data. Instead, the big money on the gun control side of the debate came from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committees, labor unions and other liberal groups.

Organizations giving to recall committees

Organizations Total Receipts Groups given to Pro or Anti Recall
AFSCME $171,080 Pueblo United for Angela, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse, We Can Do Better Colorado, Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti
DLCC Unincorporated Individual Acct $400,000 We Can Do Better Colorado Issue Committee Anti
NRA Institute for Legislative Action $397,153 National Rifle Association Committee to Restore Colorado’s Rights Pro
Mainstream Colorado $285,436 Pueblo United for Angela, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse, We Can Do Better Colorado, Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti
Citizens for Integrity $204,000 Pueblo United for Angela, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse Anti
Fair Share USA $147,570 Pueblo United for Angela, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse Anti
Public Campaign Action Fund $121,500 We Can Do Better Colorado Independent Expenditure Committee Anti
Service Employees International Union $100,000 We Can Do Better Colorado Anti
Vote Vets $88,648 A Whole Lot of People for John Morse Anti
Conservation Colorado $76,250 A Whole Lot of People for John Morse, Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti


Individuals giving to recall committees

Name About the contributor Contribution Groups given to Pro or Anti Recall
Michael Bloomberg New York City Mayor and gun control advocate $350,000 Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti
Eli Broad Former insurance executive turned philanthropist and gun control advocate $250,000 Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti
David Bohnett Former technology entrepreneur who gives extensively to LGBT and gun control groups $27,000 A Whole Lot of People for John Morse Anti
Barbara Steifel A longtime Democratic fundraiser and a major contributor to Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC $20,000 Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti
Heizer Paul Grueskin Head of a Denver law firm which has contributed to Democratic causes over the years $16,500 A Whole Lot of People for John Morse Anti
Ronald Conway A Silicon Valley angel investor who has spent six figures supporting San Francisco $15,000 We Can Do Better Colorado Anti
Stephen Silberstein Silberstein founded the software company Innovation Interfaces and is on the boards of multiple educational foundations. $15,000 Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti
Merle Chambers Businesswoman who chaired oil and gas and transportation companies. She is an active philanthropist in Colorado and six-figure Democratic giver in the 2012 cycle. $10,000 Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy Anti
Dianna Harris A Colorado Springs attorney without a large campaign contribution footprint. $6,000 Committee to Recall John Morse, El Paso Freedom Defense Committee Pro
Judith Wagner Founder of Wagner Investment management. Wagner has donated to several Democratic causes on the federal level and is active on the boards of many Colorado foundations. $6,000 We Can Do Better Colorado, Pueblo United for Angela, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse Anti
Victor Head Runs a local business with his brother in Pueblo and was the initial force behind the recall elections $5,878 Pueblo Freedom and Rights Pro

It was a highly coordinated effort by political pros: Julie Wells, listed as the registered agent for two of the main committees working to defend Giron and Morse — Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy and We Can Do Better Colorado – has been a registered agent for 60 Democratic-leaning organizations since 2000, a survey of filings with the secretary of state’s office shows. We Can Do Better Colorado, which spun off two other committees for the recall alone, received most of its money from national level labor unions and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Only two individuals gave to the groups: Ronald Conway, a Silicon Valley investor, and David Bohnett, whose foundation donates to LGBT and gun control causes, gave $15,000 and $25,000 respectively.

On the pro-recall side, the big money was in the NRA’s local issue committee, the National Rifle Association Committee to Restore Coloradans’ Rights. This group received all of its $397,153 in transfers from the national NRA. The NRA ran ads and attacked the gun laws as being dictated from afar by Bloomberg.

Television broadcast records loaded into Political Ad Sleuth help paint a broader picture of who got involved in the recall races. Records show Americans for Responsible Solutions, the super PAC founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, running at least 68 ad spots in late August in Colorado Springs. The group produced several ads supporting Morse and Giron, captured here by Sunlight’s Ad Hawk tool.

Public Campaign Action Fund and VoteVets.org, both Washington-based groups, also ran anti-recall ads in Colorado Springs, according to the records. Public Campaign’s ad focused on alleged ethics shortcomings by Morse’s opponent, Bernie Herpin, and the VoteVets ad concentrated on Morse’s pro-veteran record.

However, pro-recall groups also weighed in with ads, including Free Colorado, IACE Action, Colorado Citizens Protecting our Constitution, Pueblo Freedom and Rights and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

Finally, some groups worked in Colorado but are not detected either in Colorado state records or the broadcast records. Press reports revealed that Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed advocacy group that spent more than $33 million at the federal level on the 2012 elections and is not required to disclose its donors, was working on the races. The group, for example, distributed this door hanger, which criticizes Morse not about his stance on guns but on his support for the Obama health care law.

The National Association for Gun Rights produced this anti-Morse ad as well. Danielle Thompson, a spokeswoman for the group, earlier told Sunlight that the group had spent about $100,000 on that ad and another produced by the group’s local affiliate, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. The group also produced radio ads, sent emails and engaged in other activities in support of the recalls.

Because the public records are incomplete, it is difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about how much money was spent overall. One thing is clear, though: Hickenlooper took criticism of Bloomberg’s involvement in the races to his political heart. In October, he called on national gun control groups to stay out of the recall effort to unseat  Hudak. “Colorado is a state that people like to be themselves and solve their own problems,” he said in an interview with USA Today. The day before Thanksgiving, Hudak announced that she would resign rather than face recall, a decision received by politicos as a way to preserve the narrow Democratic majority in the state Senate.

Contributing: Peter Olsen-Phillips and the Citizens Project of Colorado Springs.