A recall effort in Senate District 11 in Colorado Springs has become less of a discussion on Democratic incumbent John Morse and more of a conversation on the power of the National Rifle Association and political strategizing.
What started as frustration with the Senate president’s support of controversial firearms control measures has turned into a chess match in which Morse’s supporters and opponents are gunning for the best campaign strategy.
On one side of the fence is the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee, an issue committee established to oust Morse. On the other side is A Whole Lot of People For John Morse, the issue committee created to protect Morse’s seat.
Recall supporters must collect 7,178 signatures, or 25 percent of the 2010 vote in the district, by June 3. If that happens, then Gov. John Hickenlooper would be required to put the issue on the ballot during a 30-day timeframe that kicks off 45 days after signatures are verified.
Signature gatherers would not disclose how many signatures they have collected, but they are confident that they are on track to force a recall election. Conservative Colorado Springs group I Am Created Equal — run by Republican campaign operative Laura Carno — donated $14,294 to El Paso Freedom Defense Committee to pay Kennedy Enterprises for petition gathering.
Assuming the signatures are sufficient, the election itself would be two-part. First it would include a “yes” or “no” question on whether to recall Morse. Then it would contain a list of candidates to replace the Senate president.
Republicans have been tightlipped about who they are considering for the job, but multiple sources have acknowledged that the party has its eye on El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark and former Rep. Mark Barker.
Clark told The Colorado Statesman that she is adamant that she does not want the job at this time.
“I’m focused on my constituents and my work as a county commissioner,” she said of the suggestion, while acknowledging that it is something she had been considering after word spread that she was a potential candidate.
Barker did not return multiple requests for comment left by The Statesman to his personal phone number.
“Both are really good people with terrific track records of public service,” commented Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “It will be up to them and up to the folks in El Paso County to decide who is the best candidate in the event that a recall election actually occurs.”
Could Morse be asked to resign?
But whether there is a recall election at all could depend on pressure applied by the Democratic Party and the desires of Morse himself.
Conservative radio personality Jeff Crank recently raised the possibility of Morse being asked to resign after he pointed to an alleged “secret memo” that an unnamed Democratic source presented to him.
The memo, according to Crank, outlines a strategy by the Democratic Party in which Morse would be asked to resign his seat if proponents gather enough signatures to require a recall election.
A vacancy committee would appoint someone to Morse’s seat, and that candidate would be former Rep. Mike Merrifield of Manitou Springs, according to the memo Crank cites.
The strategy could be a successful one for Democrats, as they would not only keep the seat in Democratic hands, but also within the grasp of a lawmaker who supports gun control. Merrifield served as state director for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control advocacy group.
Bloomberg has become the target of gun rights supporters, who argue that the mayor’s fortunes have gone to chipping away at the Second Amendment. It would be an ironic slap in the face to those supporting the recall effort to appoint Merrifield to Morse’s seat.
But Merrifield laughed at the idea of a secret strategy. He has already filed paperwork to pursue Morse’s seat in 2014 when the Senate president is term limited. Merrifield added that until that time comes, he will be actively campaigning for Morse.
“It’s totally bogus,” declared Merrifield. “I’ve never talked to anyone about it, nobody approached me, there’s been no conversations — the thought never even occurred to me.
“I’ve put my campaign on hold…” added Merrifield. “I’ve met with all my volunteers and staff — we’re turning all of our attention to fighting back against this absurd recall attempt.”
Morse said the very suggestion of a secret strategy is representative of the deceiving campaign being led by recall proponents.
“I haven’t seen anything come out of the recall side of this thing that’s had a shred of truth or integrity to it,” exclaimed Morse. “I have no idea where it came from, but it doesn’t surprise me… It’s completely ridiculous… give me a break!”
Christy Le Lait, executive director of the El Paso County Democratic Party who is also leading efforts for A Whole Lot of People for John Morse, said she is aware of the resignation rumor. But she said the strategy is unlikely.
“Sen. Morse is not resigning,” she said. “He is supported here in his district… This insanity will end at some point soon, hopefully, and he will still be in office.”
But Crank says it is possible that Morse, Merrifield and Le Lait aren’t even aware of the strategy. He stands by his word that he reviewed the memo, which was proposed by high-ranking Democratic officials.
“I’m sure that they do dismiss it, but I still believe that it’s going to happen because what I saw was accurate,” attested Crank.
The conservative local personality believes Morse won’t be asked to resign until after signatures are turned in and verified. He suggests that polling will take place and if those numbers indicate that the recall might be close, then Democrats will ask the Senate president to resign to keep the seat in Democratic control.
Carno commissioned a poll by Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies, which indicated that just 38 percent of voters have heard about the Morse recall effort. Thirty-three percent of voters are undecided and 34 percent say they would vote for the recall of Morse, while 29 percent would vote against it.
The poll shifts, however, when voters are educated on Morse’s gun control efforts in the legislature. He had introduced legislation that would have held manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons liable for crimes committed with guns they produced or sold. But Morse killed his own bill when questions over the legality of the measure dominated the debate.
After voters are informed of this effort, 56 percent support Morse’s recall, according to the Public Opinion Strategies poll.
Carno said she hopes that Democrats don’t employ the strategy, which would end the recall effort. Proponents of the recall would have to wait until after the legislature begins next year in order to go after Merrifield.
“I’m glad to hear that they’re not planning on something where voters say we want this guy out and then they propose a secret swap and all of a sudden we can’t get that done, even though we’ve done the work of the democratic process,” she said.
An NRA election?
Democrats, however, say democracy has been thwarted simply by the presence of the NRA in the local recall effort. Democrats say they’re spending most of their time simply trying to balance the playing field.
A mailer from the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund that targeted voters in SD 11 states, “Your NRA is coordinating a recall effort with the Basic Freedom Defense Fund to put Senator Morse on the ballot for a special election and vote him out of office.”
Democrats pounced, using the mailer as an opportunity to suggest that outside interests — namely the NRA — are leading a campaign effort in a local race.
“Nervous doesn’t describe me. That’s not something that I ever let myself do,” explained Morse, a former police officer. “But the NRA can come in with $10 million and buy whatever they want. It won’t surprise me in the least if they buy enough signatures to force an election, and then there will be a campaign that will be horrific…
“And at the end of the day, that election result will be close one way or the other, absolutely,” Morse continued. “And if the people decide they don’t really appreciate people standing up and leading and doing the right thing, then get somebody else in here — get a politician in here…”
Morse prides himself on not being an ordinary politician. “I’ve never been much of a politician. I’ve always been a strong leader and people have genuinely appreciated that,” he opined.
Le Lait does not believe the election is a referendum on gun control or Morse. She believes it is simply an attempt by the NRA to showcase its power.
“I see this as a national group, the NRA, trying to show that they can take out elected officials who vote in ways that they disagree with…” she said.
But aside from the NRA mailer, the organization has not been involved in the recall effort. Campaign contributions have mostly come from Carno’s group and individual local donors, according to disclosure filings.
Carno said I Am Created Equal mostly gets its contributions from Colorado-based individuals and organizations. She said the NRA has not donated.
“If the NRA would like to send me a big check, I am happy to spend that, but they have not contacted me,” she quipped.
Meanwhile, Anthony Garcia, spokesman for Basic Freedom Defense Fund, scoffed at the idea that the NRA is dominating the campaign.
“The NRA was very nice to send a mailer for us, but that’s all they have done,” he said. “They’re not donating money, they’re not coordinating anything. They’re a valued ally, but that’s it.
“We’re just a bunch of average people,” Garcia continued. “We’re nobody special. We’re not politicians, we work average jobs — me, I work in the oil fields. We’re just, I believe, the definition of grassroots.”
Particularly hypocritical to recall proponents is that A Whole Lot Of People for John Morse has accepted a $20,000 contribution from liberal-leaning America Votes, a national organization that works with progressive groups to support campaigns across the country.
“I don’t hear Morse being made to answer that,” said Carno. “How is it you are calling a recall effort out-of-state outside special interest when you’ve got $20,000 from a Bloomberg-affiliated group?”
But Morse says the difference is that his supporters are campaigning on truth, not deception.
“Truth is going to be my best defense,” he said. “There hasn’t been a speck of it on the recall side.
“We are right now relying on local resources and state-level resources,” he continued. “But it’s the president of the Senate, so Democratic interest groups are interested in making sure the Democratic Senate president stays exactly where he is.”
Crank chuckled when he heard that Morse said his side of the campaign was based on integrity. He pointed to a recent robocall paid for by A Whole Lot of People for John Morse that portrays its message as a “public awareness alert.”
The “alert” encourages voters in the Colorado Springs area to be weary of petition gatherers. It suggests that voters should be cautious about providing their personal information, noting that the gatherers could be convicted criminals. The message says they are criminals convicted of “forgery, fraud and even sexual assault.”
It goes on to say, “If you see any suspicious or fraudulent activities please report it immediately to the fraud watch Web site, www.ColoradoRecallWatch.com.”
Crank was appalled by the robocall, disgusted that it was portrayed as a “public awareness alert,” which could be construed as an official public service announcement from law enforcement. He said by directing people to ColoradoRecallWatch.com under the guise of reporting fraud, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse is really just gathering voter identification information.
“I think it’s voter intimidation,” suggested Crank. “They’ve used, I think, questionable, unethical tactics in the way that they’ve done this race, and they know it.
“If a robocall went out on Election Day, and it went out to all Democrats from a Republican candidate, and it said, ‘You might not want to go to your polling place today, there were some sexual predators seen hanging around…’ that would be investigated by the Justice Department as voter intimidation,” Crank concluded.
Meanwhile, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse is outraged that a petition gatherer for El Paso Freedom Defense Committee suggested to a voter that Morse is once again drafting legislation to hold assault weapons manufacturers and sellers liable.
They have released a video of the petition gatherer making what is believed to be a false statement.
Recall efforts across state
Morse isn’t the only Democrat targeted by gun rights advocates for recall. Sens. Angela Giron of Pueblo and Evie Hudak of Westminster, and Reps. Mike McLachlan of Durango and Rhonda Fields of Aurora have also been singled out.
The efforts against McLachlan and Hudak were suspended this week. Organizers for the Hudak recall said they have decided to join forces with proponents seeking recalls against Morse and Giron.
“These recalls are grassroots efforts and we have determined we are stronger when we work together,” Kandee Evans, who led Hudak’s recall effort, said in a prepared statement. “Once the recalls downstate are successful, volunteers from those efforts will assist us to launch a new petition drive to recall Hudak.”
Proponents of the McLachlan recall said they fell short of the 10,587 signatures needed to force a recall election. McLachlan said he was ready to move on with the work of his constituents.
“It’s time to put aside ideological disagreements and come together to put the needs of southwest Colorado first,” McLachlan said in a statement.
In addition to the recall effort against Morse, petition gatherers in Pueblo are also optimistic that they can force an election against Giron. The effort against Fields does not appear to have much momentum.