By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The recall ouster of two Colorado state senators targeted by Republicans for backing tougher gun control is a sign that Democrats who control the Denver statehouse may have reached too far, especially on the volatile issue of firearms, analysts said a day after the election.
State Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron, both Democrats, were unseated on Tuesday in the first two recall election campaigns ever mounted against Colorado state lawmakers, despite vastly outspending their Republican challengers.
Their defeat narrowed the Democrats' majority in the state Senate to 18-17, likely making it harder for the party to advance its agenda as swiftly as it had since winning control of both houses of the Legislature last year.
Morse said he had "absolutely no regrets" about pushing through bills to expand background checks on gun buyers and to limit high-capacity ammunition magazines in the aftermath of several deadly mass shootings last year, including massacres of moviegoers in suburban Denver and schoolchildren in Connecticut.
"I said at the time if it costs me my political career, so be it," Morse told Reuters after conceding defeat.
Political analysts said the recall proved that gun ownership remained a touchy subject in Colorado and other Western states, where support for the right to bear arms resonates strongly with the independent streak of many voters in the region.
Moreover, swift passage of the latest gun control measures lit a spark for discontent over a broader Democratic agenda that many voters apparently felt was too far-reaching, experts said.
"What Coloradoans really hate is extremists on either side," said Katy Atkinson, a Denver political analyst.
'SENSE OF ARROGANCE'
Democrats recently overhauled Colorado's election law to allow same-day voter registration, a move that voters statewide overwhelmingly rejected by ballot measure several years ago.
Likewise, the state's same-sex civil unions bill was signed into law with bipartisan support this year, but Democrats refused to allow any religious exemptions for adoptions by gay or lesbian couples, or any other compromises to the legislation.
Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, also rankled death-penalty supporters when he issued a temporary reprieve to the state's longest-serving death row inmate, who was scheduled to be executed in August.
"Overall, it was a sense of arrogance," Atkinson said.
Denver independent pollster Floyd Ciruli agreed.
"There was a sense that people were not being listened to and felt shut out from the aggressive agenda put forward by Democrats in the legislature," he said, noting that an 8-to-1 spending advantage by recall opponents failed to stave off defeat.
The Colorado recall battle drew more than $3.5 million in campaign contributions. But the bulk of it - nearly $3 million - came from opponents of the recall drive who support stricter gun control, figures from the secretary of state's office showed.
New York 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 $250,000 to stave off the recalls.
Only about $500,000 came from the pro-gun lobby, including$368,000 donated by the National Rifle Association, the nation's biggest pro-gun lobby, which hailed Morse's ouster on Tuesday.
HEAVY SPENDING BACKFIRES
After claiming victory against Morse late on Tuesday, his Republican challenger, Bernie Herpin, a former Colorado Springs city councilman, said the push to derail the recall backfired.
"In Colorado, we don't need some New York billionaire telling us what size soft drinks we can have, how much salt to put on our food, or the size of the ammunition magazines on our guns," he said.
Morse was seen as vulnerable because he served in a district split almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. A quarter of his district lies in predominantly Republican Colorado Springs.
Herpin, a retired U.S. military officer, edged to victory with 51 percent of the vote, versus 49 percent for Morse. Giron, from the Democratic stronghold of Pueblo, was defeated 56 percent to 44 percent by Republican George Rivera, a former deputy Pueblo police chief.
Both Democratic lawmakers were targeted primarily for their role in what critics saw as ramming through legislation to ban ammunition magazines holding more than 15 rounds and to require background checks for all private gun sales and transfers.
The original impetus for the measures was the fatal shooting of 12 people and wounding of 58 others last summer during the midnight showing of a Batman film in Aurora, Colorado.
That and other mass shootings last year, culminating in the slaying of 20 first-graders and six adults in December at a Connecticut elementary school, brought gun control back to the forefront of U.S. politics.
A handful of states besides Colorado have since tightened limits on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, including New York, Connecticut and Maryland. Other states - Arkansas, Wyoming and South Dakota - have loosened gun restrictions.
Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, said Democrats elsewhere "have to be concerned that if you support similar measures, there will be talk about recalls."
But Joshua Spivak, editor of the Recall Elections blog, discounted any notion that recalls were on the rise as a new instrument of political punishment.
Before Tuesday's elections in Colorado, only 36 state legislators nationwide had ever faced a recall effort, and roughly half survived. Colorado is one of 11 states that allow for a political recall of elected officials.
Backers of the Colorado gun measures that sparked the recall said they were undeterred.
"The laws are on the books and they are here to stay," said Golden Mayor Marjorie Sloan, chair of Colorado Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)