Purple Colorado’s divergent positions on two core social issues — gun rights and abortion — have put candidates up and down the ballot in tough spots as they seek to forge centrist paths independent of their national parties.
The swing state’s more liberal support for abortion rights but more conservative opposition to gun control measures have both candidates and incumbents doing a delicate dance around their own parties on these hot-button issues.
That fervor gave the GOP hope of taking down Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper this fall, who signed the laws to limit ammunition magazines to 15-round capacity and mandated universal background checks.
In a sign of how potent the issue could become, Hickenlooper last month scrambled to clarify comments he made last month to a group of sheriffs seeming to walk back his support for a measure limiting ammunition magazines, which drew backlash from both parties ahead of his race against GOP nominee and former Rep. Bob Beauprez.
After telling the sheriffs he felt pressure to sign the measure because his “staff made a commitment” to it, he later reiterated his support for it. His reversal caused an uproar from both parties and gave Republicans fodder for attacks on the issue.
And Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is careful to tout his efforts to protect gun rights in his own reelection bid. Udall spokesman Chris Harris, asked about a new electoral campaign from a pro-gun control group that plans to be active in Colorado, mentioned Udall’s efforts to expand shooting ranges.
“Responsible gun ownership is part of our Western heritage and Mark has always supported this through his work to expand public shooting ranges and his successful efforts to stop over-broad bans on common hunting rifles,” said Harris.
Republicans face a similar minefield on abortion. Udall’s opponent, GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, walked back his previous support for a measure that would effectively outlaw abortion and ban some forms of birth control, instead advocating for over-the-counter access to birth control.
Democrats have sought to make Gardner’s position on the so-called “personhood” measures an issue for him in the race, and Udall has run ads highlighting it. Democrat Andrew Romanoff has also raised the issue in his challenge to Rep. Mike Coffman (R) in one of the country’s top House races.
Republicans say they’re more unified in the swing state than in recent years, but some still fear social issues — and particularly abortion — might keep them from beating Democrats on more divisive topics such as the Affordable Care Act, energy, jobs and the economy.
Meanwhile, Democrats are banking on the belief that the abortion issue will be more potent than the gun control issue in a more difficult midterm year for their party.
Indeed, some of the furor surrounding the gun control measures has died down since the recall elections, but Democrats continue to hammer Republicans in both competitive federal races on the abortion issue.
Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said that might be because “a better base-building issue is the reproductive rights issue” — and Republicans run the risk of coming across as too “extreme” if they push the gun-rights issue too heavily.
“The issue with Republicans there is, I think they think they have the maximum votes on it, and they’re concerned about looking extreme. Where the Democrats lose is they look culturally anti-gun, so just being pro-Second Amendment I think they feel is sufficient for them,” he said.
Unprompted, “extreme” was exactly the word Gardner spokesman Alex Siciliano used to describe Udall on gun control, while characterizing Gardner as more pragmatic.
“Coloradans are pragmatic and practical, which is why Senator Mark Udall, identified as the most liberal candidate in 2014 by FiveThirtyEight, hides from his own record,” he said in an email. “Senator Udall is too extreme for Colorado on the 2nd Amendment and apparently on the issue of contraception or he would support Cory’s plan to make the pill available over the counter, removing politics from the discussion.”
Still, the aversion to the gun-rights issue in federal races could change as gun-rights groups plan to ramp up their advocacy efforts heading into the November elections. Two such groups — one backed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and another with the support of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) — have put Colorado on their target lists and plan to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars there.
Their activity on behalf of any Democrats who’ve supported expanded gun control measures could give Republicans an opening to hit those candidates on the issue.
“I think Democrats would be concerned” if those groups start advertising on the issue, Ciruli said.
And Brian Dotterer, who most recently served as the campaign manager for former Rep. Tom Tancredo, runner up to Beauprez in the GOP primary, said he sees an opening for Republicans to attack the Democratic Party as anti-gun more broadly.
“I do think any elected officials in this state who supported those anti-gun bills will feel the pain in November. There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party was completely aligned on those bills,” said Dotterer.
He pointed to reports that Vice President Biden personally lobbied members of the Colorado Legislature to pass the bills as evidence the entire party’s fingerprints are all over the measures and that they could be potent in races at every level this fall.
It’s tougher, however, for Republicans to hit Udall or Romanoff on gun control, because Udall has taken steps to insulate himself on the issue by voting largely in defense of gun rights, and Romanoff, a former state House speaker, doesn’t have much of a record on the issue.
Conversely, Hickenlooper remains vulnerable on guns because he favored the state gun control measures.
Even Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call played down the priority of gun laws compared to other topics in the elections, adding that Democrats are in a “circular firing squad” on issues such as energy policy.
“The votes on the gun legislation was one of many [issues],” at play in Colorado politics, he said.