A cautionary tale

Last Tuesday, Republicans successfully recalled two state senators in Colorado in an NRA-fueled effort to punish Democrats for passing gun safety legislation in the state. The conservative effort was successful, even in Democratic-majority areas despite being dramatically outspent.

Conservatives are using the victories to try and head off further gun safety legislation, but on that front, the recalls were a bust — Democrats still control the governorship and state Senate. The law will remain on the books. If the Colorado gun laws were truly unpopular, the National Rifle Association and its allies would’ve targeted the governor, and efforts to recall other state legislators died at the signature-gathering level.

No, the Colorado recalls merely reiterate the lesson we learned in 2010: The only way Republicans can win is if they either rig the system to their advantage, or, as was the case here, if Democratic base voters don’t turn out to vote. 

Senate District 3, previously held by state Sen. Angela Giron, is generally a reliable Democratic district; 45.2 percent of registered voters are Democrats, compared to just 22.9 percent who are Republicans. President Obama won 59.7 percent of the two-way vote in 2012. Yet Giron was easily recalled by 12 percent. 

In Senate District 11, previously held by state Senate President John Morse, the results were much closer: The recall margin was just over 300 votes, out of more than 34,000 cast. Yet that district was also majority Democrat, with registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans 33.2 percent to 25.1 percent.

So what happened?

In short, Democratic turnout fell off a cliff, with overall voter numbers at their lowest levels since a minor 2011 tax referendum. In SD-03, turnout fell from 56.6 percent in 2012 to 35.7 percent last Tuesday. In SD-11, already a low-turnout district, turnout fell from 41.5 percent to 21.3 percent. 

Traditional Democratic base groups like youth voters, single women, and ethnic and racial minorities generally vote at a slower clip than Republicans. And while we don’t have exit polls from Tuesday’s elections, an analysis by the Atlas Project notes that the most reliable voters in those districts are, as usual, Republicans. For example, in SD-11, among those who voted in that 2011 tax referendum and in every election since, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 41 percent to 35 percent. And those Democratic turnout woes meant that the 9,094 people who voted to recall Morse would’ve made up just 18 percent of the vote in 2012. 

Republicans prosper when Democratic base voters stay home, so it’s no surprise that Republicans are eager to create additional barriers to keep those voters from the polls. That’s just what happened in Colorado, where a conservative judge eliminated mail voting for the recalls. The decision played a significant role in the recalls. In 2012, half the voters in SD-03 and a third in SD-11 voted by mail, and Democrats won that early vote handily in both districts. By eliminating the preferred method of voting for a significant portion of voters, Republicans twisted the election machinery to their advantage and tipped the election to the GOP. 

Therein is a cautionary tale for the Democrats heading into 2014. They must be vigilant against Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters, as we’re seeing in places like North Carolina today. The difference between another 2010 and 2012 will ultimately come down to whether Democrats can figure out how to turn out low-performing base voters in a nonpresidential year.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).