By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Two Colorado state lawmakers who supported tougher gun control laws after the shooting massacre at a suburban Denver movie theater last year face recall elections on Tuesday aimed at unseating them as the national battle over gun control heats up.
The recall races, the first in Colorado history, are at the epicenter of the national fight over gun control and could serve as a test of the sway of lobbyists on both sides who have thrown their voices and money into the race.
The recall targets the president of the state senate, Democrat John Morse of Colorado Springs, who helped lead efforts to ban ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds and to require background checks for private gun sales and transfers in the state.
Also targeted, in campaigns filled with negative ads from both sides, is Democrat Angela Giron of Pueblo. Polls will remain open until 7 p.m. local time.
The issue came to a head in Colorado after gun-rights activists accused Democrats of ramming through the gun control legislation in the aftermath of a series of U.S. mass shootings including the suburban Denver theater rampage in which 12 people were killed last year.
Angered by the gun control push, gun rights advocates sought the recall to send a message to current and future legislators that the bills had gone too far with efforts to curb firearm access. Opponents view the recall effort as a bullying tactic and not the proper way to handle a policy dispute.
"I can't imagine doing this all the time every time you're upset with a vote - that's what regular elections are for," said Morse's spokeswoman, Christy Le Lait.
Morse's Republican opponent, former Colorado Springs Councilman Bernie Herpin, said it was Morse's own unresponsiveness to constituents that prompted the recall effort, a process in which voters petition to remove an elected official before his or her term has ended.
"When you (have) 10,000 valid signatures on a recall petition, that's a powerful message," Herpin said.
Joshua Spivak, editor of the Recall Elections Blog, said the Colorado lawmakers were not the first in the nation to face recalls over gun control, and that a California lawmaker survived a recall over the same issue in 1994.
"The argument that the recall was supposed to be used only to oust corrupt officials is a long running canard, one disproved by both history and the fact that there are actually seven states that limit the recall to corruption issues," Spivak said.
MILLIONS OF DOLLARS SPENT
The recall elections have attracted more than $3.5 million in campaign contributions. But the vast majority of the funds - nearly $3 million - have come from opponents of the recall effort who support stricter gun control, figures the Colorado Secretary of State's office released on Monday showed.
Only about $500,000 has come from the pro-gun lobby, mainly $368,000 donated by the National Rifle Association, the nation's biggest pro-gun lobby.
New York City 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 another $250,000 to stave off the recalls.
The campaign has not been a friendly one. One television ad, paid for by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, accused Morse of taking marching orders from "East Coast liberals like billionaire playboy New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg."
A Quinnipiac poll of voters across Colorado conducted last month showed opposition to recall efforts, with 60 percent of respondents saying that when voters disagree with a legislator they should wait for re-election rather than mount a recall.
The survey, of 1,184 voters statewide with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent, gave no indication of how the legislators facing recall might fare on Tuesday.
Morse is seen as the most vulnerable of the pair, as a quarter of his district sits in Colorado Springs, long a Republican stronghold, although registration in the Senate district is split almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams said 12,985 of the district's 69,000 registered voters had cast ballots in early voting by Monday evening. Those included 5,192 votes from registered Republicans, 4,314 from Democrats and 3,479 from unaffiliated or minor party voters.
Further south in Pueblo, where Giron faces a recall vote, Democrats hold a registration advantage. Her opponent, George Rivera, is a former deputy police chief of Pueblo and former Democrat who said Giron is out of step with voters.
Rivera said her support for other laws had hurt district residents, including legislation to allow cities in the Denver area to draw water from the Arkansas River basin at the expense of local communities. But the primary issue remained gun control.
"That was the match that lit the fuse," he said.
(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Lisa Shumaker and Richard Chang)