The Real Overreach: Sullivan Breaks GOP Recall Strategy

Rep. Tom Sullivan (D).

As Colorado Public Radio’s Bente Birkeland reports–as word spreads nationally about the attempt by Colorado Republicans to recall freshman Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son was murdered in the July 2012 Aurora theater shooting leading to Sullivan’s run for office on a platform of gun safety, everybody and their mother is lining up not just to defend Sullivan, but plant the flag on this pivotal issue with Sullivan as the standard-bearer:

National Democrats are getting involved in the effort to help Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan survive a recall challenge that threatens to remove him from office…

“When the gun industry attacks one of our own, it’s important for us to respond in kind and demonstrate that our movement to save lives is just as powerful as they are,” wrote Democratic U.S Sen. Chris Murphy from Connecticut in a fundraising email he sent on Sullivan’s behalf. Murphy asked people to split a $35 donation between Sullivan’s recall effort and his own work to change gun laws.

“The gun lobby is trying to force a recall election to try to defeat Tom and the other Democrats who sponsored the bill. If our side wins, it’s a devastating blow to an already reeling gun lobby. And so Tom needs our help right now to defeat this recall effort.”

Birkeland reports that prominent Democrats from across the country have been in touch with Rep. Sullivan since the announcement of the recall effort against him. Sen. Chris Murphy in particular has been a leading proponent on the issue since the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting that occurred a few months after the Aurora theater shooting. We expect the involvement of these national players will escalate as the mid-July petition deadline approaches.

This is happening for an important reason. The recall campaign against Sullivan has received far more and far wider press coverage because of who Sullivan is. Although Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and their allies in GOP House Minority Leader Patrick Neville’s political machine promised lots of recalls, it’s been nearly two weeks since the launch of the Sullivan recall by state party vice chair Kristi Burton Brown with no new petitions approved to circulate as of this writing. Even if more recall petition announcements are made today or after the long holiday weekend, Tom Sullivan has been firmly planted in the public consciousness now as the principal target.

And that, gentle readers, is a messaging disaster for the GOP.

By singling out the lawmaker with the most powerful story to tell in defense of his vote for 2019’s popular gun safety law, the Extreme Risk Protection Order bill, Republicans have chosen the battlefield–and it’s by far their riskiest choice politically, and has the greatest chance of backfiring with lasting consequences for Republicans both in and outside of HD-37. If Republicans were to successfully recall Rep. Sullivan over a law enjoying 80% public support, the moral outrage against them would further stigmatize the party ahead of the next general election with no real effect on the Democratic majority.

On the other hand, if Democrats successfully defend Sullivan, Republicans look no less like soulless villains going into 2020 and the seat is lost for the rest Sullivan’s term. We’ll confess to some surprise that Republicans chose Tom Sullivan as the centerpiece of a strategy they have staked so much on. It’s even more surprising that they’ve let two weeks go by with no attempt to get control of the message while the Sullivan recall became national news.

It’s how a bad idea gets worse. And there’s no end in sight yet.

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