Could gun control flip the House to Democrats?
Democrats are campaigning hard in Congress for new gun control laws — but don’t expect them to do the same across the election map this fall.
As a renewed, nationwide push for gun control faces an uphill battle in Congress, some progressive outside groups are prodding Democrats to make gun restrictions a driving issue in the midterms. There are signs some candidates will take heed, using GOP inaction on guns as one piece of a larger case against the Republican-controlled Congress.
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But many other Democrats worry that nationalizing the issue in the midterms would undercut some of their most vulnerable members — or hinder Democrats challenging GOP incumbents — in rural areas from Ohio and Indiana to Montana and California’s Yosemite Valley.
To the extent that gun control has been a defining factor in recent elections, it’s been to motivate single-issue Second Amendment voters to put more Republicans in office. Despite the spate of mass shootings over the past decade, Democrats have yet to show that they can make Republican opponents of stricter gun controls pay a price at the ballot box.
And while there’s no doubt that national support for stricter gun policies has surged in the aftermath of the Florida school rampage earlier this month — a CNN poll out Sunday found support for tighter gun laws at 70 percent, its highest level since 1993 — Democrats in swing districts and states recognize they risk overplaying their hand and energizing the right.
“At times you have to look at yourself in the mirror and do the right thing and say forget about the political consequences,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), who faces a tough reelection this fall in a vast, Republican-leaning rural district.
O’Halleran, who in the past has backed expanded background checks but opposed a ban on assault weapons, said he is wary of getting hit for inching toward the center on guns. “I’m always worried about it. I’m in a tight race all the time, but I came here to do a job,” he said.
Multiple Democratic political operatives said they will surgically deploy the issue in select competitive states and House districts, especially those wracked by mass shootings. If the battle for House control comes down to a handful of seats, that could make gun control a significant factor.
In Colorado’s 6th District in the Denver suburbs, a perennial tossup where the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting took place, one of Republican Rep. Mike Coffman’s Democratic opponents released a web ad last week hitting the incumbent for “failed leadership” and taking tens of thousands dollars from the National Rifle Association.
Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Tim Kaine of Virginia are also leaning hard into new firearm restrictions, and Democrats are looking to oust House GOP incumbents representing suburban House districts in Florida, Northern Virginia and Nevada whom they believe are out of step with their constituents on guns.
But the political reality in Washington means that new gun control laws — whether an assault weapons ban or universal background checks — are unlikely to pass until gun control advocates defeat recalcitrant Republicans or the president makes a sustained push for them.
Until then, lawmakers and strategists in both parties say, the issue will more often hurt than help Democrats running in conservative House districts and states.
“If you’re in any of these states that voted for Donald Trump, there’s a strong record of support for the Second Amendment. They are going to have [to] navigate some very challenging issues,” said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the Senate GOP’s campaign chairman.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) co-sponsored a bill to expand background checks after the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, elementary school shooting in 2012 that netted 54 votes, six short of breaking a filibuster. But Manchin, who’s on the ballot this year in what’s expected to be a tough race, said he’s not inclined to try again unless President Donald Trump gets on board.
“I’m a realist … this is in [Trump’s] ball park,” said Manchin, who met with the president on Wednesday. “There’s some people wanting [failed gun votes]” to use for political leverage, he added, but it “makes no sense at all unless they just want to show [off].”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who represents the state where the Sandy Hook massacre happened, said he believes gun control is a winning political issue for the party.
“The days of the NRA getting everything they want seem to be over,” said Murphy on Wednesday. His remarks came after Trump, at a meeting with lawmakers at the White House, seemed to endorse the Manchin-Toomey’s background checks bill along with several other gun measures.