By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five senators - four Republicans and one Democrat - could face voter backlash for opposing President Barack Obama's bid to expand background checks for gun buyers, opinion polls released on Monday showed.
According to the surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling, a private firm based in Raleigh, N.C., respondents said they are more apt to oppose than support these lawmakers for re-election for joining other senators in rejecting a bipartisan background check measure on April 17.
The results were publicized in a conference call organized by Americans United For Change, a liberal organization. Public Policy Polling is considered a Democratic-leaning company.
Political analysts say it's unclear if this sentiment will persist or subside by Election Day. The next time any of the five senators face voters will be November 2014.
The gun legislation was defeated in the Senate, 54-46, six short of the 60 needed to clear a procedural hurdle. All but four members of the 55-member Senate Democrat Caucus voted yes; all but four of the 45 Senate Republicans voted no.
Public Policy Polling surveyed constituents of five senators who opposed the measure: Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Dean Heller of Nevada, and Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska.
The surveys found 60 to 72 percent public support in each state for expanding background checks to require them in sales at gun shows and on the Internet. The measure was opposed by the National Rifle Association, a powerful gun-rights group.
In Arizona, 52 percent of respondents said they are now "less likely" to support Flake for re-election. The poll gave him a disapproval rating of 51 percent.
In Alaska, the poll found Begich and Murkowski with approval ratings of 41 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Thirty-nine percent said they are now "less likely" to vote for Begich for reelection, and the same number said they are "less likely" to vote for Murkowski. Twenty-two percent said they are "more likely" to back Begich; 26 percent said they are "more likely" to back Murkowski.
In Ohio, the poll found Portman with an approval rating of 26 percent. Thirty-six percent said they are "less likely" to support him for a second term; 19 percent said they were "more likely."
In Nevada, Heller has an approval rating of 44 percent. Forty-six percent said they were "less likely" to back him for reelection; 25 percent said "more likely."
"It's very clear that these senators are paying a political price for this vote," said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. "Public opinion remains strongly against them."
'STICKINESS TO THE ISSUE'
Geoffrey Garin, president of Hart Research Associates, said many senators had figured that the issue would fade away after the vote, with the public quickly turning to other matters.
"Those assumptions have been proven wrong," Garin said. "There is a stickiness to this issue."
Garin and Jensen spoke in the conference call organized by Americans United For Change.
Public Policy Polling released a survey last week that found another senator who opposed the background check measure also in possible trouble with voters.
The poll found the approval rating of Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire at 44 percent, down 15 points since the last poll conducted of her by the firm in October.
For years, many members of Congress have feared voting to toughen gun laws, knowing that the gun-rights lobby would and could target them for defeat.
But in wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in December, gun-control groups have been energized to go after lawmakers who oppose their cause.
Sixty-five percent of Americans - 85 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans - believe the Senate should have passed the bill, according to a Gallup poll also released on Monday. The Gallup survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, sampled 2049 adults across the country.
Republican Senator Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania wrote the bipartisan background check measure with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
A survey released last week by Quinnipiac University found that voters may be pleased with Toomey's action. The poll gave him an approval rating of 48 percent, up 5 points from the previous month, and the highest ever found by Quinnipiac for the senator. He was elected in 2010 with 51 percent of the vote.
Manchin, appearing on Fox News on Sunday, said he and Toomey may take another crack at trying to win passage of their background check measure.
Toomey may not be interested, however, figuring that at this point it would again be rejected, an aide said.
"There would have to be a change in the atmosphere to yield a different outcome. That seems unlikely in the near future," the aide said.
In Alaska, 1,166 voters were surveyed with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent; 600 Arizona voters with a margin of error of 4 percent; 500 Nevada voters with a margin of error of 4.4 percent; and 601 Ohio voters with a margin of error of 4 percent.
(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)
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