By Ian Simpson and Gary Robertson
WASHINGTON/RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Billionaire Michael Bloomberg's gun control advocacy group is pouring $2.2 million into TV ads backing two Virginia candidates for state Senate, in a bid to wrest control of the chamber from Republicans.
A victory on Tuesday by one of the Democrats backed by Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety would switch control of the 40-seat Senate in the state, home of the powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby.
That could be a big boost for Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, a gun control advocate who is seeking legislative victories as he heads presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's election effort in Virginia.
"Guns are always a hot-button issue in Virginia," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. "It's a wise investment to put money in a campaign that matters."
The Virginia races are an Everytown national focus in the off-year election. The issue of gun control has gained a higher profile nationally after a spate of mass shootings, and President Barack Obama has called gun deaths a "political choice."
Everytown has bought $1.5 million in TV ads to back Jeremy McPike, an Alexandria city administrator, in his campaign against Republican Hal Parrish, a mayor in Washington's suburbs.
The advocacy group founded by Bloomberg, a media tycoon and former New York mayor, also is pouring $700,000 into ads for Dan Gecker, who faces Republican lawyer Glen Sturtevant in a Richmond-area district. Both races are for seats from which incumbents are retiring.
The advertisements feature Andy Parker, the father of Alison Parker, a Roanoke, Virginia, television reporter slain in an August on-air shooting along with her cameraman.
"Politicians' condolences are not enough. It's time for them to act," Parker says in the ad.
The NRA has spent $370,000 on all Virginia legislative races, with about $110,000 going to the two Senate campaigns, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks political spending.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
SURGE OF MONEY
The Virginia races are part of a surge of money by gun control backers into state elections as efforts to pass federal gun control legislation have failed.
Gun control groups outspent gun rights advocates by $5.1 million to $2.8 million in 2014 elections, with Everytown contributing $4.4 million, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana.
McAuliffe, a gun control supporter and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was elected in 2013 with backing from Bloomberg. The 2007 attack at Virginia Tech university in which 32 people died is the deadliest gun rampage in U.S. history.
But the Republican-controlled legislature has thwarted gun control efforts such as background checks for firearms buyers.
Luisa Guerra, Parrish's campaign manager, said that McPike had altered his stance on gun control since 2013. The Culpeper Times reported then that he expressed caution about limits on gun control rights during an unsuccessful race for the state House.
"This is a scorched earth campaign, and people don't like it," Guerra said of McPike's TV spots for gun control and other issues.
McPike has a 43 percent NRA rating, while Parrish's is 79 percent, according to the nonpartisan Vote Smart research group.
McPike and Gecker, a real estate executive, support background checks for gun buyers and keeping firearms away from domestic abusers.
Sturtevant, Gecker's opponent, has called for enforcement of existing state and federal gun laws and helping the mentally ill before they turn to violence. Sturtevant carries an 86 percent NRA rating, while Gecker's is zero, Vote Smart said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)