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Uh Oh: Gun Control Push Splitting Democrats ... Again

It’s no secret that Democrats have a good shot at regaining the majority in the Senate next year. Roll Call reported last summer that the GOP is defending 24 senate seats next year. If they lose five, they lose the majority, four if Democrats take the White House, and nine of those states Obama won at least once. Yet, the Democratic Party’s push for gun control might be placing moderate Democrats in the cross hairs:


While Democratic senators from liberal states such as Connecticut and Oregon are rolling out new gun control legislation in Washington, some strategists warn the issue could alienate pro-gun voters in swing states states such as Colorado, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada.


Democratic strategists based in Colorado, however, warn that presidential candidates would pay a price for such talk come general-election time.

“I have a feeling that [Clinton] is wise enough from her Arkansas roots not to come to Denver, Colo., or Colorado Springs and decide what I’m going to do is a major speech on gun control,” said Rick Ridder, a Democratic consultant based in Denver. “She’s got enough political wisdom, and if not somebody will kick the tires off her campaign plane, make sure she doesn’t land here and give that speech.”

Another Colorado-based Democratic strategist said gun control is not a great issue for embattled Democratic candidates such as Bennet.

“I don’t feel like any Democrat needs to run on gun control as a primary concern. There are larger, more pressing issues at play. I don’t think it’s great ground for any Democratic candidate to be spending their time on,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity.


“It’s going to be a big issue in Nevada no matter what because there’s going to be a background check ballot initiative next November,” said Jon Ralston, Nevada’s most prominent political commentator. “The NRA is already sending out alerts about [Michael] Bloomberg trying to take over Nevada.”


Steven Vancore, a Democratic strategist based in Tallahassee, Fla., says he doesn’t expect gun control to hurt Rep. Patrick Murphy, the Democrats’ likely nominee for Senate in Florida. Still, he cautioned that the issue could cost him votes among so-called Dixiecrats in the northern part of the state.


Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are two other Senate swing states with large contingents of pro-gun voters.

“It depends to what extent they push gun control and how it’s viewed. Typically gun control, you have to be very careful about it in the state. It defeated candidates back in the 70s and 80s,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.


It’s the issue that just keeps on giving, as it splits the party right down the middle–especially when you leave those heavily Democratic and liberal bastions of New York and Connecticut. You would think that after the Democrats’ failed 2013 push for gun control, they would learn to be savvier in pushing this issue. After all, there were a good chunk of Democrats who voted against the 2013 gun control measures, some of which were booted by Republicans in the midterms, or, like Max Baucus, have retired to become Ambassador to China (via WaPo [4/18/13]):

Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), all of whom voted against every Democratic piece of gun legislation save for a crackdown on trafficking, and for every piece of Republican gun legislation.


All but Pryor get high marks from the National Rifle Association; he gets a middling C-. Baucus' Montana has more gun businesses than any state in the country; Alaska is not far behind.

Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.), another vulnerable Democrat up in 2014, voted for background checks, but with Republicans on everything else save gun trafficking. Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) is in the same boat and voted the same way. So did Sen. Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Joe Tester (Mont.) who like Heitkamp were elected (or in Tester's case reelected) in conservative states. Sen. Martin Heinrich (N.M.), elected last year to a blue-leaning state, broke with Democrats on the assault weapons ban, concealed-carry and privacy.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), up next year in a swing state, voted for expanding concealed-carry, against the assault weapons ban and for gun owners' privacy but with Democrats on everything else. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), another swing-state senator up in 2014, only broke with her party on the privacy amendment. Polls suggest Sen. Jeff Merkley could be vulnerable in Oregon; he broke with his party only on gun owners' privacy. On the flip side polls make it hard to believe Sen. Mark Warner will lose in Virginia; he broke with Democrats on concealed-carry, assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and privacy.


Yet, the truth is that liberals haven’t become savvier–and I’m not entirely sold on the notion that the politics on this issue have changed. Support for gun rights has reached its highest point in 25 years, support for handgun bans has reached near record lows, and polls showing support for gun control measures, such as a ban on semi-automatics, should be viewed with a very healthy dose of skepticism. Almost every handgun in the United States is semi-automatic, meaning its operating system self-reloads after every trigger pull. It shows that some Americans, especially liberals, have no clue what they’re talking about.

It highlights the urban/rural divide on this issue that always seems to escape Democrats’ understanding. I’m not complaining. It’s one of the many reasons why we win on Second Amendment issues. Twenty-two percent of Democrats are self-identified gun owners; so if liberals want to denigrate and marginalize almost a quarter of their own party, feel free.

Nevertheless, while this could bring some good popcorn moments, it’s hardly the silver bullet to maintaining the Republican majority. Democrats have had a miserable time recruiting for congressional races, but they’ve found success in mobilizing a somewhat solid cohort of senate candidates for 2016. Republicans know the map for next year is going to be tough, hence why they’ve started to spend early.

Last Note: If there’s any good news about 2016, it’s that incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) is in decent shape to take on whomever the Democrats nominate to run against him next year (via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):


Mr. Toomey, who beat [Rep. Joe] Mr. Sestak by just 2 percentage points in 2010, appears well-positioned to face whichever candidate wins next spring. His campaign is already sitting on a war chest of nearly $8.6 million, and outside interests, including the American Chemistry Council and a conservative veterans group, have already been advertising on his behalf.

In August, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Mr. Toomey leading Mr. Sestak and Ms. Ginty by 15- and 16-point margins, respectively. A Franklin & Marshall poll that same month showed Mr. Toomey holding a slightly wider lead over both candidates.

Pennsylvania is one of the states where Republicans cannot lose in order to increase their chances of retaining the Senate. At the same time, given Toomey’s support of gun control, he’s treading carefully on the issue. In a reversal, his gun control support could win over the moderate voters that dot the collar counties around Philadelphia, where elections are decided in the state.

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