Bloomberg, buoyed by primary win, eager for 2014 fight vs. NRA on guns

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super-PAC is gearing up for a 2014 campaign showdown against the once-dominant gun-rights lobby, promising to play a major role in primary and general election races where gun control is a ballot box issue.  

Buoyed by the victory of a Bloomberg-backed candidate in this week’s Democratic primary in Illinois, Independence USA on Wednesday put the National Rifle Association (NRA) on notice that it is now facing a well-funded — and motivated — foe. 

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“If this election proved anything, it is that the NRA is no longer alone in being able to educate voters and have their positions taken seriously,” said Stefan Friedman, Independence USA’s spokesman.

The NRA has long been the best-moneyed interest involved in the gun-rights debate. Proponents of gun-control measures charge that its lobbying and electioneering efforts have paid off — effectively shutting down efforts in Congress to impose new gun restrictions. 

More than half of the House and a plurality of senators in the 112th Congress had an “A” rating from the group, according to The New York Times. The group spent more than $25 million on the 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But following the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., last December — when 20 children and six adults were killed — gun-control advocates are banking on an invigorated public and the emergence of new groups to pursue their agenda both legislatively and at the polls.

Independence USA, which is funded entirely by Bloomberg, poured more than $2.2 million into the Illinois Democratic primary for the seat vacated by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), helping to boost former state Rep. Robin Kelly  to a win. 

In a Wednesday victory-lap conference call with reporters, the political action committee’s pollster, Doug Schoen, said support for the initial front-runner, former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, fell sharply after ads targeted her support of gun rights.

Halvorson lost to Kelly in a blowout in Tuesday night’s primary in Illinois’s 2nd district.

But the NRA pushed back on the notion that Kelly’s win marked a triumph for gun control advocates or for Bloomberg’s PAC. 

“We fully expect Mayor Bloomberg to try to spend a considerable amount of his fortune in the upcoming months, as he has already in the past few weeks. But the simple fact remains: Illinois-2 was never a pro-gun district, so to try and suggest this is a major victory of any kind is disingenuous,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.

The district includes parts of Chicago’s South Side, which has seen a wave of gun killings in recent years. 

Arulanandam pointed out that the NRA didn’t get involved in the Illinois race. 

Moreover, he said that in one 2012 House race where the NRA and Independence USA spent heavily — Florida’s 10th district — NRA-backed Rep. Daniel Webster (R) came out the victor.

Gun control supporters maintain there is a political momentum in favor of expanded restrictions, and they argue Bloomberg’s deep pockets will allow him to play an outsized role in 2014. 

Bloomberg will continue to fund his PAC entirely with his own money, but several smaller groups are cropping up to support and expand his efforts.

A political action committee launched by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Americans for Responsible Solutions, plans to engage heavily in the gun control debate going forward and launched an ad campaign during President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this month.

The Giffords group said Wednesday it hoped to collaborate with Independence USA in 2014.

“We congratulate Robin Kelly and we are glad that so many people in Illinois showed they want to reduce gun violence. The issue isn’t going away and we are going to make sure of it in races across the country,” Pia Carusone, the executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, said in an email to The Hill.

A handful of small groups — including Democratic grassroots group CREDO — also spent on the Illinois race, though none expressly coordinated their efforts with Independence USA. 

Becky Bond, president of CREDO, and Independence USA’s Friedman expressed interest in partnering on future races.

“I think we’re always looking to work with groups that have similarly minded policy focuses,” Friedman said.

Bond told The Hill that Kelly’s win on Tuesday should put pro-gun-rights 
lawmakers on notice.

“Any member of Congress who stands with the NRA, and not with their constituents, post-Newtown is going to face a very different situation than they’ve ever faced before when they come up for election again,” she warned.

Bond and Friedman cited recent polling that indicated a majority of Americans favor expanded gun control measures. 

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Wednesday indicated more than 60 percent of Americans are in favor of stricter gun laws. However, Arulanandam pushed back on that idea and suggested the NRA’s gun-rights argument comes out ahead if it gets a fair hearing.

“When the American people know the facts and they’re asked the questions in a fair manner, they agree with the National Rifle Association,” he said.

But Cliff Schecter, a Democratic strategist who has advised the pro-gun-control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said 2014 presents a rare opportunity for gun control proponents to influence candidates.  

“Public sentiment has changed ... and the media is paying attention in a way that they weren’t before,” Schecter said. 

The Newtown shooting was the biggest catalyst, he argues, but gun control was already becoming a more potent issue because of the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., of Giffords; the July 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.; and the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida one year ago. 

“Starting off with Tucson and with Aurora and then Trayvon Martin, it’s sort of been a growing, building sentiment among Democrats for gun [policy] reform,” Schecter added.

“This is becoming a core issue for Democrats.”

Going into 2014, both Bond and Friedman said they hadn’t yet made any strategic decisions on where their groups would get involved. But they both said primary and general races were fair game.

“The venue is irrelevant. If it’s a primary or a general, depending on where candidates are on these issues — if you line up with the NRA against the assault weapons ban, against background checks, against limiting high-capacity magazines — the mayor and his PAC are going to look at that and make a decision about allocating resources,” Friedman said. 

But, Friedman added, Independence USA could branch out and engage in races on other issues, such as gay marriage and the environment.

Those other issues could become more significant if the gun control measures proposed by the president are passed in part or in full, a circumstance that neither Bond nor Friedman said their groups had anticipated.

But Bond said that she expected the issue to remain in the spotlight, regardless of what Congress accomplishes in the next two years.

“Anything we win, we’ll have to defend to keep,” she said.