Liberal fervor for gun control puts Senate candidates in tough spot

Greg Nash

There’s division within the Democratic Party over how aggressively to push gun control, an issue that is growing more urgent among the liberal base but threatens to hurt centrists running in battleground states.

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.

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But it could be difficult for Democratic Senate candidates to keep the gun issue at bay, given the rising fervor in the liberal base for action.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonEven in defeat, Trump could harm the country irreparably Clinton allies blame Bernie for bad polls In Beverly Hills, Hillary warns of 'apocalyptic consequences' with Trump win MORE and Martin O’Malley have tried to tap into the grassroots anger over gun violence, zeroing in on the issue during their first presidential debate.

“We have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence,” Clinton said at the debate in Nevada, a battleground state that could decide the Senate majority next year. “This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the [National Rifle Association].”

O’Malley held a news conference on gun safety in Las Vegas after the debate and has touted his role in tightening gun laws as Maryland’s governor.

He crashed the Republican presidential debate last week in Boulder, Colo. — another battleground state where Sen. Michael BennetMichael BennetGOP ad calls Clinton 'a living history of scandal' Trump, GOP agree: ObamaCare helps us GOP hopefuls struggle with support of Trump MORE (D-Colo.) faces a tough race — in search of “that elusive species called a Republican presidential candidate with the spine to take on the NRA.”

The move puzzled MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who asked him in an interview: ”Why go make the case for gun reform at the site of the Republican debate, specifically? The place where there isn’t a consensus on gun reform is in the Democratic Party.”

O’Malley cited past mass shootings at Columbine High School and a movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., asserting, “There were a whole lot of moms and dads here who lost sons and daughters in those massacres and they want this to be an issue we address as a people.”

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.

The gun debate will loom large in Nevada, another battleground state, where former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto is running to succeed Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Reid McConnell sets up vote to begin debate on defense policy bill The Trail 2016: Dems struggle for unity Senate candidate taunts Sanders: Why don't you endorse Alan Grayson? MORE, who has touted his pro-gun credentials throughout his career.

“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.”

Cortez Masto has kept her head down on guns and other issues, focusing on raising money.

Democratic leadership strategists in Washington argue the politics of gun control have changed but concede that pro-gun voters historically have a greater impact on Election Day because they tend to be single-issue voters. People in favor of stricter gun control, on the other hand, are typically more motivated by other issues.

“How many single-issue voters are there on the pro-gun side versus the gun control side. There are many, many more on the former than the latter, which has always been the issue,” Ralston said.

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.

“North of I-4 you have a large number of swing Democrats who are socially centrist, more conservative than they are liberal,” he said. “Gun control could be a top-tier issue among those Dixiecrats.”

Vancore said Clinton would lose in northern rural Democratic districts by touting gun control but added that Murphy could avoid political damage by distinguishing himself with television spending.

“If the NRA leans in on it and does mailers to North Florida Dixiecrats and says Patrick Murphy is anti-NRA, that’s going to leave a mark, but at the end of the day, if Patrick is centrist on gun-control issues, that helps him with those Dixiecrats,” he added. “Patrick will have enough money to distinguish himself.”

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.

He said Democrats in the Southwestern Pennsylvania tend to be pro-gun and conservative.

“Even Democrats have been a little careful about it when they’ve pushed for gun control,” he said. “It always has the potential to be a problem depending on how far you push it.”

Democratic leadership strategists in D.C. argue that the eventual Democratic nominee will be protected to some extent by Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) co-sponsorship of legislation with Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinHow Congress got to yes on toxic chemical reform Red-state Dem hits back over coal, court attacks Tough choice for vulnerable GOP senators: Embrace or reject Trump MORE (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks.

Toomey, however, has since taken a lower-profile stance on that bill. His state director, Bob DeSousa, reportedly told members of Pennsylvanians for Self Protection, a gun rights group, last month that Toomey would not re-introduce the legislation after they threatened to protest his office.
 
E.R. Anderson, Toomey’s spokesman, disputed that account.
 
“Sen. Toomey is 100 percent committed to expanding background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. He is open to supporting any legislative effort that accomplishes that goal, including the reintroduction of the Manchin-Toomey bill,” she said.

A national Democratic strategist said it would be up to the candidates to set themselves apart on the gun issue, depending on the political contours of his or her home state.

“Every individual state is a little different and every candidate is different. For the most part there’s pretty clear consensus behind common sense background checks,” the source said.

This story was updated at 9:57 a.m.