Race for Jackson Jr.'s seat becomes proxy for gun control debate

Gun control advocates believe they’re poised for their first major victory of the election cycle in Chicago, where Democrat Robin Kelly has emerged as the favorite to win Tuesday’s primary over former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.).

Halvorson, a gun rights advocate, began the race with high name identification and was an early front-runner in a crowded field of contenders. 

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But a concerted national effort to stop her has put Kelly, a former Cook County administrator, in position to win the seat once held by former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) super-PAC, Independence USA, has spent more than $2 million in ads against Halvorson, and Democrats close to President Obama have pushed to circle the wagons around Kelly. 

The result of the primary will reverberate far beyond the district, which stretches from Chicago’s South Side into exurban Illinois.

  A Halvorson win could weaken the push in Congress to pass gun control reform on a national level, because it would raise questions about the issue’s resonance with voters, even in a heavily Democratic district where gun violence is a major problem. 

But if Halvorson loses, her defeat would send a message to Democrats — and possibly some Republicans — that it can be more politically dangerous to oppose gun control than to support it.

“It’s a vitally important race,” said Independence USA spokesman Stefan Friedman. “You have two folks [Halvorson and Kelly] really on polar opposites where it comes to an issue of enormous import, gun safety.”

This is first time since the Newtown, Conn., shootings put gun control in the national spotlight that support for tighter gun restrictions has been tested at the ballot box.  

And it comes at a crucial time during the debate: the Senate is poised to begin consideration of a number of measures aimed at curbing gun violence in the next few days, and the outcome of any legislation appears uncertain at this point. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee will include Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposed assault weapons ban in its markup of gun-related legislation on Thursday, even though the measure faces bipartisan opposition. 

Bloomberg’s expenditures on the Illinois race show the depth of his commitment on gun control and demonstrate that the National Rifle Association isn’t the only group willing to spend heavily on the issue.

Chicago observers contend that Kelly is the favorite and that Bloomberg’s super-PAC made a big difference in the race. 

Independence USA spent more than all of the other candidates combined. Its ads cast Halvorson as a pawn of the NRA and criticized her opposition to an assault weapons ban. 

“They took a bat to [Halvorson], and she just went down on her knees,” said Chicago-based Democratic strategist Thom Serafin. “There was no pushback.”

“I just don’t see how Kelly can lose at this point,” said Roosevelt University Professor Paul Green, a former Chicago alderman. “Halvorson hasn’t raised tip money compared to Bloomberg.”

Chicago’s Democratic establishment also rallied hard to support Kelly, whose campaign chairwoman, Cheryl Whitaker, is a close friend of the Obamas.

Kelly was endorsed by Chicago’s two African-American congressmen, Democratic Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush, who cited her support for gun control. 

She also has the backing of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who is close to both Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also worked quietly behind the scenes to stop Halvorson, according to sources.

That institutional support for Kelly helped convince a number of other African-American politicians to drop out of the race, including Illinois state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D), who then threw her support to Kelly.

Halvorson is the only white candidate in the majority African-American district and from the start opposed gun control efforts. She was one of the few Democrats endorsed by the NRA in 2010.

She continues to oppose a ban on assault weapons but supports expanding background checks and cracking down on gun trafficking.

“If you can tell me that banning another gun will go after the criminals, I’d be all for it. I’d be for anything that stopped the killing and gets guns out of the hands of criminals, but it won’t work. [Chicago’s] Cook County has had an assault weapons ban since 1993, and they have the highest murder rate in the country,” Halvorson told The Hill earlier this month.

“That’s why I refuse to just say I’m for it, knowing in my heart it’s not going to work. It would have saved me a lot of grief, there wouldn’t be all this money going against me, but I’ve been an elected official too long and I know too much. I know that won’t work.”

The NRA has provided some help to Halvorson, sending direct mail pieces to its members who live in the district. 

But the group has not publicly endorsed Halvorson — a sign that it recognizes the group’s stamp of approval won’t help.

One development that could impact the primary: A snowstorm is forecast to hit Chicago on Tuesday.

The weather could depress turnout and help Halvorson, because urban voters tend to turn out at much lower rates, as do lower-information voters who could be motivated by ads against Halvorson but aren’t as likely to go to the polls in bad weather.

Halvorson’s political base is in the suburban and exurban areas, which she represented before redistricting. 

“Any rational human being with a calculator would say Robin Kelly [will win] based on polling data, but the turnout is so hard to predict. It could snow, and television constituencies tend to be lazy on Election Day,” Serafin said.

Bloomberg had some success in 2012 in efforts against gun rights lawmakers, nearly defeating Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and playing a big role in then-Rep. Joe Baca’s (D-Calif.) loss. 

If Bloomberg is successful against Halvorson, the next test will be to see how Independence USA and a similar group started by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) with her husband, Mark Kelly, fare in more centrist and rural districts where Republicans make up a large part of the electorate. 

The victor in Tuesday’s primary is considered highly likely to win the district’s special election on April 9. 

Mike Lillis contributed.