By Alexandra Jaffe - 04/24/13 11:13 PM EDT
The head of Organizing for Action says he’s not worried red-state Democrats will suffer politically from attacks the group is preparing in retaliation for their votes against gun control legislation.
“No — we’re concerned about [them] not passing this background check bill,” Jon Carson, OFA’s executive director, told The Hill in an interview.
The four Democrats who voted against the gun bill — Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) — are already feeling some early repercussions from the OFA.
The organization held phone bank events last weekend in Alaska, North Dakota and Arkansas, with volunteers calling residents to inform them of their senators’ votes.
In Montana, OFA volunteers protested outside Baucus’s office in Bozeman. The longtime senator announced this week he won’t seek reelection in 2014.
Carson said his group, which was formed to promote President Obama’s agenda, isn’t political and won’t be engaged in electoral politics heading into 2014.
Its ultimate goal on gun control, he said, is simply to obtain the votes needed to pass stricter laws.
“We’re going to look to change votes on both the Democrat and the Republican side,” he said.
There are few better ways to get a lawmaker to shift a vote than applying pressure from grassroots activists or in ad campaigns, both tactics that OFA employs. Carson said repeatedly his group would set Democrats and Republicans in its sights in equal measure.
But the organization, which was created from the ashes of Obama’s presidential campaign organization, is in a difficult spot with vulnerable Democrats.
If the group is truly bipartisan in going after senators who opposed last week’s gun control measure, the group could complicate reelection prospects in 2014 for both Begich and Pryor. That could then jeopardize Democratic control of the Senate — and the second-term agenda OFA was created to promote.
Republicans only need to flip six seats to regain control of the upper chamber in 2014. Their likeliest path to victory runs through deep-red states like Alaska and Arkansas, where Obama lost by double digits in 2012.
Both Begich and Pryor are top Republican targets in 2014. Heitkamp isn’t up for reelection until 2018.
Begich narrowly won election in 2008 over a Republican incumbent, the late Sen. Ted Stevens, who was then embroiled in high-profile ethics and corruption charges.
While Pryor won handily in 2008 without a Republican challenger, a number of conservative groups have set him in their sights for 2014.
Attacks against Begich and Pryor on guns have the potential to drive down Democratic turnout in those states, potentially crippling both senators.
In turn, the senators might need to rely more heavily on turning out centrist voters — potentially pushing Begich and Pryor even further to the right on the upcoming budget and immigration fights, as well as any future gun votes.
But Carson pushed back against the idea that pressuring red-state Democrats to support gun control could be harmful to their reelection prospects.
“I disagree with that political calculus. I think it’s very clear that even in those red states, there’s overwhelming support for background checks,” he said.
Carson said senators on both sides who voted “no” concluded the gun lobby had more staying power than activists who favor tighter restrictions on guns. He believes they made the wrong calculation.
“I think what we are now about to set out to prove is that the passion gap has dramatically closed on this issue, that our side is outraged,” Carson said.
Other groups promoting gun control legislation have, like the OFA, already begun campaigns to tweak senators who voted against background checks.
Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group co-founded by ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), launched ads Wednesday against two Republicans, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
While there are dangers in being targeted by OFA, some activists in both parties believe vulnerable Democrats could actually benefit from running afoul of gun control groups.
Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tweeted after the background checks vote that “Obama’s OFA attacking Pryor, Baucus & Begich should count as an in-kind contribution. Gives vulnerable [Democrats] a gift.”
Pryor, for his part, seemed to relish being included in a $12 million ad campaign launched against key senators by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I’ve gotten a lot of questions about NYC Mayor gun ad. My response? I don’t take gun advice from the Mayor of NYC. I listen to Arkansans,” Pryor tweeted.
Jim Manley, a former Senate leadership aide, said liberal groups should think twice about whether their attacks would help or hurt red-state Democrats on issues like guns.
“The idea that a liberal mayor from New York was going to go into Arkansas for instance and criticize Sen. Pryor was as misguided as it was wrong,” he said.
Manley noted that voters in red states — where the president is unpopular — might be more likely to support senators who buck the party establishment.
“The irony is, at least when it comes to guns, many of the Senate Democrats up for reelection would kind of relish the Democratic Party pointing fingers at them over their gun control vote.”