Dems push gun control agenda in DC, but not in battleground states

Democratic leaders are wooing staunchly pro-gun candidates to run in pivotal Senate races at the same time they are discussing a strategy for bringing gun control legislation back up for debate.

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The two-pronged effort has prompted Republicans to accuse the Senate Democratic leadership of hypocrisy, but Democrats say it is simply smart politics.

The question is whether two of the Democrats’ most promising potential candidates in Montana and South Dakota will pay a price for the leadership’s political maneuverings in Washington. Or will recruiting candidates who do not support President Obama’s gun control agenda have any effect on Democratic fundraising efforts?

Brad Dayspring, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, took a swipe at Democrats for playing both sides of the gun issue.

“Washington Democrats preach gun control, but are recruiting adamantly pro-gun candidates like Schweitzer & Herseth-Sandlin. Can't be both,” he posted on Twitter.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) posted a message on its online action center Friday calling for people to sign up to support Obama’s agenda of immigration reform, common-sense gun control and equal rights. But it’s eyeing candidates in Montana and South Dakota who are not likely to support Obama’s gun control initiatives.

Justin Barasky, the DSCC’s spokesman, said his party’s commitment to expanding background checks for gun sales cannot be doubted.

“The bottom line on guns, the overwhelming majority of Democrats voted for that measure and 41 of 45 Republicans voted against it,” he said. “Even if every single Democrat had voted for it, it would not have passed.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to bring gun control legislation back to the floor.

Barasky said the Democrats have the Senate majority because they have a big-tent party.

“There’s a litmus test to be a Republican senator. You have to check off a list. That’s why we won five red states in a presidential year,” he said in reference to the 2012 election.

The DSCC has not yet met with popular former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, according to a Democratic aide, but Democratic leaders view him as the best candidate to keep retiring Sen. Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) seat.

The DSCC has poll data showing former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) is the strongest candidate to succeed retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), although officially it has praised both Herseth Sandlin and Johnson’s son, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, as promising contenders.

A political blog for the Argus Leader reported that DSCC officials “are leaning, perhaps even heavily leaning, for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.”

Schweitzer and Herseth Sandlin both have "A" ratings from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which endorsed both candidates in their most recent campaigns.

Schweitzer told the National Journal in a recent interview that he is in favor of background checks, but it's unclear whether he would have supported a proposal crafted by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that failed in the Senate this month.

He also told the publication he has “more [guns] than I need and less than I want.” 

Several Republicans, including Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), have also said they supported expanded background checks but voted against a proposal to do just that because of concerns about how it would be implemented.

Schweitzer did not respond to a request for an interview.

David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University, can’t see Schweitzer embracing Senate legislation to expand background checks if the issue comes up on the campaign trail next year.

“I would suspect given his background, he would say no,” said Parker “He has lots of guns and says he’d like to get some more. I don’t see him saying he would support those expanded background checks.”

Parker said breaking with the Democratic leadership on gun control would help Schweitzer if he ran for Senate.

“I actually think it helps him demonstrate a way in which he is his own person and distinctive person from the national party,” he said, noting Montana has a large proportion of independent voters who are the key to Democrats winning in the conservative-leaning state.

Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., said Democrats in the state often take steadfast positions in favor of gun owners’ rights to bolster their “moderate credentials” with voters.

Schaff thinks there is little chance Herseth Sandlin would endorse the background-check legislation that foundered in the Senate this month if she jumps in the race.

My guess is that she will take the NRA line,” he said. “I don’t believe Stephanie Herseth would cross the gun people.”

The NRA endorsed Herseth Sandlin in her 2010 race against Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.). The group praised her for co-sponsoring and supporting the D.C. Personal Protection Act, which called for letting residents in the District of Columbia carry hand guns and repealing a gun registration law, and the Second Amendment Enforcement Act, another bill targeted at repealing D.C.’s gun laws.

Herseth Sandlin did not respond to a request for an interview.

Baucus, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor were the only four Democrats who opposed the Manchin-Toomey proposal expanding background checks to cover all sales at gun shows and over the Internet.

Schaff noted that Tessa Gould, Heitkamp’s chief of staff, previously worked for Herseth Sandlin.