Senate

Chris Murphy's profile rises with gun tragedies

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is carving out a national profile with his advocacy for tougher gun control laws.

During the last several years, following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Murphy has slowly become more of a household name - in part because of his visibility on issues surrounding gun violence.

Mass shootings have become a regular presence in American life, and with each one, Murphy has been at the center pleading for his colleagues to take steps he argues would lower the likelihood of carnage.

Earlier this week, after a lone gunman killed 59 people and left more than 500 injured at a Las Vegas concert, Murphy urged Congress "to get off its ass."

The 44-year-old senator has pledged to introduce an updated version of a bill calling for background checks to stop a person with a criminal past or a history of mental illness from buying a gun.

Democrats say Murphy, who is up for reelection in Connecticut next year, likely has bigger political ambitions.

He is an active voice on social media - though he lags behind other frequently mentioned White House hopefuls in Twitter followers - and is a frequent presence on the cable networks. Last month, The Washington Post's The Fix ranked him third in a story about the top 15 contenders in 2020.

"He could be a dark horse pick for progressives-who-think-they're-moderates in the Democratic primary vote," said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer.

She said Murphy's role in pushing for changes on gun control, an emotional issue for Democratic primary voters, could help him connect.

"I feel like candidates sometimes want to be known for a litany of issues, and no, that's not how it works," she said.

"He doesn't mind getting in the mud," said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Murphy has described his career as being "fundamentally" changed by gun violence. He held the House seat that includes Newtown and joined the Senate less than a month after the elementary school shooting.

"In a job like this you're driven to find the issues that move you, and then sometimes there are issues that find you. ... I never imagined that my maiden speech would be about guns or about gun violence," he said during his first speech from the Senate floor.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who was presiding over the Senate during the 2013 speech, said Murphy couldn't have anticipated the issue, "but he knows it was thrust upon him."

"He's fearless and he's clear and he's not calculating, and having moral clarity makes you a leader, and so he's become a leader in the conference on that basis," said Schatz, whom Murphy counts as one of his closest friends in the Senate.

Democrats see few political drawbacks in pushing for tougher gun control legislation in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting. A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this year found that 94 percent of Americans, and 93 percent of Republicans, support requiring a background check for all gun sales.

"I do have Republicans tell me that they wish that there was more political power behind the anti-gun violence movement," Murphy told HBO's "Vice News Tonight" this week. "They just feel like they will be politically punished if they vote the wrong way."

Investing political capital in the anti-gun violence movement, Murphy launched a group ahead of the 2016 elections to back candidates who favor stronger background check or gun control laws, though he noted this week they only have the funding to target three Senate races per cycle.

Murphy, who supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary, criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during that race for saying he doesn't support allowing people to sue gun manufacturers over gun violence.

Allies point out that Murphy isn't just front and center on gun reform. The Connecticut senator is also a prominent voice on discussions on health care and foreign policy.

"I don't think he'll be viewed as a one-issue candidate," said Roy Occhiogrosso, a strategist and longtime veteran of Connecticut politics. "He has taken on several issues that really matter to people.

"I think he's the type of person that Democrats should be looking to," Occhiogrosso added.

Murphy has been named a Democratic senator to watch in the foreign policy space by both The Washington Post and The Huffington Post.

While some Democratic senators frequently mentioned as potential White House contenders moved to strengthen their defense credentials after the 2016 election, Murphy has been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2013. He was also a member of the House Foreign Affairs panel.

Murphy is downplaying interest in a 2020 White House run. On Wednesday, he denied an Axios report from September that he is seeking staff, saying: "I'm not."

"You know, I'm interested in being a great United States senator from Connecticut. I have to get through reelection in 2018, and so that's my priority," he separately told WNPR, a Connecticut-based radio station, in June.

The senator says he's more interested in being a "national leader" on core issues including gun control and health care.

"I think it is a moment where newer younger leaders in the party can step up - people like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, the Castro brothers - there are some real great new young leaders emerging inside the party," he said. "If I can be part of that, great, then I'm happy to do it."

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