Bloomberg anti-gun push puts red-state Democrats in tough spot

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Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) is pulling the trigger on a national campaign to counter the gun lobby’s political might ahead of this year’s midterm elections.

But vulnerable red-state Democrats could wind up in the cross hairs, potentially helping Republicans seize control of the Senate — a scenario that would further darken the already dim prospects for gun control legislation in Congress.

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Everytown for Gun Safety, a coalition with Bloomberg’s financial backing, announced plans Monday to begin questioning candidates for state and federal offices about their positions on an array of issues surrounding gun policy.

Much as the powerful National Rifle Association uses a scoring system to rally voters in favor of pro-gun candidates, Everytown plans to use the responses to target candidates the group views as standing on the wrong side of the issue and back those who support more stringent gun control regulations. 

“For too long, candidates running for office have only heard from the gun lobby,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown. 

The initiative, the first phase of a massive voter mobilization campaign this fall, is part of Bloomberg’s $50 million commitment for the current election cycle. That’s more than twice the roughly $20 million spent by the NRA two years ago, according to figures kept by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The questionnaires will go out nationally, though the group is focusing heavily on a dozen states, where incumbents and challengers alike will be queried on proposals to expand background checks and crack down on gun traffickers.

The group is also demanding that candidates spell out their positions on measures aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and stalkers, as well as preventing child access to guns.

The aggressive push might be less than welcome for Democrats, especially those running in conservative-leaning states where gun rights are more popular.

Gun control, for instance is fraught with political peril in Colorado, where a successful push for stricter controls in the legislature led to the recall of two Democratic state senators last year.

Indicating just how difficult the issue could be in the midterms, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper walked back his support for those measures last month. And Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, facing a serious challenge from Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), has touted his work defending gun rights in the state.

Asked whether he’d fill out the questionnaire, Udall spokesman Chris Harris said the campaign hadn’t yet looked at it — but noted the senator’s efforts to expand public shooting ranges.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the surveys could be an inconvenience at best for Democrats in red states.

“Once you get gun control on the agenda, it opens the door for the NRA to push back harder,” Sabato said. “It matters whether an issue is visible in a state and, therefore, part of the calculus for voters.”

The NRA, long viewed as one of Washington’s biggest political players, is putting lawmakers on notice that their responses to the questionnaire will be carefully scrutinized.

“And they will be taken into full consideration when grades are determined and endorsement decisions are made,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.

Several embattled Senate Democrats have highlighted their credentials on gun rights issues, with several backing legislation before the upper chamber this week that would bolster opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing and shooting on federal lands.

Among them is the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). Other Democratic targets have signed on as co-sponsors, including Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Udall. 

Still, Sabato said the Everytown push could be problematic for those candidates, as well as Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who is running for the state’s open Senate seat.

“[Senate Democrats] have got a terrible map,” he said. “And the last thing Pryor, Landrieu, Hagan, Begich and, for that matter, Udall and Braley need is for gun control to become more visible as an issue.”

A spokesman for Joe Miller, a Republican challenging Begich, said Miller would not be filling out the questionnaire.

But he used the initiative to highlight differences between Miller and the incumbent Begich.

“Gun Owners of America endorsed Joe Miller for U.S. Senate in Alaska, while Senator Mark Begich received a ‘D’ rating from the group for his several anti-gun votes,” Randy DeSoto said.

And in New Hampshire, Bloomberg might have an opportunity to hit former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) — whom he formerly endorsed — for shifting to the right on the issue.

As one of the Senate’s more centrist members during his tenure as senator, Brown won Bloomberg’s backing over Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in his unsuccessful reelection fight in 2012.

This time, he’s vying with two other Republicans for the chance to take on Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in the fall. In May, he took an unusually hard-line stance against gun-free zones after taking fire from gun rights groups in the state who see him as insufficiently conservative on the issue.

Feinblatt maintained that Everytown is a bipartisan group aimed purely at reducing the bloodshed from gun violence

“Party affiliation will not get in the way” of that mission, he said.

The NRA, meanwhile, believes voters will ultimately reject Bloomberg’s “social engineering agenda,” Arulanandam said.

Still, the group is prepared to use the extent of its resources to counter the effort this fall, he said.

“We will spend whatever our members send us,” Arulanandam said. “We know what we’re up against.”