State Watch

Bloomberg-backed gun safety group plans state legislative blitz

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A gun safety group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D) is planning a multimillion-dollar push this year to support Democratic candidates running for state seats in six battleground states.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the group co-founded by Bloomberg and activist Shannon Watts, plans to spend more than $20 million on campaigns in Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to plans shared with The Hill.

Those states are at the confluence of a host of consequential political battlefields in November: All six are likely to be targeted by both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as they battle for the White House. Four of the six states have Republican senators whose electoral prospects are suddenly in jeopardy in a degrading political environment.

Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas are home to first-term Democratic members of Congress who ousted Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. North Carolina is likely to elect two more Democrats to the U.S. House after a court-ordered redraw of the state’s congressional districts.

And — perhaps most crucial to Democratic hopes of expanding power in Washington — four of the six states will be prime focal points during the decennial redistricting process that takes place after the 2020 Census is delivered next year. State law gives legislators in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina the authority to draw new district maps, while Arizona and Iowa use commissions.

Everytown has pledged to spend $60 million on pro-gun safety candidates this year, modeled on their aggressive play to help Democrats win back control of the Virginia legislature in 2019. The group, which has grown a small-donor army of more than 350,000 backers, was the largest outside spender in Virginia legislative races last year — all the more notable because the commonwealth is home to the National Rifle Association headquarters.

“Preventing gun violence is a top priority for American voters, so Everytown has made flipping state legislatures to gun sense majorities one of our top priorities for 2020,” said John Feinblatt, the group’s president. “In the coming months, we will expand the winning playbook we developed in Virginia and make sure voters in critical swing states know which legislators are still taking orders from the increasingly weak and extreme gun lobby.”

In their first session controlling the legislature, Virginia Democrats passed a dozen gun safety measures backed by groups like Everytown and Giffords, the organization founded by ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband Mark Kelly, who is running for a Senate seat in Arizona. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed those bills in April — measures similar to what Everytown wants to see in the six targeted states.

“We went from 25 years of not making any progress at all in addressing gun safety to on July 1 seven gun safety bills [taking effect], many of which had been introduced every single year,” said Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D), who stumped for Democratic candidates across the state and is running for governor. “In all of our targeted districts, if not all of our districts, everybody talked about” gun safety.

The big-dollar spending by Everytown is part of a renewed push by gun safety groups to gain political power, after years in the shadow of the well-financed National Rifle Association.

The NRA’s once-powerful grip on state legislators in both parties has diminished in recent years, after an epidemic of mass shootings and suicide deaths fomented a sea change in public opinion on gun control measures. More recently, the NRA has struggled financially, and its leadership has been in turmoil over internal disagreements about strategy and spending.

At the same time, groups like Everytown — which gets about a quarter of its funding from the free-spending billionaire Bloomberg — and Giffords have begun matching and exceeding the NRA’s political spending, modernizing their political activities and seizing the offensive.

In one sign of Everytown’s modernization, the group has hired several longtime Democratic strategists to run its political operation. Charlie Kelly, a former top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC, is its senior political adviser. Chris Carr, the former deputy political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is Everytown’s political director.

Both Republicans and Democrats largely plan to target the same races across the country in an all-important hunt for state legislative chambers. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee are reporting record fundraising totals, though the GOP committee has built a cash advantage — one that the Everytown spending threatens to swamp.

“Michael Bloomberg and state Democrats have one common goal this election cycle – and it’s not to make communities safer. Their mission is buy up state majorities and gerrymander themselves into near-permanent power,” said Lenze Morris, a spokeswoman for the RSLC. “We aren’t fooled by their astounding hypocrisy and neither will Americans when they head to the polls this fall.”

State legislative chambers in each of the six states are only narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

In Arizona, where Republicans have controlled the state House since 1967 and the state Senate since breaking a tie in 2003, Everytown plans to spend $5 million on races up and down the ballot.

Biden is likely to be the first Democrat to make a major play for the state’s electoral votes since former President Clinton. Sen. Martha McSally (R) is polling well behind Kelly, her Democratic rival. Democrats need to pick up just two seats in the state House and three seats in the state Senate to reclaim control.

Everytown plans to advertise in five districts, four of which are in the Phoenix metropolitan area, where Democrats have seen their vote shares increase in recent years. The fifth district is centered around Native American-heavy towns north and east of Phoenix.

Everytown will spend more than $1 million in Minnesota, where Republicans control the state Senate by a three-seat margin. The group has listed a dozen GOP-held seats as potential pickup opportunities, and seven Democratic-held seats it plans to defend.

North Carolina Democrats need to pick up six seats in the state House and five in the state Senate to win back control. Everytown will spend $5 million on races up and down the ballot; Biden is polling close to Trump, and Sen. Thom Tillis (R) faces a tough reelection race. The group has identified 15 state House districts and five state Senate districts held by Republicans as possible pickup opportunities.

Everytown said this week it would spend $1 million to win control of the Pennsylvania state legislature, where Republicans hold narrow majorities. Democrats need to win back four state Senate seats and nine in the House to win control.

Texas is quickly becoming one of the epicenters of the battle for political control, and both Democrats and Republicans plan to spend heavily to win majorities in the state House. Democrats need to flip nine of 150 seats to win control for the first time this century.

Everytown plans to advertise on behalf of Democratic candidates in 27 districts, all but six of which are held by Republicans.

Iowa is the only state among the six where Everytown has not finalized its spending plans. Democrats need to pick up four seats to win back control of the state House. The Republican-controlled legislature has passed pro-gun measures in recent years, bills a Democratic majority could block if they win control.

Tags 2020 elections Arizona Donald Trump Everytown for Gun Safety Giffords gun safety gun violence Iowa Joe Biden Martha McSally Mass shootings Michael Bloomberg Minnesota North Carolina NRA Pennsylvania State legislature Texas Thom Tillis
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