Haunted Democrats fear gun control measures could cost them in midterms
Democrats are haunted by political fears on the issue of gun control, making the party reluctant to completely stick its neck out on moves such as banning assault weapons.
More than 20 years after restrictions on guns were blamed in part on Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 presidential race, many Democrats still worry that being too aggressive on gun control could hurt the party’s candidates in purple states and House districts.
“If you’re someone like Raphael Warnock, it’s a complicated message. It’s a nuanced message at best,” one Democratic strategist said of the incumbent senator who is up for reelection this year in a competitive race against Republican Herschel Walker. “There’s a lot of history that scares a lot of people. It’s a slippery slope that Democrats don’t want to be on the wrong side of, particularly for front-line Democrats.”
Warnock (D-Ga.) and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), whom Republicans hope to unseat this fall, have both signed on as co-sponsors to legislation that would prohibit the sale, transfer, manufacture or possession of assault-style weapons. But two other vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) and Mark Kelly (Ariz.), have not.
Most Democrats want to take some kind of action on gun control after the latest mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas. But others are wary in part because of past elections lost, including Gore’s and the 2014 midterms.
“There is this worship of the gun that still exists around the country, and if you are Warnock in Georgia or Mark Kelly, how much is it worth it to stake your political fortunes on this? If the election was tomorrow maybe. But the election is in five months,” the Democratic strategist said.
The gun control fight is personal for Kelly, who dealt with gun violence firsthand after his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), was shot in the head in 2011.
“There are commonsense reforms we can pass to reduce gun violence that align with our rights and are supported across the political spectrum,” Kelly wrote on Twitter after the Texas shooting.
Strategists say they understand the pressure facing Democrats who are up for reelection in November.
“Democrats have been conditioned to view guns as a third-rail issue that works against them politically,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “If you are a Democrat in a purple or Republican-leaning area, there is very little political incentive for you to go out on the ledge on guns.”
Not all Democrats believe guns are a politically sensitive area for the party.
Polls show majorities of Americans support measures like expanded background checks and red flag laws that are currently the subject of discussions on Capitol Hill.
“The politics of guns has really shifted dramatically in the last 20 years,” said Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way.
“Since Sandy Hook, Democrats have not been afraid of the gun issue. They’re not talking about radical gun reforms … but the kinds of things that are on the table … Democrats are not worried about those kinds of things,” he said.
Republicans have been the main obstacle to moving forward on gun control bills, infuriating Democrats. Republicans blocked background check legislation in 2013 that the Senate sought to move in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.
A Politico-Morning Consult poll released last week found that 88 percent of Americans at least somewhat support background checks on all gun sales.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in 2019 found 86 percent of Americans back implementing red flag laws that allow for firearms to be temporarily taken away from individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others.
Bennett argued that Republicans are the ones in a weak position because supporting gun control measures risks alienating their base voters.
“Republicans are the ones who are afraid of the gun issue, and they’re afraid of it because they are facing primaries,” he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a longtime gun control advocate, has been heading up a legislative response alongside Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). So far, that discussion has centered on mental health, with some focus on school safety, two issues that could appeal to Republicans.
Murphy, who represented the district where a gunman took the lives of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, said on Tuesday he is “sober-minded” about the chances of legislation passing.
“My hope is that the increased number willing to talk matters,” he said.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday said that the House would consider a ban on assault-style weapons, which would represent the most aggressive response from Congress yet to the school shooting in Uvalde. Still, an assault weapons ban would be considered dead on arrival in the Senate even if it were to pass the House.
President Biden has kept his distance from bipartisan negotiations on gun reform thus far but said Tuesday that he would meet with lawmakers at the right moment. He has at times expressed tepid optimism that Republicans like Cornyn and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — whom he branded “rational Republicans” — will come around to supporting a compromise on guns.
On Wednesday, though, he sounded a more pessimistic note.
“I served in Congress for 36 years. I’m never confident, totally,” Biden told reporters at the end of an event on the baby formula shortage.
Democrats say they realize even a smaller bill won’t get very far without Republican support, and they worry the GOP’s wait-it-out strategy will once again reemerge as it has during previous gun debates.
“There is probably no issue I would love to be more wrong on,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “But I haven’t seen anything yet from any of the Republicans that indicates they’re actually going to meet Biden or Senator Murphy even 1/8th of the way.”