Em­bold­ened Democrats em­brace gun-con­trol poli­cies ahead of midterms

The Washington Post Sunday - - ELECTION 2018 - BY MICHELLE YE HEE LEE, KYLE SWENSON AND KATIE ZEZIMA michelle.lee@wash­post.com kyle.swenson@wash­post.com katie.zezima@wash­post.com Emily Guskin con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­dates in subur­ban swing seats are em­brac­ing re­stric­tions on firearms as elec­tion-re­lated spend­ing from pro-gun groups, in­clud­ing the pow­er­house Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion, has plum­meted.

The will­ing­ness to cam­paign on gun-con­trol poli­cies, in­clud­ing univer­sal back­ground checks and re­stric­tions on mil­i­tary-style weapons, runs counter to past elec­tions, when can­di­dates feared the topic could iso­late moder­ate vot­ers or prompt reprisal from the NRA, whose spend­ing is down about 68 per­cent since the 2014 midterm elec­tions. Groups call­ing for gun-con­trol mea­sures have in­jected nearly $12 mil­lion into cam­paigns, the most they have spent in an elec­tion cy­cle since at least 2010.

The can­di­dates’ em­bold­ened ap­proach, com­bined with the changes in spend­ing trends, re­flects a shift in the pol­i­tics of gun pol­icy over the past two years. Polls show Amer­i­cans are be­com­ing more sup­port­ive of stricter firearm laws amid a spate of mass shoot­ings.

“The con­ven­tion in swing dis­tricts like this is, don’t take it on, not in a pur­ple or light blue dis­trict. It’s a wedge is­sue,” said Ja­son Crow, a Demo­crat run­ning against Rep. Mike Coff­man (R) in Colorado’s 6th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict in the Den­ver sub­urbs. “But I be­lieve the dan­ger is in not tak­ing this on any­more.”

Crow, a U.S. Army Ranger vet­eran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, of­ten talks about hear­ing the news that a gun­man with a mil­i­tary-style ri­fle killed 12 peo­ple at a movie the­ater in Aurora, which is in the dis­trict.

“I’d used mil­i­tary-style as­sault weapons at work,” he said in an in­ter­view. “And had them used against me.”

Crow has called for a ban on the weapons. Coff­man’s cam­paign brushed off Crow’s stance as a fundrais­ing strat­egy. Coff­man, who was a co-spon­sor on a bill on school safety and has pushed for guns to be taken from peo­ple who are de­ter­mined to be po­ten­tial threats, has an “A” rat­ing and do­na­tions from the NRA.

“I cer­tainly sup­port the Sec­ond Amend­ment; how­ever, I be­lieve in re­spon­si­ble gun own­er­ship,” Coff­man said in an in­ter­view with Den­ver West­word.

On Thursday, days af­ter 11 peo­ple were killed in a shoot­ing at a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue, Every­town for Gun Safety launched a $700,000 ad buy against Coff­man.

Sup­port for stricter firearm laws has grown. Ac­cord­ing to an Oc­to­ber Gallup poll, 61 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said firearm laws should be more strict — a dip from 67 per­cent in March but still at a high point dat­ing back to 2004.

For the past few years, Every­town had fo­cused on chang­ing laws in states where it saw a chance to make in­roads, in­clud­ing Ne­vada and Wash­ing­ton. It is now try­ing to repli­cate that with con­gres­sional and statewide races.

“The mo­men­tum is with us, the NRA is on its heels, and we think that it’s an op­por­tu­nity to keep re­draw­ing the map,” said John Fein­blatt, pres­i­dent of Every­town.

While most of the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Every­town’s money and endorsements are Democrats, the group — backed by bil­lion­aire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a po­ten­tial 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date — has also en­dorsed Repub­li­cans in tight races, in­clud­ing Rep. Car­los Curbelo (R-Fla.).

Many can­di­dates are also tak­ing a more nu­anced ap­proach to gun con­trol than politi­cians have in the past. Democrats and Repub­li­cans are us­ing the term “gun safety” rather than “gun con­trol” as a way to con­vey that they want to en­act poli­cies such as re­quir­ing univer­sal back­ground checks or safe stor­age of guns, not ban­ning cer­tain classes of weapons

While gun pol­icy is not the top is­sue for most con­gres­sional bat­tle­ground races, a recent Wash­ing­ton Post-Schar School poll found 41 per­cent of peo­ple in bat­tle­ground dis­tricts said gun vi­o­lence was an “ex­tremely” im­por­tant is­sue in their vote for Congress this year. Gun con­trol also res­onates with younger Amer­i­cans. A poll con­ducted in Oc­to­ber by the Har­vard Kennedy School’s In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics showed school shoot­ings were the top con­cern among Amer­i­cans from the ages of 14 to 29.

Pub­lic out­cry af­ter the Fe­bru­ary school shoot­ing in Park­land, Fla., which left 17 dead, fur­ther shifted the po­lit­i­cal land­scape go­ing into midterm sea­son. In its wake, 19 states passed some form of gun leg­is­la­tion. They in­clude Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott, a Repub­li­can who is now in a tight race for Se­nate, signed a suite of gun-con­trol bills into law.

The shift is hap­pen­ing in con­gres­sional and lo­cal races. Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates in states in­clud­ing Florida, Ge­or­gia, New Hamp­shire and Con­necti­cut have all made gun con­trol a ma­jor is­sue in their cam­paigns.

Some con­gres­sional can­di­dates are us­ing their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with gun vi­o­lence in their cam­paigns. In Ge­or­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict, Demo­crat Lucy McBath speaks about how her son, Jor­dan Davis, a black teenager, was killed by a white man over a dis­pute about loud mu­sic in Florida.

In Cal­i­for­nia’s 48th Dis­trict, Demo­cratic can­di­date Har­ley Rouda is us­ing gun con­trol as a piv­otal is­sue in his dead­locked race against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R). The state’s 25th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict race, be­tween Rep. Steve Knight (R) and chal­lenger Katie Hill (D), has also fea­tured gun-con­trol mes­sag­ing.

Hill em­pha­sizes she is a gun owner who comes from a fam­ily of law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and vet­er­ans. She is call­ing for univer­sal back­ground checks and rais­ing the age to pur­chase firearms to 21.

“I be­lieve that re­spect­ing the Sec­ond Amend­ment and ad­vo­cat­ing for gun safety mea­sures are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive,” Hill said in a state­ment.

The NRA and other groups sup­port­ing gun rights have been far less ac­tive this elec­tion af­ter ramp­ing up their spend­ing on ad­ver­tis­ing in ev­ery other cy­cle since 2010, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by the non­par­ti­san Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics.

In 2016, the NRA and other gun rights groups shelled out nearly $55 mil­lion on me­dia and ad­ver­tise­ments, CRP data shows. This elec­tion, their spend­ing has plum­meted to roughly $9 mil­lion, the ma­jor­ity of which has come from the NRA.

The NRA has spent 2018 fight­ing a tor­rent of crit­i­cism, fac­ing di­rect chal­lenges by stu­dents, ac­tivists, cor­po­rate Amer­ica and politi­cians. Per­haps in a re­flec­tion of the crit­i­cism, some Repub­li­can can­di­dates run­ning in tough con­gres­sional dis­tricts this year re­turned or did not de­posit do­na­tions from the group, Mother Jones found.

States are also prob­ing the NRA’s in­sur­ance prod­ucts; the group is em­broiled in a law­suit with New York over its Carry Guard in­sur­ance pol­icy.

But it re­mains a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal force. It is ac­tive in lob­by­ing and has a na­tional grass-roots op­er­a­tion that mo­bi­lizes vot­ers.

The NRA did not re­turn re­quests for com­ment.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion is boost­ing GOP Se­nate can­di­dates in Mis­souri, Ten­nessee, Ari­zona, In­di­ana and Mon­tana. Last week, the NRA’s po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee spent nearly $900,000 over two days sup­port­ing Repub­li­cans in key Se­nate races, Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion records show.

In com­par­i­son, gun-con­trol groups have spent nearly $12 mil­lion this elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of fed­eral spend­ing records by the CRP. While their spend­ing still pales in com­par­i­son to the mas­sive amounts gun rights groups in­jected in pre­vi­ous elec­tion cy­cles, it is the most gun-con­trol groups have spent in one elec­tion cy­cle go­ing back to 2010, CRP records show.

Gif­fords PAC, a gun-con­trol su­per PAC founded by former con­gress­woman Gabrielle Gif­fords, who was shot at a cam­paign event in 2011, and her hus­band, Mark Kelly, has in­jected nearly $6 mil­lion into races around the coun­try, in­clud­ing in Texas, Virginia and Min­nesota. The group says far more po­lit­i­cal ads on gun con­trol are run­ning this year than in pre­vi­ous cy­cles.

“The change is pretty pro­found, and it’s been light­ning quick,” said Peter Am­bler, Gif­fords’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

NOAM MOSKOVITZ/REUTERS

Sup­port for gun con­trol has grown, the NRA’s spend­ing has plum­meted, and Democrats are try­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the is­sue.

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