For Democrats, particularly those running in red states, gun control used to be a no-win political issue. But after a string of deadly mass shootings, Democrats are touting their pro-gun control credentials — even in conservative districts.
“For many years, it was the third rail of politics,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist who spent 21 years working in the U.S. Senate. “What I find fascinating this year is that supporting gun control isn’t hurting many people.”
According to a Reuters analysis of candidates’ campaign websites, 38 of the 59 Democrats running in “vulnerable” Republican districts for House seats — or seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deemed flippable — have made gun control part of their official platform. In Ohio’s 1st Congressional District, for example, Democratic candidate Aftab Pureval, an outspoken proponent of gun control, is looking to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, who’s won the district handily four times since 2011 with financial support from the NRA. (They’ve given him more than $100,000 over the years).
"There’s always a middle ground possibility for someone to say, 'I’m for common sense gun laws. I’m not here to take away your guns.'"
Pureval, 35, has campaigned alongside former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who started an organization to combat gun violence after she was severely injured in 2011 in a mass shooting, which left her with brain damage. Two other major players in the gun control lobby, Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, and Everytown for Gun Safety, have also backed Pureval. And neither of those endorsements seem to be working against him. Polling so far suggests that Pureval is Chabot’s toughest challenger yet but still unlikely to win.
Outside gun control groups have poured money into this midterm election season. The number of pro-gun control political ads have soared from 4,500 in 2014 to more than 100,000 by Sept. 2018. That far outnumbers gun rights ads (around 63,000 by September, compared to 24,000 in 2014), according to the Wall Street Journal. Many of those ads have been concentrated in Nevada and Florida, both of which saw deadly mass shootings.
One notable beneficiary of those funds is Lucy McBath, who’s running in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District against Rep. Karen Handel, who won the seat in a special election last year.
McBath, whose teenage son was shot and killed at a gas station in 2012, has made guns a central issue of her platform. By campaigning as a grieving mother, McBath has sought to connect with voters in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1979. She’s received more than $1 million from Everytown, and like Pureval, that doesn’t seem to be damaging her chances too badly. A recent FiveThirtyEight poll analysis showed McBath lagging Handel by only a few points.
Then there’s Texas, where a serious candidate for statewide office talking about gun control would have once been unthinkable. In this year’s Senate race, however, Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, who’s running against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, has openly flaunted his “F” grade from the NRA.
O’Rourke has tried to toe the line between calling for gun control and showing he’s not totally out of step with the state’s culture. “This is as politically charged as it comes in Texas,” O’Rourke said at an event in September. “We have the Second Amendment, and it's incredibly important, but the Second Amendment is not unlimited. You cannot carry a bazooka down the street.”
Still, Cruz has continued to call O’Rourke a “big government gun-grabbing liberal” to try to stoke gun rights activists fears. But with midterms just around the corner, O’Rourke is trailing him by just five points, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
“Democrat and gun control positions have become increasingly tied to each other,” said Matt Grossman, an associate political science professor at Michigan State and Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. “And there’s always a middle ground possibility for someone to say, ‘I’m for commonsense gun laws. I’m not here to take away your guns.’”
Texas has been the site of two mass shootings in the last year, at a church in Sutherland Springs last November that left 27 dead, and at a high school in Santa Fe in April that left 10 dead. Many other Democratic candidates have taken those tragedies on the campaign trail, like in Texas’ 14th Congressional District, where the high school shooting happened. A Democrat hasn’t won there since 1995, and even then, it was a conservative Democrat who decided to run for re-election as a Republican and won.
Nonetheless, Democratic newcomer Adrienne Bell, a teacher running against incumbent GOP Rep. Randy Weber, has made guns a central part of her campaign.
“We want an America where we can worship, play, shop, dine, and attend school without the fear of gun violence,” Bell said in a statement on Facebook after the Pittsburgh shooting.
Running as a pro-gun control Democrat in a red state may have also gotten easier for politicians in the last several months. Just one month after the Parkland shooting in March, a Gallup poll found that voters listed guns as one of most important non-economic problems in the country, second only to dissatisfaction with the government. But six months later in September, the same Gallup poll on “the biggest problem” that wasn’t economy-related found that guns had sank to the eighth most pressing concern among voters, tied with education, the judicial system and “moral decline.” Instead, immigration and healthcare dominated the conversation.
Then came the massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue, a little more than a week before the midterms. That mass shooting, which left 11 dead, has thus far generated more focus on political polarization and extremism than on guns.
Like other candidates on both sides of the aisle, Stacey Abrams, a Democratic state representative running for governor in Georgia, focused her response to the Pittsburgh shooting on overcoming hate and fighting intolerance. Her state hasn’t elected a Democrat since Roy Barnes in 2003, who touted his A+ rating from the NRA.
“As the flames of such hate have increasingly threatened our country and our loved ones, we have an obligation to combat such ideology,” Abrams tweeted. “We must also commit ourselves to finding commonsense solutions to end gun violence and ensure our right to safe communities.”
On Tuesday, Abrams also trotted out a story she’s told numerous times on the campaign trail, about learning to shoot with her great-grandmother while growing up in Mississippi. “Just to be clear, I am not anti-gun,” Abrams said during an appearance on "The View," adding that she supported background checks, laws that keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, and a ban on AR-15s, like the one that the Pittsburgh shooter used. “I do not believe that weapons of mass destruction like the AR-15 belong in civilian hands,” she said.
Even if the conversation post-Pittsburgh has centered around hate, rather than guns, they dominated the national conversation during the primaries earlier this year. That may have had an impact on Democrats’ support of gun control in red states. “Primary elections have served as a litmus test,” Gallup noted in its analysis of a recent poll, “ensuring that most Republican candidates are opposed to stricter gun control, while most Democratic candidates support increased regulation.”
During the Georgia gubernatorial primaries, for example, Democrat candidates tried to outdo each other on gun control, while Republicans competed for the NRA’s stamp of approval.
“I am proud to have an “F” rating from the @NRA,” Abrams tweeted in May. By contrast, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, now Abrams’ opponent for the governorship, positioned himself as a Trump-loving, Second Amendment supporter with an A+ from the NRA. In the months since, however, their focus has shifted to other issues, like healthcare, the economy, and education.
“It was more of a salient issue back then, because of Parkland,” said Alan Abramowitz, a national expert on polling and elections and a political scientist professor at Emory University. “Even in the red states, Democrats are generally tilting toward stronger gun control measures. That hasn’t been the case historically.”
A recent NBC News/Marist poll showed Kemp and Abrams virtually tied.
In red state Indiana, which voted for Trump by 56.9 percent, incumbent Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly has struggled to strike the same balance between keeping gun control as a part of his platform and keeping his seat.
Donnelly is a moderate known for voting against his party on a number of issues, including guns. In 2013, he was one of 15 Democrats who helped tank a proposed ban on AR-15-like assault rifles, which was introduced in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.
But after the Parkland shooting, Donnelly — who has a “D” rating from the NRA — called for two specific pieces of gun control legislation: improved background checks and banning guns for people on terrorist watchlists. And this year, his opponents won’t let him forget that.
In a statement announcing a seven-figure ad campaign in support of Donnelly’s opponent, Mike Braun (who describes himself as “an avid hunter, NRA member, and 100% pro-2nd Amendment), the NRA accused Donnelly of being dishonest to his constituents.
“Contrary to what Joe Donnelly says in Indiana, he has supported the gun control agenda of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi by voting in favor of gun control in Washington, D.C.,” said Chris W. Cox, chairman of the NRA’s Political Victory Fund, in a statement. Recent polls show the two candidates virtually neck and neck, though just days ago, other polls showed Braun in the lead.
Even though, experts have observed a pattern of red-state Democrats warming to gun control, there are, of course, outliers.
In the contested Senate race in Tennessee, Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen is doing what Democrats in red states used to do: bend over backwards trying to assure voters that he’s down with guns. Exactly one day after the NRA announced their endorsement of his Republican opponent, Marsha Blackburn, Bredesen rolled out a new campaign ad titled “No Matter What,” which shows him shooting clay pigeons, decked out in flannel, jeans and a hunting vest.
“I was taught to always think for myself, and my support for the Second Amendment is a good example. It’s definitely not always popular, but it's a way of life I grew up with,” Bredesen says in the ad. “I’ve been a lifelong gun owner, and as governor, I had an A-rating from the NRA. Real independence, and not party politics — that’s what’s best for Tennessee.”
Cover image: Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams speaks during a town hall forum at the Dalton Convention Center on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Dalton, Georgia. (Doug Strickland/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)