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Pro–Gun Control Democrats Can Win in Red States. They Already Have.

President Obama's gun-control proposal has been met, predictably, with GOP resistance—Sen. Ted Cruz said Sunday that it's "designed to appeal to ... his political partisans"—but not all Democrats are embracing the proposal either. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, for instance, said "the place to start is to enforce the laws on the books," and his reservations have been echoed by half a dozen of his colleagues up for reelection in 2014, presumably because they fear the electoral consequences of alienating conservative crossover voters. But contrary to this conventional wisdom, embracing gun control wouldn't doom vulnerable red-state Democrats to defeat in November 2014. For proof, they need look no further than their colleagues, who have won on pro–gun control platforms.

Take Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. Since winning by 5 points in 2000, Nelson won three consecutive elections, each time outperforming the Democratic presidential candidate. Nelson didn’t just win Florida by a wider margin than those candidates; he significantly outperformed Gore, Kerry, and Obama in the deeply conservative Florida Panhandle. For example, Nelson won Liberty County for the third consecutive election in November, even though Obama lost this sparsely populated, culturally Southern county along the Gulf Coast by nearly 40 percentage points. And Nelson has won despite campaigning on gun control and earning an “F” rating from the NRA. While there is not data on gun ownership in the Panhandle, it is safe to assume that guns would matter in Liberty County. An arbitrary border is the only thing separating the Panhandle from Alabama, a state with the ninth-highest gun ownership rate in the country.

Nelson isn’t the only Democrat succeeding in Dixie with an “F” rating from the NRA. In fact, there are about as many southern Democrats with a “D” or “F” from the NRA as there are with an “A.” Nelson is joined by senators Senators Tim Kaine (F), Kay Hagan (F), Jay Rockefeller (D), and Claire McCaskill (F), all of whom outperformed Democratic presidential nominees and conquered plenty of Romney/McCain/Bush territory. Further north, Midwestern senate Democrats in states with above-average gun ownership rates like Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin tell a similar story. Even in Ohio, where John Kerry felt compelled to go hunting before the 2004 presidential election, F-rated Sharrod Brown cleanly won a second term. The exception might be the interior West, where every Senate Democrat who significantly outperformed the president possessed an A rating from the NRA, perhaps suggesting that gun rights are more important to Democratic fortunes in that region. Unlike their Midwestern or Southern counterparts, senators Baucus and Begich might be more justified in withholding support for the president's proposal.

The data, however, does not support the notion that the NRA holds veto power over Democratic fortunes in Republican territory. For starters, the NRA doesn’t contribute nearly as much money to campaigns as is generally assumed—they spread their resources around dozens of candidates and don’t pack a strong punch in specific races. Moreover, studies show that NRA endorsements are far more important for the challenger than the incumbent, and American Prospect editor Paul Waldman found that the NRA didn't make have much success getting its preferred candidates elected in 2004 and 2010. And those candidates weren't always Republican: The NRA endorsed plenty of red-state Democratic House representatives in 2010, but most of them were nonetheless swept out of office in November.

Today, polls show greater support for gun control than they did in November, when many red-state Democrats who support gun control won reelection. A recent Washington Post poll shows that 58 percent of southerners support an assault weapons ban, while a plurality of southerners in a Pew Research survey believe that gun control is more important than the right to own guns. Similarly, a recent SurveyUSA poll found Georgia voters support the president’s proposal, including an assault weapons ban, by an 18 point margin. More generally, polls consistently show support for gun control breaking along partisan lines, suggesting that most gun-rights voters will cast their ballots for Republicans anyway—even if the Democratic opponent has a strong NRA rating.

Still, it's easy to see why vulnerable red-state Democrats would avoid this issue: Pryor, for instance, has little to gain by supporting the president’s gun-control package. And it's possible that Democrats could suffer for flip-flopping or associating themselves with the president, even if gun control isn't a top issue with the voters. But the facts are clear: A failing grade from the NRA is hardly a death sentence.