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The NRA Lost a Big One in Virginia

Terry McAuliffe got an 'F' from the gun lobby—and never hid from it

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Did you hear about the big bellwether election for gun control politics on Tuesday? A candidate with an F rating from the NRA who was bold enough to openly support universal background checks and limits on ammunition magazines won in a purple state with a strong gun culture, the home of the NRA. Pundits everywhere are ready to make grand proclamations about what the result will mean for the gun issue nationwide, just as they did when two Colorado state senators who supported tougher gun restrictions were recalled in a September election that involved vastly fewer voters.

Actually, only one part of that paragraph is accurate. Terry McAuliffe is the next governor of Virginia. But very few pundits have been framing the race as having anything to say about the state of the gun control cause, despite McAuliffe’s remarkably forthright support for tighter gun restrictions, which included proudly touting his F rating in a debate with Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Most summaries of the race make zero mention of the gun issue at all, despite the fact that both sides of the issue have engaged heavily in the race, with the NRA spending $500,000 against McAuliffe and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, and Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions spending roughly $2 million combined.

What gives? Well, it’s hard not to see it as yet another manifestation of the national media’s tendency toward fatalism when it comes to gun control. Elections that can be construed as wins for gun-rights supporters—the 1994 Republican sweep, Al Gore’s 2000 loss of West Virginia, the Colorado recall—are taken as heralding the “death of gun control.” Meanwhile, there is no such declarative over-reading as the gun-control side makes steady advances—as when, say, a string of senators with F ratings keep winning election in red and purple states, among them Tim Kaine, who has now won statewide election three times in Virginia despite being an avowed supporter of sensible gun regulations.

“The story line we were told by so many pundits after the Colorado recall was that gun control is dead, that no candidate in his right mind would campaign on gun control,” said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “Well, that’s total b.s. What we’ve seen in Virginia is the exact opposite…Any notion that the Colorado recalls had broader significance has been squashed.”

Granted, one reason that it’s been hard for the gun control side to get that message out is that the Virginia governor’s race has been about far more than just guns. The race has focused above all on Cuccinelli’s starkly conservative views on social issues such as abortion, his affiliation with the Tea Party movement that brought the federal government to a standstill, and his role in the Star Scientific scandal that engulfed Gov. Bob McDonnell; to the extent the spotlight’s been on McAuliffe, it’s focused on his own ethical gray areas and his close relationship with the Clintons.

Still, the gun issue has been lying there in plain sight, and the remarkable fact is that, in contravention of Chekhov’s dictum, it has not fired a debilitating shot at McAuliffe, as conventional wisdom would have. As Freddy Kunkle reported last weekend in the Washington Post:

It began with the Oct. 24 candidate’s debate at Virginia Tech, the site of the worst mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history. In response to a question, Cuccinelli boasted of his A rating from the NRA.

And then McAuliffe did something surprising: He said he didn’t give a fig about the powerful lobby’s rating. And, oh, by the way, he had earned an F.

Differences over gun control between Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, and McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, were not a secret before that debate. But Democrats rarely brag about their support for gun-control measures in statewide elections in pro-gun Virginia. McAuliffe’s change in strategy suggested a play for his liberal base—but also hinted that he felt comfortable changing the playbook in the still-evolving swing state of Virginia.

“I don’t think you’ve seen any Democratic candidate run in Virginia as rabidly anti-gun as McAuliffe has in the last two weeks,” said David Adams, legislative director for the Virginia Shooting Sports Association, the state affiliate of the NRA.

Republicans and gun right supporters were sure they had finally found a clear edge against McAuliffe. After all, this was Virginia, where the NRA has its gleaming headquarters (in Fairfax County), where the committee that handles gun legislation in the General Assembly is actually called the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, and where gun stores sell their wares so freely that Bloomberg launched an undercover investigation to demonstrate that Virginia was the source of many guns used in New York City shootings.

But McAuliffe—and the Democrats running for attorney general and lieutenant governor—seemed to believe otherwise. They knew that the horror of the Virginia Tech massacre had forever left an impact on the state’s voters. They knew that polls consistently showed large majorities of Virginians backing expanded background checks, the measure that failed to get a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, but not before getting support from both Kaine and Mark Warner, a longtime NRA ally. And they knew that the dynamics of a statewide election, even in an off-year like this, are different than that of a one-off recall like the one in Colorado, which plays to the advantage of the side with the most ardent single-issue voters, which for now remains the gun-rights side.

Not that the gun-control side lacks for grassroots support in Virginia. As hostile as the terrain has been in years past, the state has developed a strong cohort of activists in recent years, led by Lori Hanky Haas and Andy Goddard, both of whom had children injured in the Virginia Tech shootings. Haas, who works for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, organized a campaign summit among gun control activists in the state two months ago, has shown up at Cuccinelli events with fellow activists demanding he address the issue, and even sat alongside McAuliffe’s wife at the Virginia Tech debate. “We outspent them—and we out-organized them on the ground,” said Everitt.

Goddard conjectured that the activism surely played a role in helping build McAuliffe’s huge lead among women voters in the state; while Cuccinelli’s stance on social issues such as abortion may most explain the gap, gun control also has a strong gender skew, notes Goddard. “It does sell better to women,” he said. “They don’t have the testosterone there that makes men think they have to be the Tarzan and Bruce Willis and defend the family.”

Having a supporter of sensible gun control in the Governor’s Mansion could have real implications in Virginia—gun control supporters would dearly like to pass a universal background requirement of the sort that some states already have but that stalled in Washington, though that would require getting some Republican state legislators on board. They are also intent on protecting some of Virginia’s existing laws from attempts to weaken them, notably the state’s standards for concealed carry permits and its enforcement of the existing background check requirements.

But they realize that they also need to do more to milk a McAuliffe win for its broader implications—to say, as Goddard puts it, “that [his success] is what happens if you bring gun violence prevention out of the closet and talk about what it really is, that it’s taking guns out of the hands of the wrong people and leaving them with people who can handle it.” As frustrating as the media’s tendency to discount his side’s prospects is, says Everitt, it may just take a few more moments like this election in Virginia for a new narrative to talk hold. “To some degree, we have to win some more victories before the headlines stop,” he said. “It’s like a sport team that develops a losing reputation—you have to string up some victories before the reputation goes away.”

NOTE: Wording at the top of this article was tweaked Tuesday night to reflect the final election results.