Midterm politics hung heavy in the air when the Senate last year fell five votes short of blocking a Republican-led filibuster against the bill to expand background checks for gun purchases. Two of the Democrats who voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill were up for reelection in 2014 in red states: Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska. Their decision to break with their party—over the pleas of parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary a few months earlier—was put in yet starker relief by the fact that two other Democratic senators who were up for reelection in 2014 in challenging terrain had voted for Manchin-Toomey: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
After the vote, many commentators—including some liberal ones—argued that Begich and Pryor had done the politically prudent thing, even if it meant contributing to a big setback for a key issue in the Democratic agenda. Landrieu and Hagan, the thinking went, had put themselves at risk for a losing cause, while Pryor and Begich would at least have gun-rights proponents on their side in their battles to help the Democrats hold their Senate majority. Underlying this judgment was the widespread perception that for senators from red and purple states, the National Rifle Association is not to be messed with.
Well, so far the midterm season isn’t shaping up as the conventional wisdom on gun politics would have it. Of the four senators mentioned above, the only one who has maintained a steady if slim lead in the polls is Hagan, who voted for Manchin-Toomey. Meanwhile, it’s not clear what Pryor and Begich gained by voting against the measure, which would have expanded the background checks now required at licensed firearm dealerships to include gun shows and many private sales. Despite Pryor’s vote, the NRA went ahead and endorsed his Republican opponent, Congressman Tom Cotton, and is running ads on his behalf. In Alaska, the NRA opted not to endorse at all, a small comfort for Begich, but presumably not what he was hoping for in jilting his party on Manchin-Toomey. And despite that vote, and Begich’s “A” rating from the NRA, his Republican opponent is running ads attacking him as weak on the Second Amendment because he has voted for “Barack Obama’s anti-gun judges.”
Taken together, the midterm season is providing more evidence for the case I made in a cover story last year that the politics of gun control are evolving more than the longstanding pundit fatalism around the issue, which intensified following the filibuster of Manchin-Toomey, would have one believe. At the time, I noted points that were too often overlooked: that six senators with “A” ratings from the NRA had supported Manchin-Toomey; that plenty of senators with lousy NRA ratings, such as Virginia’s Tim Kaine, had for years been winning statewide elections in red and purple states. The fatalists saw confirmation in the recall last September of two Colorado state senators who had voted for gun control legislation in that state, a conclusion that overlooked the flukish nature of that special election, a circumstance tailor-made for gun-rights activists. Somehow, the election a short while later of a governor and attorney general in Virginia who had spoken out strongly against the NRA in its home state failed to get as much notice.
That Hagan is the only one of the four vulnerable Democrats mentioned above who is ahead in the polls is a further indication that crossing the NRA is hardly fatal. Meanwhile, the fact that Pryor and Begich are getting nothing in return from the NRA for their votes against Manchin-Toomey is yet another suggestion that the organization’s hold on American politics is loosening, or at least narrowing. One of the reasons the NRA held such sway for so long was that it commanded support from key Democratic elected officials such as John Dingell, the veteran congressman from Michigan, who could count on being rewarded for their votes with staunch NRA support, regardless of their party label. But many of those Democrats have been leaving the scene, either via retirement (like Dingell) or electoral defeat.
And now that the NRA has become so partisan in its calculations—backing Republicans even over Democrats who have sided with it on key votes—its grip on remaining Democrats will weaken further. The endorsement of Pryor’s opponent was particularly striking, said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, given that Pryor (who had a "C-" rating from the NRA before the Manchin-Toomey vote) had not merely voted against Manchin-Toomey, but also ran ads attacking then-New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a bête noire of gun rights supporters, for paying for ads criticizing his vote. “Quite frankly, [the endorsement of Pryor’s opponent] is a precedent that’s going to help us,” said Everitt. “You have a guy like Pryor who tried to bend over backwards to do everything for the NRA and then was turned around and screwed by them. It’s going to change the dynamic in the future. If they’re going to turn around and screw you and endorse the Republican, what’s the incentive to stand with them?”
Howard Wolfson, a political strategist now employed by Bloomberg’s pro-gun control PAC, Independence USA, saw a similar effect from Begich and Pryor’s NRA freeze-out. “It’s not clear to me what their votes got them other than grief,” he said. “If this is how [the NRA] rewards their friends, I certainly wouldn’t want to be one. They would have been greatly advantaged politically by voting the right way. They would have actually made friends rather than take heat from the people they sided with. That’s a very teachable moment. You do the thing you know is wrong for political motivations and then the people who you think are going to help you hurt you. That will be long remembered in the Democratic caucus.” (Pryor’s campaign declined to speak on the record for this story. Begich’s campaign did not return calls, nor did the NRA.)
Gun control proponents see other hopeful signs in this campaign season. In Washington state, a well-funded referendum to expand background checks seems headed for victory, with little effort so far by the NRA to block it. In Connecticut and Maryland, the new gun-control measures passed in those states are seen as so popular that the Democratic candidates have gone on the offensive on the issue against their Republican opponents, who are having to keep their appeals to gun-rights proponents on the down low. (It’s the bad luck of gun-control proponents that the few Republican senators who voted against Manchin-Toomey and hail from states where doing so could be a net negative, such as Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Rob Portman in Ohio, are not up for reelection this year.) In Arizona, the Republican running for Gabby Giffords’ former seat, Martha McSally, just flipped to supporting broader background checks after Giffords’s group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, ran a hard-hitting ad attacking her for opposing them. And in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat running against Mitch McConnell, recently said that she would support closing the gun-show loophole, not long after she filmed an ad of herself shooting skeet to demonstrate her bluegrass bona fides.
That’s not to say that gun control proponents aren’t prepared for a few setbacks. They’re particularly concerned about Colorado, where the NRA is investing heavily to build on the momentum of last year’s state senate recall to try to defeat Governor John Hickenlooper. He signed a comprehensive gun-control measure last year in a state that has seen more than its share of mass shootings but also has plenty of gun-rights activists, and he has since tried to distance himself from the new law.
In general, though, what’s striking is in how few places other than Colorado the NRA has managed to elevate the Democrats’ post-Newtown push for stricter gun laws into a cri de coeur. The organization has tried hardest in Louisiana, where it is running the most brutal gun-related ad of the season against Landrieu, an almost comically fear-mongering spot that factcheckers have judged untethered from reality. (In North Carolina and Arkansas, by contrast, the group’s ads have so far touted Hagan and Pryor’s opponents, but not attacked them directly.)
But even with those provocative ads in Louisiana, Landrieu’s vote on Manchin-Toomey has not risen to a central issue in the race, in which Republican attacks have focused far more on Obamacare and Landrieu’s ethics. “A month is a lifetime in politics, but there’s certainly no evidence that voting for Manchin-Toomey has hurt anyone who voted for it and a great deal of evidence that voting against it hasn’t done anything to help people who voted against it,” says Wolfson. Adds Everitt: “What’s happening here is that background checks just aren’t a very controversial issue.”
There is of course another way of interpreting the relatively low profile that the gun issue has assumed in Louisiana and North Carolina: that Landrieu and Hagan themselves aren’t exactly eager to tout their vote for Manchin-Toomey, despite the fact that expanding background checks polls well even in many red states. To the extent that the candidates are talking about guns, it’s to defend themselves on the issue and state their support for Second Amendment rights, rather than to frame their vote for expanded background checks as a positive to be used against their opponent.
Nor are all the pro-gun control groups exactly talking up the issue in close races, either. Bloomberg has spent very heavily in support of Hagan, Landrieu, and other Democrats, but that money ($5.65 million) has gone to groups like Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, and the Senate Majority PAC, rather than toward ads making a gun-control-based case for the candidates. The gun-control group he funds, now called Everytown for Gun Safety, has run a few gun-themed ads, but only in blue Oregon and Illinois, and Moms Demand Action, Everytown’s grass-roots subset, is limiting its campaign “road show” to places like Santa Barbara, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland (both Oregon and Maine), Chicago, Baltimore, and Cheshire, Connecticut—with no North Carolina or Louisiana stops on the itinerary.
Gabby Giffords’s group, by contrast, will be running ads directly on behalf of Hagan and Landrieu and other swing-state senators (including a pro-Manchin-Toomey Republican, Susan Collins of Maine), which surely is a sign that those candidates are less worried about being associated with Giffords than with Bloomberg. Pia Carusone, an advisor to the group, said it had “thought a lot about” whether to run gun-related ads since it wants to “do no harm” to candidates it supports, but came down in favor of doing so because “we started this organization to ... harness support for these common sense, middle-of the-road policies like expanding background checks.” She said the group has seen no sign that Landrieu and Hagan would rather not have the ads run on their behalf, but that it would nonetheless be careful in how it phrased them, framing them around background checks, not gun control more generally. “Now, if we went up with a $5 million buy about how much Mary Landrieu supports gun control that would be stupid, and we’d never do that,” Carusone said.
All of which is to say that even some pro-gun-control politicians and advocates are still wary about where and how to make themselves heard—which, let’s face it, undercuts their own effort to persuade other elected officials and the media that gun politics are heading in their direction. But that shift is happening, regardless. There’s still a ways to go—for one thing, it’s quite possible that Republicans will reclaim the majority this fall even without guns being a big rallying cry for the right, which will all but doom the prospects of bringing Manchin-Toomey back for another try in the next two years. But if there is another vote, it’s quite possible that Kay Hagan will be in the Senate for it and Mark Pryor and Mark Begich won’t. And their colleagues may well draw a lesson from that, one that will further erode the ancient, self-perpetuating notion of NRA omnipotence.