The Democratic Party’s New Litmus Test: Gun Control

The Democratic Party’s New Litmus Test: Gun Control

Democrats running for Congress in 2018 are pushing a muscular gun-control agenda that represents a wholesale repositioning on the hot-button issue. In this year’s midterm election, gun control has become a party litmus test from which few dissent, alongside abortion rights and support for same-sex marriage.

Ann Kirkpatrick, at left with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2016, espouses a gun-control platform in her 2018 House campaign. Campaigning in 2010, right, when she advertised her ‘A’ rating from the NRA.Photos: Zuma Press; Associated Press

Six years ago, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee advised candidates in rural districts to show themselves with guns in their TV ads, the National Rifle Association made campaign contributions to 30 Democratic House candidates. This year, the NRA is financially backing just three.

The House Democrats’ campaign arm counts 63 candidates on its “Red to Blue” list of promising challengers trying to flip GOP House seats. Of them, 62 support expanded background checks for gun purchases. Only Richard Ojeda, who is running for a West Virginia seat Donald Trump carried by 50 percentage points, opposes them. None of the 63 has NRA support.

The shift has been propelled by new money and organization, as well as an energy among Democratic activists and voters that has pushed candidates into altering their positions, lest they appear out of step with the party’s base.

“There’s a counter-energy now because for a long time, it was pretty one-sided,” says Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, whom the NRA once rated at “A” and downgraded to a “D” in 2016; it hasn’t graded him yet for 2018. A string of gun massacres, he says, means if you’re “not doing anything, you hold that position to your own peril, political peril.”

The realignment is part of Democrats’ broader shift to the left on a range of issues, accelerated by insurgent energy activated following Mr. Trump’s election. Many leading Democrats are campaigning on platforms calling for a single-payer health-care system and reining in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Target Shift
NRA contributions to U.S. House candidates

Source: Center for Responsive Politics review of FEC data

That may play well in Democratic strongholds. And the party’s transformation on guns could also appeal in the kinds of suburban districts it needs to win to gain control of the House this fall, based on polls and recent elections.

It’s less likely to win enough votes to carry rural, Republican-dominated swaths of the country that have a stronger gun culture. The few remaining pro-NRA Democrats warn that the party’s full embrace of the gun-control legislative wish list could backfire in their districts.

“As a party, we cannot alienate voters by falling to the extremes,” says Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of three Democrats to receive NRA contributions this year, “especially as we look ahead towards the upcoming November elections.”

Mr. Cuellar says an anti-NRA stance won’t help Democratic lawmakers in districts like his, which covers a stretch of Texas from San Antonio to the rural areas along the Mexican border.

In Tuesday’s high-profile House special election in Ohio, Republicans didn’t make an issue of Democrat Danny O’Connor’s support for universal background checks. Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s super PAC, spent $3 million attacking Mr. O’Connor but not one of its TV ads invoked his position on gun control. In Washington state, Democratic pediatrician Kim Schrier appears to have advanced to the general election following a campaign that took aim at the NRA. In her gun-control ad, she included a logo noting her approval from Moms Demand Action.

Mr. O’Connor trails in the vote count. The Associated Press hasn’t declared a winner in either contest.

For a generation after the 1994 assault-weapons ban cost scores of Democrats their jobs, party members avoided pushing gun restrictions. This year, voters favoring gun control have become more vocal over congressional inaction following recent high-profile mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Parkland, Fla.

Democratic candidates are eager to talk about gun control now. In TV ads U.S. House candidates have aired this year, about 63% of mentions of guns or the NRA have come from Democrats, according to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG. In 2014, during the last midterm campaign, Democratic candidates accounted for 38% of such references.

Many Democratic House candidates who used to brag about their NRA bona fides no longer do, even as Republicans continue to oppose new regulations. The NRA hasn’t backed a Democratic Senate candidate since 2012.

The NRA downgraded Rep. Tim Ryan, far left, to a ‘D.’ At far right, Mr. Ryan in 2010, when his NRA grade was ‘A.’

The NRA downgraded Rep. Tim Ryan, far left, to a ‘D.’ At far right, Mr. Ryan in 2010, when his NRA grade was ‘A.’Photos: Zuma Press; Associated Press

The gun-control lobby today has enough money to counter the NRA’s war chest, thanks in big part to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The result is an American political landscape even more polarized than before. Candidates are with the NRA or with gun-control advocates, and the major parties’ bases don’t allow for much middle ground.

Moms Demand Action, launched following the 2012 killing of 20 first-grade students and six officials at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is now largely funded by Mr. Bloomberg. The gun-control-advocacy group has awarded its Gun Sense Candidate distinction to 571 Democrats who have run for Congress this year, and to 19 Republicans.

Only six House Democrats voted last year to allow reciprocity for state concealed-carry licenses, an NRA-backed proposal that would allow someone with such a license from one state to carry a weapon nationwide. In 2011, 43 House Democrats backed similar legislation. The Senate hasn’t acted on either.

NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker says the group’s supporters are energized by what she called “attacks on law-abiding citizens’ constitutional rights,” whereas when it comes to gun-control voters, “no one knows if those people are going to vote—they’re not proven voters.”

“It’s not that we’re not supporting Democrats,” she adds. “Democrats aren’t supporting the Second Amendment.”

‘F’ lapel pins

In June, the NRA took its candidate-grade archive off the internet after past “A” scores showed up in political attacks against those holding the ratings. Everytown for Gun Safety, the Bloomberg-backed umbrella organization that includes Moms Demand Action, responded by posting its own archive of NRA grades. The NRA’s Ms. Baker says its grades change each election cycle and aren’t relevant following the cycle.

The NRA has sharply lowered its ratings for Democratic House candidates in the general elections.

Source: NRA

Some Democratic candidates and Congress members now wear “F” lapel pins to advertise their NRA grades.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News June poll found Democratic voters rated gun control the second-most-important political issue after health care. Among Republicans, guns rated fifth, trailing the economy, taxes, immigration and support for Mr. Trump. The lower GOP ranking may be driven by confidence in Mr. Trump, on whom the NRA spent $30 million to help elect and who is the gun-rights movement’s closest White House ally ever.

“2018 could be the first year in which intensity on our side of the issue exceeds intensity on the other side,” says Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the leading gun-control advocate in Congress.

Democratic candidates are following a path forged by Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, who won a March special election—in a district Mr. Trump carried by 20 percentage points—after highlighting in a TV ad his support for background checks for gun buyers.

In July, Democrats in the Atlanta suburbs nominated for Congress Lucy McBath, a gun-control activist who works for the Everytown group. Everytown spent $1.2 million in the primary backing Ms. McBath, a former Delta Air Lines flight attendant who became an activist after her teenage son was shot and killed by a man who said the boy was playing music too loud in a Florida parking lot. The shooter was convicted of first-degree murder in 2014.

Sandy Hook effect

The Democratic shift on guns has been spurred by a political infrastructure built after Sandy Hook. Since then, Mr. Bloomberg’s groups have spent more than $200 million building an army of five million supporters and a crew of lobbyists in state capitols. Giffords, a gun-control organization named for former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords , who survived a 2011 shooting, has about 1.4 million supporters.

“The truth is there was really no grass roots on the gun-safety side,” Everytown President John Feinblatt says. “The NRA put out an emergency alert, and the switchboards on Capitol Hill and state capitols lit up like the Fourth of July. We didn’t have that kind of power.”

Mr. Feinblatt borrowed a strategy from the same-sex-marriage movement, which focused on winning state and local victories before moving on Washington. In 2014, Everytown spent $400,000 on Democrats in Oregon state senate races. Oregon was the only state in which Democrats gained statehouse seats during the 2014 GOP wave. The next year, Oregon enacted a law requiring background checks for all gun purchases.

Ms. Kirkpatrick, in Arizona, was once among the NRA’s strongest Democratic defenders. “My values are the same values that you believe in,” she said in a 2010 TV segment. “Hard work, playing by the rules, doing more with less and protecting our rights, like the rights to bear and keep arms, and that’s why I have an ‘A’ rating with the NRA.”

Ms. Kirkpatrick’s July 2018 ad.

Ms. Kirkpatrick’s 2010 ad noted her ‘A’ rating from the NRA.

A July 2018 TV ad for Ms. Kirkpatrick says she would “ban assault weapons” and enact universal background checks. The NRA this year gave her an “F.”

She says her position on gun control changed after Ms. Giffords was shot. Still, she didn’t advertise her new position during 2012 campaigning, when her website noted her “A” NRA rating. “Somebody must have left that up there by accident,” she says. In 2014, the NRA gave her a “B.”

Ms. Kirkpatrick says her new stance is informed by the intensity of Democratic voters pushing the issue. “I heard a lot more from them than I did from anybody supporting the NRA.”

Mr. Ryan of Ohio established a pro-gun-rights record in the state senate and his first six terms in Congress. The NRA, with which the Democrat voted at least 80% of the time, donated to his campaigns every two years and gave him an “A” in 2010 and “A-” in 2012.

By 2016, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Kirkpatrick were appearing at a House-floor sit-in for gun-control measures following the shooting that killed 49 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Both received “D” grades from the NRA that year.

After last October’s Las Vegas shooting, Mr. Ryan donated more than $20,000—equivalent to his past contributions from the NRA—to Mr. Bloomberg’s gun-control groups.

Mr. Ryan, who is running for re-election and is weighing both a challenge to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and a 2020 presidential run, says until recently there was little political benefit in backing gun-control proposals. This year, he says, he has seen Moms Demand Action and Giffords volunteers campaigning for candidates across Ohio.

Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 in February. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the hours following the Parkland shooting in February, Mr. Bloomberg’s group activated its Everytown Survivor Network, which connects 1,500 gun-violence survivors to comfort victims and assist them through the media crush. The network helped turn high-school students into activists with nationwide profiles.

Parkland students Emma González and David Hogg now have more Twitter followers each than the NRA. The two, with funding from Mr. Bloomberg and celebrities including George Clooney, sparked student-led demonstrations calling for gun control. That momentum has led 20 states to enact measures such as expanding background checks and limiting high-capacity magazines since February, according to Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

In Florida, GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who had an NRA “A+” in 2014, signed legislation increasing the minimum age to buy a handgun to 21 from 18 and imposed a three-day waiting period for a buyer to acquire a gun, among other measures. Mr. Scott told families of the Parkland victims that the new state law “will forever honor the incredible impact their loved ones have had on our state.” The NRA hasn’t issued Mr. Scott a 2018 grade yet.

‘When we take the majority in November, you will see a background-checks bill right away,’ says Mr. Thompson, here in February after the Parkland shootings. At right, Mr. Thompson readies his shotgun during the 2005 Congressional Shootout.Photos: Getty Images(2)

If Democrats regain the House majority in November, they are certain to launch the first substantive gun-control debate since the 1994 assault-weapons ban. That law, which lapsed in 2004, helped spark the Republican House takeover.

California Rep. Mike Thompson, who received NRA contributions in three campaigns in the 2000s, is now chairman of the House Democrats’ gun-violence-prevention task force. His NRA grade fell from “B+” in 2010 to “F” in 2016.

“When we take the majority in November,” he says, “you will see a background-checks bill right away.”

Write to Reid J. Epstein at

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