Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Pushing gun control a problem for red state Democrats

By David Lightmari

AR-15 guns croppedHigh-end rifles in a gun shop in Arizona in 2011 | Will Seberger/MCT

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By David Lightman | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — For members of Congress from big cities, the West Coast and the Northeast, gun control has jumped to the top of the agenda. For those elected in red state America, the issue is regarded very differently.

That could cause Democrats big political problems, complicating the quest for new laws in Congress and perhaps threatening Democrats in the 2014 congressional elections.

Democrats currently will have to defend 21 of the 35 Senate seats that are up next year. Roughly half, as well as dozens of seats in the House of Representative, are in places were gun rights are cherished and popular. Looking like the party that’s eager to ban assault-style weapons might very well cost the Democrats control of the Senate, where Republicans need a net gain of six seats for a majority.

“Gun control is going to be a loser in a number of states where Democrats need to pick up seats,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate election analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

While there appears to be growing agreement to expand background checks and perhaps take other steps in the wake of the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., restricting gun use and sales is another matter.

The question is dividing the party into two camps.

One is the sizable band, led by President Barack Obama and based largely in liberal-leaning states or big cities, that wants tough action quickly. Leading the congressional charge are Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who are aggressively pushing to ban the sale and manufacture of dozens of semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

Supporters are convinced that they can get enough Democrats to win. “Public opinion is really shifting on this,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Perhaps. A CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-January found that 56 percent supported an assault weapons ban, the same percentage logged in August. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey in mid-January found little change in general attitudes: Fifty-six percent want more-strict laws, compared with 52 percent two years ago.

The other Democratic group represents more conservative states, where gun control is still widely viewed with suspicion.

In Alaska, for instance, Sen. Mark Begich faces a highly competitive re-election race.

“The more pro-gun he is, the better it is for him,” said Ivan Moore, an Anchorage-based nonpartisan political strategist. “This is a very heavy pro-gun state.”

It’s likely that the Senate will vote later this year on a wide array of proposals, probably in early summer. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been a gun rights supporter, and he well understands the risk of looking too pro-gun control.

During his hard-fought 2010 re-election campaign, he was joined by the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre to open a shooting park in Nevada. The NRA contributed to Reid’s 2010 campaign but didn’t endorse him, citing his votes for two Obama-appointed Supreme Court justices.

Reid has said he doubts that an assault weapons ban could pass in Congress, but he’s also signaled that he won’t stand in the way of votes on politically difficult proposals.

“We’re going to have votes on all kinds of issues dealing with guns. And I think everyone would be well-advised to read the legislation before they determine how they’re going to vote for it,” he said this week.

The role that guns will play in 2014 results remains uncertain, since the issue will share the media spotlight with a host of other concerns, notably the economy. And when it comes to emotional issues, “Immigration replaces guns,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

The outlook for key Democratic-held seats:

– Alaska. Begich won in 2008 with 48 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race, and he’s considered vulnerable. “If he comes out even remotely in favor of gun control at all, it will have a tangible negative effect,” Moore predicted.

– North Carolina. Sen. Kay Hagan already faces a tough re-election. Representing a state in which an estimated 42 percent of the population owns firearms at home, Hagan co-chairs the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, highlighting her sensitivity to gun owners.

– Arkansas. Whoever runs against Sen. Mark Pryor “will try to tar and feather him on the gun issue,” Arkansas Poll Director Janine Parry said. “But he’s pretty immune from charges he’s for gun control.” If nothing else, she said, “Mark is broad-shouldered and looks like he’d be comfortable in a duck blind.”

– West Virginia. Sen. Jay Rockefeller is retiring, and the seat is one of the election’s biggest tossups. Republicans are increasingly popular; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., ran an ad during his 2010 campaign touting his NRA support in which he shot a rifle, firing a bullet into a cap and trade bill. Manchin later said he might not release the ad today. Still, the state is “very much an outdoors, hunting state. Hunting is part of the culture,” said Rex Repass, West Virginia Poll research director.

– Iowa. Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the Senate’s leading liberals, is retiring. The state has long had a liberal-conservative split; its other Senate seat has been held for 32 years by conservative Republican Charles Grassley. A Des Moines Register poll last year found that about one-fourth of state residents thought gun laws should be tougher. “Banning guns based on their appearance does not make sense,” Grassley said.

– South Dakota. The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report rates Sen. Tim Johnson’s race a “pure tossup.” He faces a difficult challenge from former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, who won re-election as governor in 2006 with 62 percent of the vote.

– Montana. Sen. Max Baucus, the powerful chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, might face his biggest challenge if a gun-control, or liberal, Democrat tries to wrest the nomination.

– Louisiana. Sen. Mary Landrieu has a history of close races in a state where Republicans have done well, and being sympathetic to gun rights might be a help. “To the extent that should show independence from Obama, I’d buy that argument,” said Kirby Goidel, the director of the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University.

Landrieu recently chose her words very carefully, an illustration of how delicately Democrats in conservative states have to tread.

“My record of support for the Second Amendment is strong. In Louisiana and many places across the country, hunting, target shooting and gun collecting are time-honored sports and popular hobbies,” she said.

On the other hand, Landrieu added, “We must find a way to balance our Second Amendment rights with the challenges of mental illness, criminal behavior and the safety of our schools and communities.”

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