WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association (NRA) has long been one of the most formidable foes in politics, with many lawmakers unwilling to speak too loudly on gun control out of fear of waking the behemoth's wrath (and massive political operation). But Tuesday's election results showed a possible path for gun control advocates to take on the NRA -- pushing measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. With this strategy, the nonpartisan advocacy group backed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Americans United for Safe Streets (AUSS), took on NRA candidates in a handful of races -- and won.
The scope of AUSS is relatively narrow, targeting specific areas that may even divide NRA members from the national leadership. One major issue AUSS targets is closing the gun show loophole, a gap in the law that allows some vendors at gun shows to sell weapons without conducting a background check of the purchaser. Another area targeted by AUSS is the "terror gap," which allows persons on the federal watch list to legally buy guns and explosives in the United States.
AUSS went up against five NRA-backed candidates, with some pundits doubting whether it would have any impact. It was successful in three races and lost in one. Another is still too close to call, but it looks like it will be another AUSS victory.
AUSS ran campaigns against Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray (D), Michigan congressional candidate Rocky Raczkowski (R) and Ohio congressional candidate Tom Ganley (R), all of whom lost. Pennsylvania Republican congressional candidate Pat Meehan won over Democrat Bryan Lentz, and in Virginia's 11th district, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) is currently winning over Republican Keith Fimian, who was opposed by AUSS.
"Nationally, there is no question that this election was driven by concerns about the economy, but in the races where the issue of illegal guns played a key role, candidates that opposed common-sense efforts to crack down on illegal guns suffered at the polls," said Alex Howe, AUSS spokesman. "In Colorado, Senate candidate Ken Buck's decision as a prosecutor to scuttle a case against a gun dealer accused of illegal activity became a major issue in the campaign -- and he lost a race that a month before the election he was heavily favored to win. And in Virginia, Keith Fimian lost a close race after he put himself on the wrong side of Virginia Tech massacre survivors and family members for his opposition to closing the gun show Loophole."
Gun issues played an especially large role in Fimian's race. Late in the campaign, Fimian said that the tragedy at Virginia Tech could have been prevented if "one of those kids in one of those classrooms was packing heat." Fimian eventually apologized after being widely condemned. "It's hard to believe a candidate for the U.S. Congress doesn't appreciate the gravity of the massacre at Virginia Tech," said Omar Samaha, whose sister was killed in the attacks. There are indications that Fimian lost votes specifically because of these comments.
In Ohio, AUSS also went aggressively after the gun show loophole, sending mailers to 175,000 households and spending a combined $350,000. One mailer targeting the attorney general, for instance, read, "Florida took Lebron. What did we get in return? They sent us 92 illegal guns and gun-toting criminals. And Richard Cordray is letting them do it."
Bloomberg is AUSS's major funder and its most prominent backer, and he has made gun control one of his signature issues. In May, he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that Congress should close the terror gap in the nation's gun laws. "If society decides that these people are too dangerous to get on an airplane with other people, then it's probably appropriate to look very hard before you let them buy a gun," he said.
The NRA quickly criticized him, saying he was "abusing the word 'terrorist' to resurrect and pursue a gun-control agenda."
But there's evidence, including by these recent wins, that the NRA may be overreaching. A 2009 poll found that 82 percent of gun owners and NRA members support "prohibiting people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns," while 69 percent favor "requiring all gun sellers at gun shows to conduct criminal background checks of the people buying guns" -- two issues the NRA has fought against, and two issues boosted by AUSS.
Forty-nine Democratic incumbents lost on Tuesday; 29 of them (59 percent) had an A rating from the NRA, and 25 received financial support from the gun-rights group.
Of the 176 Democrats who won re-election, 32 had NRA endorsements. Only two of the 101 Democratic House members who co-sponsored legislation closing the gun show loophole lost.
These numbers don't point to the NRA necessarily being a liability for Democrats. They are, however, an indication that running with the blessing of the group isn't a sure bet, and running without it isn't necessarily a death sentence.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that although some races are still being decided, the group made a total of 262 endorsements in House races and 225 of those candidates won. He added that the number of A-rated candidates in the House will be going up since 2008 as well. The vast majority of the group's endorsements are Republicans.
"I think that numbers speak for themselves," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "I think if you look at elections in recent history, we have candidates from both sides of the aisle, reluctant to touch gun control because they know that it's bad politics to be on the wrong side of the gun issue during an election. Voters overwhelmingly have rejected the gun control agenda. NRA, on the other hand, has been saying since time immemorial that, rather than enacting new gun control laws, the focus should be on strict enforcement of gun control laws. And I think that just looking at the facts -- our numbers in both chambers have increased since 2008 to 2010, I think that totally negates whatever talking point that this other group is trying to put out."
Arulanandam added that in some races, incumbents who had A ratings from the NRA were challenged by candidates who also had A ratings.
But Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, believes that this election should serve as a warning to Democrats.
"On the gun violence issue, the Democratic leadership has too often been paralyzed by the perceived need to protect the NRA stalwarts in their caucus," he said. "Now we see that appeasing the gun lobby did Congressional Democrats little good, while Democratic candidates supporting common-sense gun restrictions won overwhelmingly. This attempt to placate the NRA meant that we just lost another two years in dealing with the plague of gun violence that takes too many innocent lives."