WASHINGTON -- If North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp proved herself to be a standard politician with her vote against gun legislation Wednesday -- citing her state's "way of life" -- a handful of senators from both parties put their political careers on the line in a failed effort to advance measure that would require background checks for gun sales.
The bravest would have to be Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who are up for reelection in 2014 in states not known for strict gun control laws. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also took a tough vote, though he won't face voters in his red state until 2018. Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) may also be put in tough place by their yes votes, though neither faces reelection until 2018, by which point the politics around gun legislation may have changed significantly -- or not at all.
The measure won 55 votes, though for procedural reasons Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) switched to a no; 45 voted against.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia also went far out on a political limb in reaching a deal on background checks, making themselves targets. Toomey is able to fall back on his deep conservative record and on the fact that Pennsylvania already has legislation similar to what he proposed nationally. And the state leans Democratic in presidential years, so Toomey will be able to use the compromise in the general election to appeal to moderates.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also bucked gun advocates by voting for the background check compromise.
Slightly down the courage spectrum sit Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Colorado's Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. All three states have a strong contingent of pro-gun voters and are always in contention for Republicans, but have been trending Democratic in recent years, reducing the political risk of a tough gun vote.
And then there's Reid, who is up for reelection in 2016 and shows no signs of retiring. He spoke out on behalf of an assault weapons ban on the Senate floor Wednesday in terms that'll certainly draw the ire of the pro-gun crowd back home. But he also failed to persuade red-state Democrats, such as Mark Pryor (Ark.) or Max Baucus (Mont.) to support background checks. How hard Reid tried is a matter of dispute, but re-electing conservative Democrats is critical to Reid maintaining a Senate majority.
"Today I choose to vote my conscience," said Reid in an emotional speech. "Not only is Harry Reid a United States senator, but also a husband, a father, a grandfather and, I hope, friend of lots and lots of people. I choose to vote my conscience because if tragedy strikes again, I'm sorry to say, Mr. President, it will, if innocents are gunned down in a classroom, theater or restaurant -- I would have trouble living with myself."
He went on to blast opponents as conspiracy nuts. "I'll vote for the ban because maintaining the law and order is more important than satisfying conspiracy theorists who believe in black helicopters and false flags," Reid said. "I'll vote for the ban because saving the lives of police officers, young and old, and innocent civilians, young and old, is more important than preventing imagined tyranny."