Yesterday's gubernatorial election in Virginia was a remarkable setback for the Virginia-based National Rifle Association. Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli, despite McAuliffe's support of expansive new gun control laws, like universal background checks and limits on assault rifles and high-capacity magazine. Indeed, McAuliffe had an "F" rating from the NRA, compared to Cuccinelli's "A" rating. And yet, even in a state with a lot of rural, pro-gun voters, McAuliffe emerged victorious.
McAuliffe's victory is a boon to gun control advocates. Ever since President Barack Obama's failed effort to pass new gun control laws died in the Senate, many people have worried that support for gun control was a death knell to elected officials outside of a handful of solidly blue states. That worry only became more pronounced when two Colorado lawmakers who voted for that state's recently enacted gun control laws were recalled in a bitter election contest in September.
"The story line we were told by so many pundits after the Colorado recall was that gun control is dead, that no candidate in his right mind would campaign on gun control," says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
McAuliffe's victory counters the view that gun control supporters can't win in hotly contested purple states with lots of guns. Virginia, typically a battleground state, boasts a population of over 2 million gun owners. And it's also the home base of the NRA, whose headquarters is located in Fairfax. That's partially why the NRA fought hard to see to it that McAuliffe didn't win. The gun rights group spent half a million dollars on ads to defeat him. The money, it turns out, was not well spent.
This was not an election where gun control was under the radar. In fact, in what many people saw as a risky move, McAuliffe boldly proclaimed his support for new gun control laws and made them a centerpiece of his agenda, especially in the last few weeks of the campaign. Instead of shying away from the hot-button issue, McAuliffe announced, "I don't care what grade I got from the NRA," McAuliffe said. "I never want to see another Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech ever again."
While McAuliffe's victory was certainly one gun control advocates should celebrate, the news wasn't all good. The election turned out to be a lot tighter than people expected, with McAuliffe squeaking by with only a one percent advantage. A few weeks earlier, he was polling nine points ahead. It's possible that his emphasis on gun control in the final days of the campaign hurt him on Election Day. And Cuccinelli had plenty going against him: he was widely seen as anti-women for his opposition to contraception and there was a libertarian third party candidate who won six percent of the vote. Most likely, many of those who voted for the libertarian would have voted for Cuccinelli.
Nonetheless, gun control advocates can rest easy knowing that, for the foreseeable future, the NRA has lost its home field advantage.