Four Democratic senators who defied President Barack Obama to help defeat gun-safety legislation are facing the wrath of activists who promise to make them pay a political price.
President Barack Obama said it was a “shameful day” in Washington when the Senate rejected a watered-down bill including expanded background checks for gun-buyers on April 17. Several groups say they plan to punish the four Democrats through newspaper and television ads, protests outside their offices, and automated telephone calls to constituents.
“The level of anger around this is higher than on anything I’ve seen in years, decades,” said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a policy group aligned with Democrats whose founders previously worked on gun-policy issues. “These senators do not have a suitable explanation for what they did.”
Three of the senators are up for re-election in 2014: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska. North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp was elected in November to her first six-year term. All are from states that voted for Republican Mitt Romney for president last year. And while the outside groups will target both Democrats and Republicans who voted against the legislation, they are particularly angry at the Democrats who broke ranks and some of the groups are targeting them over Republicans in their first wave of ads.
“We’re shocked,” said Po Murray, a spokeswoman for the Newtown Action Alliance, a group founded to press for stricter gun laws after 20 schoolchildren were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14. “We can’t believe those whom we’ve elected to protect our life and liberty would choose special interests instead.”
Though the measure was blocked, the debate about gun control has changed from where it was for almost 20 years, when many Democrats avoided the topic altogether. The last major gun- related law was a 1994 crime bill that included an assault- weapons ban. Democrats lost control of Congress later in the year amid opposition to that and other initiatives. The ban lapsed in 2004.
Still, political observers expressed skepticism that the groups’ efforts would succeed in mostly rural states with a strong gun culture.
“These votes don’t hurt Begich, Pryor and Baucus,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “In fact, some of these groups going into these states probably helps them.”
The measure to expand background checks, a remnant of Obama’s proposals after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, was defeated by the Senate 54-46, with 60 votes required.
Federal law requires a background check to buy a gun from a licensed dealer. The failed amendment would have required checks for purchases over the Internet and between private parties at gun shows.
Obama proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines like those gunman Adam Lanza used to kill the 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook. They were dropped from the Senate bill after opposition by the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress.
The NRA has long kept a legislative scorecard that measures, on an “A” to “F” scale, lawmakers’ support for its agenda. It uses the tally to guide members on whom to support in elections.
The calculation made by the lawmakers including Baucus, who has an A+ rating from the NRA, was that the pro-gun culture of his state and the gun lobby pose a greater political danger than firearm-safety groups.
Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, said in an interview before the vote that there wasn’t much Democratic leaders could do to win his support.
Baucus said his “employers are the state of Montana,” when asked about breaking with fellow Democrats.
Begich voiced no regrets in an interview the day after the vote. “I voted what has been consistent with where I have been for the last 25 years,” he said.
Heitkamp, in an interview with the Dickinson Press published online April 18, said comments from her constituents indicated 5-to-1 opposition to the legislation.
“This was what North Dakotans believe,” she said.
Pryor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mandatory background checks for most gun purchasers are supported by 91 percent of U.S. voters, including 96 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of gun- owning households, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted March 27-April 1.
The NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, said in a statement after the vote that more background checks “will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools.” The nation’s largest gun lobby, which claims 4 million members, maintains that more should be done to prosecute violent criminals and improve mental-health care.
The groups supporting gun restrictions say their goal is to serve as a counterweight to the NRA and other gun-rights groups.
“The senators have made a calculation the NRA isn’t going away,” said Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action, a nonprofit group that is the successor to Obama’s campaign organization. “We have more people on our side, and we need to call out these senators.”
Carson said his group plans events across the country to praise four Republicans who supported the background-check plan and single out the Democrats and Republicans who voted it down.
A group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is taking out full-page ads in local newspapers targeting Pryor, Begich, Baucus and Heitkamp and will make television spots next week, said Adam Green, its co-founder.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns began making automated phone calls across the U.S. after the vote and plans demonstrations outside the offices of senators who voted no and are vulnerable in the next election.
“It would be satisfying for us to go after each and every one of them, but the core audience is people who ought to know better and people who will be vulnerable next time around,” said Mark Glaze, director of the group. It was co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The mayors’ group targeted Heitkamp in ads before last week’s vote. In March, she said in a statement, “There are far better uses for Mayor Bloomberg’s $156,000 than buying ads attacking a way of life he clearly does not understand.”
The four Democrats may also face repercussions from members of their own party. Senator Barbara Boxer of California said lawmakers who voted against the gun plan should be ousted.
“They have to be replaced,” she said on San Francisco’s KQED radio. “The people have to say no, this isn’t right.”
Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who survived a gunshot to the head in 2011, wrote in a New York Times opinion article that senators who opposed the measure acted from “political fear” and “cold calculations.”
Political observers said they were skeptical that criticism of the Democrats will be effective in states where guns are a cultural mainstay. In Montana, Baucus had one of his toughest re-election races after he supported the 1994 crime bill that banned assault weapons.
“A lot of people in this state hunt and have guns,” said David Parker, an assistant professor at Montana State University in Bozeman. He said Baucus has no serious primary challengers in sight and the ads probably will have little effect.
Still, Montana’s other Democratic senator, Jon Tester, who was re-elected last year, voted in favor of expanding background checks.
Alaska is a “gun-toting state” and Begich would only lose politically by changing his stance, said Jerry McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“Would it be Democrats who are going to put money in the race against Begich so he’ll be defeated, so the Democrats will lose the Senate?” McBeath said. “They’re blowing smoke.”
The groups’ influence could be seen in Arkansas, where the guns issue may seek to find a candidate to run against Pryor in the primary election.
“I can certainly see it drawing a primary challenger for him,” said William McLean, associate professor of political science at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. “There are enough progressives in Arkansas that if there’s money, then there’s potentially a challenger.”
In previous campaigns in California and New York, the mayors’ group has attacked lawmakers on issues other than guns, an approach it probably will revisit in these states.
While the four Democrats opposed expanding background checks, two other Democrats up for re-election in pro-gun states, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, voted in favor of the background-check measure.
Bennett of Third Way said the four “no” votes won’t lead the NRA to defend the Democrats from attacks by groups favoring gun restrictions or from Republican election opponents.
“One thing they may have miscalculated is the NRA is about building Republican majorities,” Bennett said.
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