A top rating from the NRA is no longer the badge of honor it once was for Ohio Republican Bob Gibbs. For the first time in his decade of service in Congress, he isn’t bragging about his A-plus rating.
In Florida, Republican Brian Mast must have known he was risking his A rating from the NRA when he wrote an op-ed declaring his support for an assault weapons ban after the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school in Parkland. The gun rights group now gives him a question mark.
In Pennsylvania, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent running for reelection to Congress, got former congresswoman and gun violence survivor Gabby Giffords’ endorsement after he was the only Republican in the U.S. House to vote earlier this year for a measure that would have kept guns out of the hands of dangerously ill people.
It’s easier to find Republicans in competitive races toning down their NRA credentials than it is to find Democrats actively campaigning on gun control and gun safety. Rather, Democrats trying to pick up competitive seats to regain the majority for their party are more inclined to tout their comfort with firearms. Xochitl Torres Small, a young Latina running for an open seat in New Mexico, turned an uphill race into a toss-up “on the sheer strength of her charisma,” says David Wasserman with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “She’s an avid hunter.”
After the Parkland shooting in February, the big question was whether the momentum for gun safety would continue or whether it would fade as other issues came to the fore. Wasserman says gun safety is “part of an issue set that is helpful to Democrats in suburban districts,” but he doesn’t see it as a game-changer or more Democrats would be talking about it and there would be more ads. “The ads inevitably reflect what voters express concerns about in polls. If guns were top of mind, we’d see a lot more ads,” he says.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart has spent much of his long career trying to craft messages around gun control and safety that could win elections. He told The Daily Beast in an interview that “the biggest disappointment of my professional life, without a doubt,” is the failure of those arguments to gain traction in our politics.
The news for now is that after 25 years of mostly fruitless effort, and 15 years of warning Democratic candidates to be “exceptionally careful” with this issue because no matter how high gun control polls, “the 30 percent who oppose will use it as a single issue—that’s the importance of the NRA,” Hart is convinced that this cycle is different, that the NRA is more of an albatross than a ticket to victory.
Pressed for evidence, Hart says “it’s less numbers than feel,” and that he’s basing his prediction on the focus groups he regularly hosts in different parts of the country. “The thing that has fascinated me in focus groups, the number of people who mention violence and school shootings. It’s no longer about gun rights, It’s how do we protect our kids in school? What do we do about it? It’s switched from a Second Amendment argument to a common sense safety argument.”
The Parkland shooting “pricked the nation’s conscience,” Hart says, in a way that didn’t happen after Sandy Hook, which as atrocious and tragic as it was seemed like a single sick person, “more of a one-off.” The series of school shootings that followed and then the carnage at the concert in Las Vegas found more Americans saying the old arguments about the Second Amendment aren’t enough.
Hart grew up in Berkeley, California, the son of a college professor, and in 1978 began working on a ballot measure to require the registration of all handguns. It was a bipartisan effort; Hart worked closely with Republican pollster Doug Bailey. Ballot 15, as it was known, went down in defeat in November 1982, and it was the reason, says Hart, that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost his historic bid for governor.
The closely watched loss of Bradley, an African-American who had been leading in the polls, was attributed by many to racism, with the theory that people lied to pollsters about their support but then voted differently. It was called “the Bradley effect.” But Hart says no, it was “turnout by the gun people,” a backlash to the freeze on new gun purchases that was part of Proposition 15, which Bradley had endorsed over the objection of his campaign chairman who had told him, “If I could design a world without guns, I would. But Tom, if you support this, you can’t win.’”
After the death of John Lennon in December 1980, Hart worked with Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, on gun control messages and media. “The issue always polled well, but when it got tested at the ballot box it wouldn’t win any campaigns.”
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act together with an anti-crime bill that included an assault weapons ban got through Congress in ’93 and ’94. President Clinton blamed the gun laws for the Democrats’ loss of the House in November ’94. Texas Democrat Jack Brooks, the powerful pro-gun chairman of the House Judiciary committee, supported the assault weapons ban and was among those who lost his seat.
Hart tried to persuade Al Gore in 2000 that gun safety was a winning issue based on polls aimed at swing states, but Gore wasn’t buying it. “Despite what polls said, he was convinced it was poison,” says Hart. “He was steering very clear of it.” The gun issue helped cost Gore his home state of Tennessee, which if he had won would have made him president.
There were occasional victories over the years, says Hart, “But overall attitudes didn’t change and if anything they hardened. And at the same time ownership of firearms went up and up.” When he first started working on the issue, 30 percent of the public had firearms. “Now a majority of Americans have firearms, and each killing sends people to the gun store to buy more. Of all the things I’ve done politically and in public policy, there are good days and bad days. But over the 25 years I’ve been involved with this issue, the good days can be measured on the fingers of one hand.”
After years of waving Democrats away from the gun issue, he’s turned into a cautious believer. The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in August by Hart’s firm and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, asked which party is best on the gun issue? The data was 39 percent Republicans to 34 percent Democrats (16 percent said neither; 9 said both; 2 were not sure).
The question was not set up as for or against gun rights or gun control, “but it’s not 60 percent in favor of the Republicans,” says Hart. “The NRA in terms of this election doesn’t have the same open playing field.” And that is a change in gun politics that could pay off at the ballot box, finally.