Midterm elections, which typically draw only one-third of the electorate, tend to be dominated by the most ideologically impassioned voters; traditionally, the NRA’s constituents have been the most passionate about casting midterm ballots, whereas reformers generally have stayed home. But the recent Senate debacle may have sparked a sea change. According to a post-debacle poll sponsored by Fox News, 68 percent of Americans said they’re more likely to support a candidate who wants to expand background checks; only 23 percent are more likely to back somebody who says No.
Here’s a wild thought: Let’s ignore the ginned-up scandal trifecta and talk about something else. Like the politics of guns.
Am I allowed to do that? Can I declare myself immune, however temporarily, to the latest outbeak of Beltway fever? Or does conventional wisdom decree that I must bow to what E. J. Dionne calls the “false god” of the dominant narrative?
Crazy as it may sound, life goes on outside the closed loop of IRS-State-CIA-DOJ. For instance, gun reformers are busy planning for the 2014 midterm elections — even though reform died last month in the dysfunctional U.S. Senate, where Republicans (and a few Democrats) defied 90 percent of the American people when they said No to expanded background checks of gun buyers. Reformers are convinced that public sentiment has fundamentally shifted in the aftermath of Newtown, that voters are jonesing to fire the lawmakers who danced to the NRA’s tune.
We’ll see about that. Midterm elections, which typically draw only one-third of the electorate, tend to be dominated by the most ideologically impassioned voters; traditionally, the NRA’s constituents have been the most passionate about casting midterm ballots, whereas reformers generally have stayed home. But the recent Senate debacle may have sparked a sea change. According to a post-debacle poll sponsored by Fox News, 68 percent of Americans said they’re more likely to support a candidate who wants to expand background checks; only 23 percent are more likely to back somebody who says No.
Which brings us to the current political skirmish in New Hampshire — home of Republican Kelly Ayotte, the only senator in New England who voted No during the April showdown.
Ayotte isn’t up for re-election until 2016, but she’s the lab animal in a multi-million dollar experiment. Both sides in the gun debate are putting scads of ads on the air, assailing Ayotte and defending Ayotte, testing to see what arguments might move public opinion — and using those insights in the 2014 midterms.
So even though 2013 is an off year on the federal election calendar, we remain in permanent campaign mode — as evidenced by all the New Hampshire and Boston media market ads financed by Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Reclaim America PAC (Marco Rubio’s shop), Americans for Responsible Solutions (Gabby Giffords’ shop), and an Iowa-based conservative group called the American Future Fund.
I’m tempted to parse the content of these ads, particularly the NRA’s claim that Ayotte didn’t vote No at all, that she actually voted Yes on “a bipartisan plan to make background checks more effective.” But this claim is a scam. The NRA is referring to an alternative Republican bill (championed by tea-partying Ted Cruz) that didn’t expand background checks at all; it was supposed to screen out mentally ill people — but it actually narrowed the categories of people who would be screened out. Bottom line: This bill was intended as a fig leaf for Republicans like Ayotte, who needed to muddy the waters and say they were Doing Something.
Anyway, forget the parsing. What’s noteworthy is that Ayotte’s poll approval in swing-state New Hampshire has dropped 15 points since her No vote on gun reform. Getting publicly chewed out by gun violence victim Gabby Giffords probably hasn’t helped her, either.
In a guest column in New Hampshire’s top paper, Giffords wrote: “Granite Staters have reason to be angry with her….They know they and their neighbors all support (expanded checks), overwhelmingly. So they’re left to wonder. What guided Kelly Ayotte’s decision if not facts and not popular support? Ayotte can assuage their worst fears by looking into her own soul.” (Ayotte doesn’t dare lash out at Giffords. Yesterday, she took aim instead at New York City’s mayor: “Michael Bloomberg and his liberal allies…can spend as much as they like distorting my record and smearing my character, but I won’t back down.”)
Gun reformers take comfort in Ayotte’s poll plummet, and they also cite Pennsylvania as proof that public opinion has turned. Pat Toomey, the conservative senator, saw his poll numbers soar after he co-sponsored the bill to expand background checks. Bloomberg’s group boasts 150 Pennsylvania mayors, and gun reformers believe that suburban Philadelphia voters – particularly women and under-30s – will be motivated to show up in 2014 and vote on the issue.
I question whether gun reform can sway any of the 2014 Senate races; seriously, what Republicans up for re-election will be defeated because they voted No? (Only Susan Collins voted Yes.) And what are the odds that reformers can dent conservative Democrat Max Baucus in a state like Montana? Perhaps reformers will have more luck on the House side. Perhaps they can demand that Republican candidates take a stand on background checks, and campaign against those who parrot the NRA position. But given the small number of swing districts (thanks to gerrymandering), Giffords and her allies will have a daunting task.
Still, the effort needs to be made; the alternative is to once again cede the dialogue to the NRA. And the death stats speak for themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 31,000 Americans died by gunfire in 2009 alone. And an estimated 6.6 million guns are sold here each year without a background check.
That’s a real scandal.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1