President Obama’s new gun directives — which expand background checks on gun buyers and tighten enforcement of exisiting laws — may well resonate in the ’16 campaigns. Most notably, his actions could put the squeeze on key Senate Republican incumbents, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s veteran Republican strategist John Feehery:
“Outside of personal reasons, President Obama issued his executive order on guns for two reasons. First, he is not up for re-election. Second, the Congress is. Most experts agree that the likely policy impact of those executive orders is minimal. They were modest measures that wouldn’t actually do much in the real world. But politically, this was a time bomb meant to explode in the faces of the Republican majorities controlling both the House and the Senate.”
Indeed, he says, “for the most vulnerable Republicans, especially those senators who represent blue states, this issue is at best 50/50, and worst, it cuts hard against them.”
True that. I’ll explain why that’s true in a moment.
The fight for the Senate will be intense this year. Republicans currently have a 54-46 majority, but they’re defending 24 seats in 2016 (the Democrats, only 10). Plus, seven Republican seats are in blue states that voted for Obama in the last presidential election. Plus, 2016 is a presidential election year, which means that the Democratic voters who normally stay home for the midterms will be back in the booth. If Hillary (or Bernie) wins the White House, Democrats can essentially control the Senate by winning four of the seats now held by Republicans.
This year, the prime Democratic targets are: Toomey in Pennsylvania, Mark Kirk in Illinois, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Ron Portman in Ohio, and the open Florida seat being vacated by Marco Rubio.
Enter the gun issue. This is where the Republicans get squeezed. They don’t like Obama’s reforms — but the American mainsteam does.
According to the latest CNN/ORC survey, a landslide 67 percent supports the reforms — including 65 percent of swing-voting independents, 57 percent of gun owners and 51 percent of self-identified Republicans — and the reformers are more fervent. Those who “strongly” support Obama’s actions outnumber the “strongly” oppositional by a margin of 2-1.
In Pennsylvania, Toomey’s dilemma is obvious. Yeah, he co-sponsored a Senate bill that would’ve expanded background checks, but now that Obama has decided to do what the Senate failed to do, he’s against it. He said last week that he still supports more background checks; nevertheless, Obama’s executive actions have “exceeded the boundaries of the law. This should not be allowed under our constitutional framework. Like other matters, the most appropriate way for handling firearm issues is when Congress and the president work together.”
Um, hello? On firearm issues, the Republican Congress has repeatedly refused to work with the president; not even the slaughter of little kids at Sandy Hook — and landslide support for gun reforms — could coax the Republican Congress to work with the president. If Pennsylvania Democrats aren’t too busy fighting with each other (Joe Sestak versus Katie McGinty in the April primary), they should be able to pummel Toomey for his lame straddle. Especially when you look at the electoral math:
Toomey captured his Senate seat in 2010, when tea-party sentiment was at high tide and Democratic voters stayed home. Even so, he won by only two points. Now he has to run for re-election with the blue voters at high tide, in a state that hasn’t backed a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, in a region where Obama’s gun reforms are massively popular (according to the CNN/ORC poll, voters in the Northeast support the reforms, 74 to 26 percent). If Sestak or McGinty can’t leverage gun reform to wipe out Toomey in the populous Philadelphia suburbs, they don’t deserve to win.
The landscape is similar elsewhere. Republican incumbent Mark Kirk, who narrowly won his seat in tea-partying ’10, may well be doomed in blue-state Illinois. He has wobbled on gun reform, and no wonder: To win re-election, he needs to attract swing-voting independents as well as presidential-voting Democrats who’d willing to split their tickets; but he can ill afford to alienate the base Republican voters who still hate everything Obama does. Last week, after Obama unveiled his executive orders, Kirk stayed mute.
New Hampshire is another test case. Freshman Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte is reportedly deadlocked with Democratic challenger (and current governor) Maggie Hassan, and Ayotte’s favorability stats have been weak since Sandy Hook, when she voted to oppose expanded background checks. Today, Ayotte still opposes expanded checks — even though, according to a new poll, 83 percent of New Hampshire voters support that reform. Plus, she’s on the ballot in a presidential year. New Hampshire has gone blue in five of the last six national elections.
As GOP strategist Feehrey points out, those Republicans, and several others, “have potentially difficult races, and while they all have avid and committed gun rights owners in their state, they also have to do well beyond the Republican base to win reelection.” Which means that if the blue-state incumbents are smart, they’ll bow to the will of the people and give Obama his gun reform win. That way, they might save their own hides — and, who knows, maybe save a few lives.