Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, was the center of attention on Tuesday at the Capitol, but he sure didn’t relish the role.
It takes a lot to upstage Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who has teamed up with Pennsylvania Republican senator Pat Toomey on background-check legislation. But on Tuesday, Begich managed to pull it off. Democratic senators Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) were able to duck around a scrum of reporters peppering Manchin with questions about his compromise outside Democrats’ weekly luncheon, but Begich walked right into the pack. The group instantly turned to him, and he promptly barreled down the hallway past the elevators, and out the doors of the Capitol, leaving reporters deflated.
Begich is a freshman senator from Alaska and also is one of a handful of Democrats who haven’t committed to supporting the Manchin-Toomey background-check legislation. A collection of red-state Democrats — including Mary Landrieu (La.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) — have found themselves in an uncomfortable political position, since many of their constituents are gun owners. Democratic leaders are pushing for gun-control legislation to be passed, but red-state Democrats are in a hurry only to avoid questions, and not to vote.
And, of course, their predicament has Republicans licking their chops.
Before Begich showed up, Manchin told reporters that he isn’t worried about corralling enough Democratic members to push the measure through, but Begich’s equivocation seemed to contradict his confidence.
And that caginess should come as no surprise — Brad Dayspring, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, argues that gun-control efforts are a loss for Democrats facing tough races, regardless of the legislation’s outcome.
“From a 50,000-foot level, I would say politically speaking, the conversation about gun control is devastating to Democrats,” says Dayspring, “particularly those in 2014 red states.”
“When the Democratic party started winning elections again during the Clinton era, they stopped talking about these kinds of issues,” he adds. “And now that it’s coming back, it’s endangering, politically, a lot of Democrats in red states — or in purple states.”
Dayspring argues that many anti-gun-control voters don’t trust Democrats on the Second Amendment, and that if they vote for Manchin-Toomey, they’ll essentially write their challengers’ campaign commercials.
A Senate source tells National Review Online he hears that Pryor and Baucus will probably vote against the compromise, while Landrieu is still undecided.
Pryor is in a particularly tricky position. Romney won his home state handily, and some on the right think Representative Tom Cotton, a Republican Iraq War veteran, could take his seat if he ran. Alice Stewart, who worked on Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign and currently hosts a radio show in the state, says Pryor’s base won’t be happy if he opposes Manchin-Toomey.
“There are lots who have expressed to me their disappointment with the fact that he is abandoning the core principles of the Democratic party in order to seek reelection,” she says.
Of course, not everyone feels that way. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), an outspoken gun-control advocate, tells me she isn’t worried about the electoral consequences for red-staters.
“Look, we’re all grown-ups,” she says. “This is a moderate measure.”
But Begich’s hasty escape down the steps of the Capitol may suggest otherwise.