Any new gun-control initiatives face a tough path to legislative victory in the Senate.
While Democrats have the majority with 55 senators, not all of them appear open to gun-control measures. Earlier this month, freshman senator Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) expressed concern that the White House’s gun-control proposals were too “extreme.” Heitkamp’s concern isn’t shocking. She, like ten other Democrats in the Senate, currently holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. For these senators, seven of whom represent states that voted for Mitt Romney in the election, demonstrating independence from the Democratic party on gun control can help them win votes.
Some of these senators, despite their past voting records, are suggesting a new openness this time around. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said last month: “I’ve got an A rating from the NRA. But the status quo isn’t acceptable. . . . There’s got to be a way to put reasonable restrictions, particularly as we look at assault weapons, as we look at these fast clips of ammunition.” Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who famously shot the cap-and-trade bill in a 2010 ad and who also has an “A” rating from the NRA, said earlier this month that “we have to change the culture of mass violence we have,” although he emphasized that gun owners should be respected and that looking at how the nation treats the mentally ill should also be a priority.
However, Manchin isn’t running for reelection in 2014. (Warner is, but thanks to Virginia’s changing population, the state is becoming bluer, giving Warner political leeway on gun control.) In 2014, there will be as many as 21 Democrat senators running for reelection. (The exact number depends on who will retire and who won’t.) Three of them — Mark Begich of Alaska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Warner — currently have an “A” rating from the NRA. Two more, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have ratings of “C” and “C-,” respectively. Most of their Democratic colleagues have “F”s.
Instead of pushing for new gun-control legislation, Begich last week issued a statement saying he supported “an increase in mental health services as well as strengthening the enforcement of laws already on the books.”
Other Democrats are walking the tightrope between supporting Obama’s gun-control initiatives and positioning themselves for a win in 2014. Take North Carolina senator Kay Hagan, who was elected in 2008. She currently has an “F” rating from the NRA, but gun-control issues have been on the back burner during her term. Now they’re not. In a statement, Hagan was non-committal about whether she would vote for Obama’s approach, calling for a “serious commonsense debate in Congress that looks at access to guns, access to mental health care and violent video games,” adding that “while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners, I am committed to working with my Republican and Democratic colleagues toward a comprehensive approach that ensures our communities are safe.”
North Carolina voted for Obama in 2008 but swung red in 2012 — and not just in the presidential race. In November, the Republican gubernatorial candidate won, as did nine of the 13 House candidates. John Dinan, a political-science professor at Wake Forest University, says that Hagan is likely hoping the gun-control legislation never comes up for a vote. “She’s been able to avoid taking a lot of tough votes because Senate majority [leader] Reid has been able to keep a lot of tough votes from having to be taken,” he comments. But if the legislation does “come to a vote, she’d probably want to split the difference and vote for some parts, and maybe not others.”
One Republican involved in North Carolina politics speculates that Hagan might see a potential upside in the legislation coming up for a vote. “She may want it to come up just because it gives her a chance to show some independence from the administration after four years of voting for Obamacare, for the stimulus, and for everything else. ” However, voting against gun-control measures could hurt her with donors.
Another Democrat in a tough spot is Louisiana’s Landrieu. The three-term senator could be badly hurt by voting for such prominent gun-control measures. “There’s no question that Louisiana is pro-gun,” says Kirby Goidel, a Louisiana State University professor and senior public-policy fellow of the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs. Landrieu, Goidel notes, won’t win the voters most concerned about gun rights no matter what. Still, she can’t afford to go too leftward on the issue.
“She might be able to vote for some of the measures,” he says. “She would have to be very selective. She would want to show her independence from President Obama, because that’s going to be the thing that people would to try to tie her to in the 2014 campaign. And so I would be surprised if she went very far in that direction in terms of supporting gun-control measures.”
Quin Hillyer, a Louisiana native who worked for Louisiana Republican congressman Robert Livingston in the Nineties, says that Landrieu must “support something” to keep “her base [and] her liberal activists enthused.” But he anticipates her supporting something along the lines of spending more on police or banning armor-piercing bullets.
“In terms of anything that actually limits any sort of gun,” Hillyer says, “if she votes for it, she’s coming close to committing political hara-kiri.”
The state GOP, however, is already looking ahead to making gun control a big issue. Joe Biden will fundraise for Landrieu later this month, and Jason Dore, executive director of the state GOP, says Republicans will highlight that Biden is “the spokesperson for gun control.”
Dore also sees potential for using gun control as an issue in 2014.
“In 2008, it wasn’t an issue. I don’t think guns in general were that much on people’s minds,” but now, in light of the new gun-control push, gun-rights activists are energized, Dore says. “I think it gives us a great opportunity and puts her in quite a difficult position.”
Presidential advisor David Plouffe told CNN on Sunday that “there are 60 votes in the Senate, 218 votes in the House, if these votes come up for some of these gun-safety measures.” But if that’s the case, Jay Rockefeller may not be the only Democrat in a red state who’s planning to retire in 2014.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.