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Hillary Clinton unveils a plan for gun restrictions during an October town hall meeting in New Hampshire.


Democratic Candidates Picked a Big Fight with the NRA at Their First 2016 Debate

Four things that convinced party leaders that gun reform has become a winning issue.

If a Democratic politico was frozen in suspended animation 20 years ago and thawed out in time to watch the party’s first primary debate of the 2016 Presidential election, they might be aghast watching the candidates invite battle with the National Rifle Association. Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders competed to see who had the worse NRA rating. Both O’Malley and frontrunner Hillary Clinton said they were proud to have the gun lobby as an enemy.

Had none of them learned the lesson of her husband’s first term? After all, Bill Clinton wrote in his memoir that the “N.R.A. could rightly claim to have made [Newt] Gingrich the House speaker,” with gun control producing only a conservative backlash. Now, it seems, Democratic presidential hopefuls are itching for a fight over guns. What’s changed?

From the halls of Congress to presidential campaign stages, the shift has been telegraphed over the past week and a half as top Democrats coalesce around an issue long believed to be one of the party’s electoral weaknesses. Far from being an issue that could drive away mainstream voters, many in the party firmament believe that in 2016, a strong stance on gun issues could give their candidates the edge over Republican rivals.

The shift to a more combative stance on guns is not just a reaction to this year’s spate of high-profile shootings, though those killings and “stuff happens” responses from prominent Republicans have certainly created an opening. Rather, the party has been inching toward a stronger position on guns since the last presidential campaign, identifying it as a strategically useful issue that carries less risk than previously thought. Here are four reasons why Democrats are so confident that the gun question could break their way in 2016:

It motivates the Obama coalition

Emily Tisch Sussman, who ran Young Democrats of America during the last presidential campaign season and is now a campaign director for the Center for American Progress (CAP), sees a precursor for Democrats’ embrace of gun reform in its candidates’ positions on gay marriage. Four years ago, Democrats made clear that they were on the side of marriage equality while their Republican opponents were not — and saw that distinction drive votes. Even beyond LGBT voters themselves, Sussman says “the biggest turnout issue has been LGBT issues.” (Polling by the Human Rights Campaign bears out her claim.)

But since the Supreme Court struck down state bans on gay marriage earlier this year, “LGBT issues don’t present the same big clear villain,” Kentucky county clerks notwithstanding. Believing they have won on LGBT issues, Democrats need to look for new issues to motivate their base. Sussman believes guns could be that motivator. “Democrats are going to have to reconvene the Obama coalition for 2016, and this has very high interest,” Sussman says of gun policy.

By advocating strongly for action against gun violence, Democrats present voters with a clear choice, just as they did with LGBT issues. The issue also plays to voters’ understanding of the contemporary GOP, with its cratering favorability ratings. Republicans’ reluctance to propose action to reduce gun violence fits a perceived pattern on other issues. “With them in charge of Congress, we’ve gone into a government shutdown, Washington has been unable to pass any bills at all,” Sussman says. She thinks that with gun policy, Democrats can appeal to voters’ “bias toward action.”

It hasn’t cost Democrats at the state level, where reformers have notched prominent victories

Reform advocates point to the 2013 Virginia governor’s race as a case study in how Democrats can win while taking more strident positions on guns, even in “purple” states with strong gun-rights traditions. In a debate two weeks before voters went to the polls, Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli boasted that the National Rifle Association had given him an “A” rating, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe had an “F.” McAuliffe immediately countered: “I don’t care what grade I got from the NRA … I never want to see another Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech ever again.” McAuliffe went on to win the governorship handily. Virginia’s Democratic Attorney General also won statewide office campaigning for stronger gun violence prevention measures.

The Virginia outcomes were echoed in two state fights over universal background checks, one of which put the question of gun reform directly to voters. In November 2014, Washington passed ballot initiative I-594 with 60 percent of the vote. A PPP poll showed that the measure motivated turnout and directly translated to support for down-ballot candidates. This spring, Oregon’s legislature passed universal background checks after failing to do so in 2012 and 2013. In fact, Oregon Democrats made gains after taking up background checks, picking up the three seats needed to pass this bill by explicitly running on giving universal background checks another go. Maine and Nevada will consider similar ballot measures in 2016, which could motivate Democratic turnout in those states.

The NRA is looking less than invincible

For years it was a Democratic shibboleth that the NRA-stoked backlash to Bill Clinton-era gun control measures like the federal assault weapons ban and the Brady background check bill contributed significantly to the party’s disastrous performance in the 1994 midterm elections. Loath to look like the proverbial “jack-booted thugs” out to quash gun rights, the party spent the ensuing years distancing itself from the issue to avoid incurring gun owners’ wrath. Now, many Democratic politicians and liberal commentators are not sure they should be so fearful.

Alec MacGillis laid out the case in an essay for ProPublica. His piece takes a closer look at the failure of the 2013 Manchin-Toomey universal background check bill, which has been held up as an example of the NRA’s persistent power. But the NRA only barely killed the Senate bill: it fell a mere five votes short of being filibuster-proof. Democratic Senators who opposed the bill lost their reelection campaigns anyway, and received no help from the NRA despite breaking with the party line to stymie the background check effort.

The group’s power in elections may also be overstated. Paul Waldman wrote a four part analysis of the NRA’s endorsements and political spending in 2012 for Think Progress. He found that the NRA’s power to make a difference in electoral outcomes is negligible. The NRA largely puts its weight behind reliable Republican incumbents, and its contributions are rarely the largest in particular races.

Meanwhile, the general public is finding the NRA itself less appealing, according to survey data. The gun group’s favorability rating — while still higher than most politicians and public figures — has fallen since the last Presidential election. A December 2012 Gallup poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting found the NRA had a 54 percent favorability rating. This August, NBC and the Wall Street Journal conducted a poll that put the group’s favorability 9 percentage points lower, with 45 percent of Americans holding positive views of the organization.

New pro-gun voters don’t come out of the woodwork 

The NRA has a group of reliable single-issue voters who can be counted on to show up to the ballot box. The thing is, they’re always there. “They’re not going to be any more motivated more than they already have been,” says Emily Sussman of CAP. When it comes to organizing the single-issue gun voter base, Sussman believes the NRA has “hit their ceiling.” Democrats regard those pro-gun voters as all but out of reach, while seeing a gun reform platform as an opportunity to increase their marginal turnout.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine captured the new calculus when he told the Washington Post that Hillary Clinton has no reason not to take on the NRA: “I think she has no illusion that even if she didn’t say a word about guns, the NRA would be out there blasting her to say she had a conspiratorial plan to work with the U.N. to take everybody’s guns away,” Kaine said. “So why not go head-on on an issue that will improve safety?”

[Photo: Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor]