With its presidential candidates loudly proclaiming their anti-NRA bona fides and Senate leaders banging the drum for gun reform, Democrats are suddenly shucking their reticence on an issue long considered electoral poison. Against that backdrop, four Virginia state senate races to be decided next month are being used as a laboratory for an electoral experiment that will yield vital data on how gung-ho calls for gun safety affect voter turnout and preferences in a swing state.

In each of these races, the candidates and their surrogates are running sophisticated campaigns that use gun reform messages to get out the vote among low-turnout segments of the Democratic base (such as minorities and the young) and to persuade those non-Democrats who, computer analysis has shown, are supportive of gun-safety ideas. The goal is to flip the one seat that Democrats need to take back the Virginia Senate. If the party can not only do that but run up the score, the strategists behind this push believe they can thrust the stake deeper into the canard that supporting gun reform is a path to early retirement for politicians.

Even without the national reverberations, Democrats’ embrace of gun safety as a means for winning down-ballot races is significant: It’s at the state level where most of the action is on the issue, with fights over expanded background checks, campus carry, and the gun rights of domestic abusers playing out in capitols across the country. But that this effort is afoot in a Southern state — home to the National Rifle Association headquarters, no less — where it would have been unthinkable even a few cycles ago to campaign aggressively for gun reforms certainly raises its importance. Win or lose, reformers will walk away with tactical lessons to add to a growing playbook for aggressively deploying gun policy as a prominent campaign issue.

The races to watch involve Democrat Dan Gecker, challenger to incumbent Republican Glen Sturtevant, in suburban Richmond; Democrat Gary McCollum, challenger to incumbent Republican Frank Wagner, in the Virginia Beach area; Democrat Jill McCabe, challenger to incumbent Republican Dick Black in the western suburbs of Washington D.C.; and Democrat Jeremy McPike, defending a seat vacated by a Democrat against Republican Hal Parrish in the southwestern D.C. suburbs.

In Virginia, unlike in federal races, state candidates are permitted to coordinate directly with outside groups on campaign spending and tactics. Gun safety groups including Americans for Responsible Solutions, the organization started by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, expect to spend more than $600,000 in those races, pounding the reform message in collaboration with the candidates.

The Virginia Republican Party declined to comment and the NRA did not return calls and emails. At least one of the targeted Republican candidates has said he is unconcerned by the effort and has faith in pro-gun voters to help secure his re-election. “I really don’t think the money they’re spending is going to affect any races at all,” Black told the Washington Post last week. “Virginia has a pretty comprehensive set of rules dealing with firearms, and people understand that if you’re going to have a safe community, you’re going to have citizens who have the right to keep and bear arms.”

Democrats hope to prove him wrong. “If we’re successful here,” one Democratic operative involved in the strategy told The Trace, “we will look back in hindsight and say gun safety was a big piece of what we did that worked — assuming it does work.”

Part of the frustration emanating from President Barack Obama in his speech after the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon on October 1 stemmed from the fact that so many other equally horrific crimes – Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora — had failed to end the perception that gun reform is an electoral career-killer. Bill Clinton himself promulgated that idea, crediting an NRA-led backlash to the 1994 assault weapons ban with the Republican wave in that year’s midterms, and cautioning as recently as 2013, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, that Democrats should tread lightly on the issue. National polls may now show strong support for universal background checks and disarming domestic abusers, but until very recently, pro-reform candidates ran scared, and officeholders have feared the wrath of the NRA if they voted for gun restrictions.

There have been exceptions, of course. The 2014 victory in a ballot initiative that imposed universal background checks in Washington State was one milestone, passing 59-41 percent in a big year for Republican candidates. But Virginia Democrats did not have to look that far for motivation to sign on as electoral guinea pigs this fall. In 2013, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the state’s governor’s race while bragging about his “F” rating from the NRA and Mark Herring became attorney general after running hard on gun safety. (In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Herring’s campaign manager describes how their effort increased Democratic turnout in Northern Virginia by more than 100,000 votes.) Even before that, Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, retained his seat in 2010 amid the Tea Party wave by surviving a challenge from an anti-reform Republican in the district that contains the NRA’s headquarters.

Gun messages are the No. 1 issue that Virginia voters say can motivate them to turn out this November.

Still, both the McAuliffe and Connolly races involved other high-profile issues, making it difficult to ascertain just how much their support for gun reform helped, hurt, or was merely irrelevant. Focusing on a few state Senate races in an off year like 2015 holds the promise of new empirical takeaways. After the election, analysts will pore over turnout among the targeted voters to assess the gun messages’ impact, following the practices of the data-driven new science of modern campaigning.

One eye-opening stat is already driving the Virginia project: Gun messages are the No. 1 issue that voters there say can motivate them to turn out this November, according to polling seen by The Trace on condition that the exact numbers not be disclosed. Notably, the survey was conducted before the on-air shooting in August of two Roanoke journalists, a local event that operatives believe only intensified the sense that something needs to be done to curb gun violence.

Seeking to capitalize on that sentiment, the Virginia candidates will send different constituencies different messages tailored to the specific concerns of each group. As chronicled in journalist Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab, such tests are conducted using both mail and digital advertising and provide insights into what moves prospective voters to volunteer, donate money, or express greater interest in turning out on election day — or not. To run those experiments, campaigns create “models” — profiles of individual voters based on gender, age, marital status, parental status, income, geography, magazine subscriptions, survey responses and much more — that yield much more than party affiliations, focusing instead on what social scientists can intuit about those voters likely values, opinions, and election-day behaviors.

In this Virginia races, those messages are being guided by the results of experiments conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2014 cycle, says a source familiar with the planning. Married women ages 18 to 60, for instance, seem to react best to gun messages focused on family safety when specifically delivered by a law enforcement official or other first responder. Black voters, a group that tends to vote less frequently in non-presidential election years, can be mobilized by receiving mail about high-profile shootings of unarmed black youths.

“We are starting to build an analytical model of who to target, how to target them and how to do that well,” says Arkadi Gerney, vice president of campaigns and strategies for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Some of the most sophisticated analytics firms, the guys from the Obama campaign, are involved. It’s getting better, but still has a ways to go.”

It is instructive that the candidates themselves are owning the overall gun reform message, not just leaving that to external organizations which they can disavow, says Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and mother of a gunshot survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. In the Gecker race, for instance, the second thing volunteers who go door-to-door for Gecker ask residents (after their party affiliations) is about their attitudes about gun violence. That intelligence becomes is entered into a voter’s computer profile and determines whether, and what kind of, gun-related mail or digital messages they will receive.

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A canvassing sheet being used by one of the Virginia campaigns. “Gun violence” gets its own column, reflecting voters’ current interest in the issue.

It takes time to build up reliable data about voter behavior regarding specific issues, and on gun matters the NRA has spent decades figuring out who to target and with what messages. Because vocally pro-reform candidates are, as a whole, a new breed, their campaign strategists are playing catchup — hence the fuss over these relatively obscure off-year races.

How gun reform messages affect the behavior of voters in the targeted Virginia districts will be fed into the tools that future campaigns will turn to as they put together their own ground games. “We can isolate some impact on the lower level because we know who the people are that we sent gun mail to, we know what our projections were at the beginning and we know among that group if we hadn’t done anything how many would likely have shown up,” the Democratic operative explains. “And we can say we mostly did gun messages here, and we had ‘x’ number of percent increase. It’s not quite the exact science, but it’s more empirical than we’ve ever had before.”

In building their plans, Virginia strategists have been looking to last year’s success in Washington State, where organizers not only credit a gun-control ballot initiative for boosting Democratic turnout but also proving that the issue could pull some Republicans to their side. We needed to throw out all previous assumptions and build from scratch what your voting pool is and who is getable and why,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the group behind the effort. “When you do, you find that a lot of suburban Republican women are very strong advocates for gun laws and a lot of blue-collar rural Democrats are not. It’s being willing and open to talking to people where they are at and not looking at partisan profiles, but instead building the coalition that’s with you on values.”

Of course, it’s possible that the Virginia plan won’t produce wins this November. Looking to manage expectations, the Democratic operative familiar with the push argues that even narrow losses will count as progress if it helps strengthen the still fledgling notion that backing gun reform does not spell certain disaster at the ballot box. In that way, advocates are following the script of gay rights activists, who about a decade ago focused first on helping candidates get comfortable with the idea that supporting same-sex marriage would not leave them doomed. Then, as public opinion shifted, gay activists showed that supporting marriage equality had even become a campaign asset.

“The simple idea that we were public about supporting gun safety issues and these candidates did not get hammered, that’ll be a proof point,” the Democratic operative says. “That doesn’t require as much data, but it is a lesson to other candidates that, well, they’re doing it in Virginia and they’re not getting hammered. What can I learn from that?”

[Flickr: Bruce Charles]