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P.G. Sittenfeld speaks outside of the Ohio Statehouse in May.

Election 2016

The Key Senate Race That Shows How Much Democrats Have Changed on Guns

Ted Strickland, the frontrunner in the party’s Ohio Senate primary, has recanted views that once won him an A+ rating from the NRA. His challenger, P.G. Sittenfeld, takes a lot of the credit.

P.G. Sittenfeld, a Cincinnati City Councilor running for the U.S. Senate, was on the road again. This afternoon’s destination was Columbus. His message for the voters he’d address there echoed the one he had delivered at past stops, and would deliver again to future crowds: Democrats need to vote for him if they want stronger gun laws.

Sittenfeld will probably lose his quest for the race’s Democratic nomination when Ohioans vote in their March 15 primary, but the 31-year old Democrat has undeniably succeeded in making gun violence prevention a prominent issue in the contest. The frontrunner, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, 74, had spent his long political career compiling a pro-gun résumé before saying in January that he had “re-evaluated” his positions and now supported some firearm reforms.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama — who has said he won’t back candidates who don’t support new gun regulations — gave Strickland his endorsement. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama’s gun policy litmus test “gave candidates the capacity to change their mind.” The endorsement is pragmatic: Democratic strategists think that Strickland has the strongest chance of beating incumbent Republican Senator Rob Portman in a general election that could decide which party holds the Senate majority next year.  

Sittenfeld takes at least partial credit for Strickland’s “election-year conversion.”

“I don’t think you would have heard a peep out of him if not for our making this an issue,” he told The Trace.

Strickland’s campaign refutes that charge, noting that he publicly called for reconsideration of the country’s gun laws as long ago as 2012, following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But the very fact that the insurgent Democrat is attacking the favored candidate for his less-than-perfect record on the issue is a window into how the politics of guns are changing.

More than ever before, Democrats agree on strengthening gun laws. In the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, like Strickland, has faced attacks for his past support for gun-friendly laws, rather than for his current views, which mostly align with those of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton’s criticism of Sanders, like Sittenfeld’s of Strickland, reflects a shift in the identity of the Democratic Party. Voters who for a decade encouraged the party to make room for pro-gun politicians are by and large no longer Democrats. Strickland won the Ohio governorship in 2006 — when he boasted an A+ rating from the NRA — with strong support from rural, blue collar voters. But he can’t rely on these voters to elect him to the Senate this year. He needs a more urban, white collar coalition, such as those that gave President Obama key wins in the state and elected the unabashedly liberal Sherrod Brown to the state’s other Senate seat.

“Strickland has changed his tune on guns to fit his electorate,” said Kyle Kondick, the Managing Editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, who is writing a book on Ohio’s significant role in presidential races. “His path to victory in 2016 looks different than it did when he was running for the House” in 1992.

Ted Strickland. (Photo: Flickr user Dana Beveridge)

A decade ago, Strickland, who was raised in southern Ohio, epitomized a breed of gun-friendly politicians Democrats recruited in swing states and districts as party strategists looking to pick up or hold seats happily downplayed the issue. “Democrats in Ohio, just like Democrats nationally, tried to triangulate on guns in the 2000s,” said Kondik. “They needed to expand their base beyond Northeast Ohio and the state’s big cities, so they targeted Appalachia, where Strickland is from. Being pro-gun was helpful to them in that region.”

President Obama’s electoral coalitions, combined with lawmakers’ movement into more clearly defined partisan camps, altered the electoral calculus on guns.

The Democratic Party is now comprised of more women, minorities, college graduates, and urban and suburban voters than it was in past cycles. All of those demographics are apt to support gun restrictions. A poll last month found that 82 percent of Democrats support stricter gun laws. That’s up from 70 percent in December 2013.

For its part, the GOP has become more male, white, blue collar and rural, factors that make the average party member more likely to favor fewer gun restrictions. In Ohio, as in other states, the kind of countryside district from which Strickland hails has tilted increasingly Republican under Obama — who managed to win the state by running up big margins in and around Ohio’s cities. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to be victorious in Hamilton County, which includes Sittenfeld’s Cincinnati.

Other opinion surveys drive home how little room remains in either party for apostates on gun policy. A Pew Research Center poll last year asked respondents if it’s more important to “protect the right of Americans to own guns or to control gun ownership.” Seventy percent of non-white voters — a pillar of today’s Democratic base — favored gun control. Seventy-one percent of white men without college degrees — a key bloc of Republican votes — favored gun rights.

“There seems to be a clearer partisan split on guns than perhaps at any time in American history,” Kondik said. “It’s almost reminiscent of what happened to the parties on abortion as pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans become increasingly rare.”

That split looks primed to only widen as long as Democrats deploy gun reform as a wedge issue in primary races, even in swing districts. In February, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times each bypassed former Democratic congressman Brad Schneider and instead endorsed Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering for the March 15 primary battle, citing Rotering’s commitment to tougher gun laws, which has included signing a local assault weapons ban that’s drawn federal lawsuits. The winner will take on incumbent Republican Bob Dold, who is hardly an NRA stalwart, having earned a D grade from the gun group. The election is expected to be one of the most hotly contested House races this year.

Democrats’ increased consensus on guns also shows up where fellow party members who might once have sparred over the issue instead stand aligned on it. Florida congressman Patrick Murphy is a former Republican running against Representative Alan Grayson in their state’s Senate primary. Giving no ground on gun reform to his more progressive foe, Murphy heartily supported Obama’s package of executive actions on gun safety, and now claims Obama’s blessing in the race.

A similar story played out on the national stage when Bernie Sanders last month reversed his prior support for giving gun makers and sellers immunity from lawsuits resulting from crimes committed with weapons they sell. He has similarly parried Clinton’s attacks on his votes against the Brady Bill by citing his 2013 support for a measure closing what critics call loopholes in the law.

When he represented Ohio in the House, Strickland tended to vote with Sanders on guns: He opposed the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban and was among those voting in favor of broad legal protections for gunmakers. As governor, Strickland signed a controversial “castle doctrine” law that allows homeowners to use lethal force against intruders and pledged that under his watch, “no anti-gun bill will ever pass in Ohio.” In 2010, during a reelection bid that he would wind up losing to John Kasich, Strickland aired an ad that featured multiple shots of him in camouflage hunting gear, holding a rifle. The ad’s narrator attacked Kasich for voting for an assault weapons ban.

This year, Strickland is taking the opposite tack. “The only candidate in this race who doesn’t support common sense background checks and closing the terrorist gun loophole is Senator Rob Portman,” spokesman David Bergstein told The Trace. Strickland now supports stronger federal background check laws and barring the purchase of guns by anyone on a federal terrorism watch list. (It’s not yet known how much those positions will hurt his NRA rating, since the gun group has not graded any of the Democrats running for Ohio’s Senate seat this year.)

Strickland’s reversal leaves Sittenfeld hammering the ex-governor’s former positions and stressing specific differences in their broadly shared views: Strickland says he might back a new federal assault weapons ban if its provisions were more enforceable than the old law’s easily surmounted language. Sittenfeld said he “would absolutely support” reinstating the ban signed by President Bill Clinton, which expired in 2004.

“Look at his record over his entire career,” Sittenfeld said. “For those that care about gun safety and saving the lives of families, let’s not take any chances, let’s have people who would be rock solid on the issue.”

With the primary less than two weeks away, Sittenfeld has yet to see that message propel him into contention.

Public Policy Polling last month found that 61 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in Ohio supported Strickland. Sittenfeld and a third candidate, Kelli Prather, each drew 10 percent. A more recent poll found most that a majority of Ohio Democrats don’t know who Sittenfeld is, a deficit that the upstart is trying to close with advertising that recently included a campaign video featuring the actor Jonathan Banks, known for his role as Mike Ehrmantraut in the TV series “Breaking Bad.”

Sittenfeld remains confident, despite the tall odds. “I’m a good fit for this moment,” he said.

[Photo: Courtney Hergesheimer/The Columbus Dispatch via AP]