The 2016 election cycle has marked a turning point in the politics of guns. In the wake of deadly mass shootings in Charleston, San Bernardino, and Orlando, and rising homicide rates in cities across the country, candidates have jumped to show their commitment to gun reform rather than retreating from the issue. Gun violence prevention PACs have become significant political players by doling out endorsements and spending millions on candidates and ballot initiatives. In a rare turn, a prominent Republican Senator has argued that he is better prepared to pass tighter firearms restrictions than his Democratic opponent.
Momentum on the reform side has unleashed serious opposition from the National Rifle Association. The powerful gun rights group has spent more than $50 million in independent expenditures (which includes advertisements and mailers supporting allies and tearing down foes, rather than money give directly to a campaign) on federal elections this year, torching its previous spending record, set in 2014, by $20 million.
Can campaigning on promises to close loopholes help propel gun safety candidates to victory in close contests? Will droves of pro-gun voters reaffirm the old conventional wisdom about the electoral risk of baiting the NRA?
Come Election Day, here are the burning questions that will be answered about the races where gun issues stand to play the most consequential roles.
New Hampshire: Senate
Will gun reform groups show Republicans that there’s a price for voting against background checks?
Gun safety advocates hope to claim credit for helping oust Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who voted against a bill expanding background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Two gun violence prevention groups have poured money into the small state: Americans for Responsible Solutions and Independence PAC, a political action committee funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have combined to spend more than $7.5 million attacking Ayotte and boosting her challenger, Governor Maggie Hassan.
Ayotte’s defeat would highlight the new danger of standing athwart gun violence prevention groups and throw doubt into the assumption that siding with the National Rifle Association is always good politics for Republican office seekers. Until late October, the NRA had spent nothing to support Ayotte — who pivoted toward the center on gun policy amid a debate over the so-called terror gap this summer — and only $48,000 against her opponent. In the lead up to Election Day, the NRA put another $42,000 into pro-Ayotte postcards, a late sign of the importance the increasingly partisan group puts on maintaining Republican control of the Senate.
One analysis suggests that voter preferences on both sides of the gun issue run strong: According to Clarity Campaign Labs, which models attitudes based on polling and voter files, 15 percent of registered New Hampshire voters are very likely to support stronger gun laws, while 29 percent are very unlikely to do so — higher numbers on both ends of the spectrum than are found in other states with tight Senate races.
The race between Ayotte and Hassan enters its final days in a dead heat. How much credit either the NRA or reform groups can claim for the outcome may be complicated by the giant shadow that the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has cast over the entire 2016 election. Ayotte’s refusal to disavow Trump seems to inflict more acute damage to her standing with voters than her resistance to gun control.
Will support of gun reform help a conservative Republican seem just moderate enough to win reelection in a swing state?
The fate of the Senate could hang in the balance in this extremely competitive race in Pennsylvania, where incumbent Republican Pat Toomey earned the endorsement of two major gun reform groups after bucking GOP orthodoxy on guns. Either way, the outcome will have serious repercussions for the gun-reform movement, indicating how much room the coalition has for bipartisanship in a polarized era. Toomey, a conservative who co-sponsored the high-profile background check bill debated in the Senate following Sandy Hook, is counting on his moderate stance on guns to tip the scales in his favor. To hold onto his seat, he needs to out-perform Trump, who’s been lagging in statewide polls. One way he can do that is to win among women who could well be galvanized by the issue: In three crucial swing counties in the state, independent female voters are likely to support stricter gun laws, per Clarity’s data.
After Pennsylvania’s spring primaries, in which Toomey went unchallenged, the Senator had a healthy seven-point lead over Democrat Katie McGinty, a vocal supporter of gun reform who touts her own endorsements from local and national gun reform groups. The margin started to narrow in June, and, four days before Election Day, the race is leaning in McGinty’s favor: She’s ahead of Toomey by almost four points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg has spent $2.3 million to re-elect Toomey, who seems to be one of few Republicans the NRA would not mind seeing defeated. The group hasn’t donated anything to Toomey’s cause, and instead docked his rating from an A to a C.
Can a late-breaking focus on guns unseat a former presidential contender?
Florida Senator Marco Rubio jumped into his race for re-election, he said this summer, because of the deadly rampage at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. For months leading up to his decision, the senator had vowed to sit out the campaign, and the gambit nearly cost Republicans a Senate seat — and possibly control of the chamber. Now that he’s in, the NRA has spent nearly $2 million to bolster his prospects.
Rubio’s vulnerability on the issue comes from votes he made after the June mass shooting, when he sided against Democratic and bipartisan measures that would have barred people on the federal no-fly list from purchasing guns and expanded background checks for gun purchases. In September, a backtracking Rubio introduced his own terror-gap fix. Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy has responded to the move by ramping up efforts to paint Rubio’s pledged commitment to the issue as a “sham,” featuring the mother of a Pulse victim in an emotional ad and hammering him for taking money from the gun lobby.
Florida’s independent voters view gun reform more favorably than their counterparts in some other swing states: 48 percent of them are likely to support stricter gun laws, according to the Clarity model. ARS has endorsed Murphy, saying he would be “a strong voice” for its cause in the Senate, and the group’s founders, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, launched a gun safety bus tour in Florida in another signal of the state’s battle status in the gun safety debate. What Murphy’s been missing is money from the gun reform camp, which hasn’t spent money on the race, targeting a congressional contest outside of Orlando instead. Rubio has held a steady lead since launching his re-election bid, though he was ahead by only 3 percentage points on Friday, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
North Carolina: Presidential, Senate
In its most expensive congressional race, can the NRA eek out a win? And will its barrage of ads aid Trump, too?
Barely a week before Election Day, Republican Senator Richard Burr joked whether gun owners might want to put a “bullseye” on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Condemnation was quick, and Burr issued an apology shortly after the private remarks came to light. But the stumble was just the latest for an incumbent thought to be a safe bet against his Democratic challenger, Deborah Ross. Alarmed, the NRA has pouring more than $6 million into the race, its all-time high on a Senate fight. More than 90 percent of that money has gone to attacking Ross’s record on firearms issues. “Ross voted for gun control and against your right to self-defense,” a September spot claimed. Data shows that such messages may find a receptive audience in North Carolina: Of all the presidential swing states, it has the lowest average score of probable support for stronger gun laws, according to Clarity. Top gun-reform groups haven’t spent any money in the contest, but despite the chasm in spending, Burr has lost ground. The latest polling puts the race in toss-up territory.
In the presidential campaign, Clinton leads Trump in most North Carolina polling, and, more crucially, in the state’s early voting. Victory for her here could leave her rival with few ways to win the electoral college — and deal a blow to gun rights groups’ claims of mobilization muscle.
North Carolina is one of three states, along with Ohio and Pennsylvania, to receive the lion’s share of the record-breaking $30 million that the NRA has thrown at this year’s White House race. About one in every nine presidential ads aired in the state are paid for by the group.
Can the NRA take advantage of sympathetic voters to deny a former Senator a comeback?
When former senator and governor Evan Bayh unexpectedly jumped into the race for Indiana’s open Senate seat in July, Democrats were hopeful that he could swing control of the Senate in their direction. Bayh’s high name ID in the state gave him a commanding lead in early polls, but in the months since, outside groups have poured money into defeating him and boosting his opponent, Republican Representative Todd Young. The NRA has directed more than $2.5 million of its war chest to the race, running a slate of ads slamming Bayh’s pro-gun reform positions, such as his Senate vote to extend President Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban. The NRA knows its audience: Per the Clarity model, Indiana voters tend not to support stricter gun laws. Days before the election, Bayh’s 20-point lead has evaporated, leaving the race in a virtual tie and setting the NRA up to assert its potency by pointing to its role in upending a popular veteran politician who some pundits had regarded as a sure thing.
Can a young military veteran topple a gun-friendly veteran Senator?
For most of the Missouri Senate race, Roy Blunt wasn’t worried about getting re-elected. The senator, who’s been in Washington for nearly two decades, held a steady five-point lead through the summer and early fall. Then his Democratic challenger, 35-year-old military veteran and former state Secretary of State Jason Kander, released a memorable ad in which he talked about gun rights while putting together an AR-15 rifle — blindfolded. Though the narration of the dramatic ad confirmed Kander’s support of gun reform, the visuals told a story of a politician deeply comfortable with firearms themselves and seem to have mollified the deepest fears of gun owning residents in a state where, according to Clarity, 60 out of every 100 registered voters aren’t likely to support tighter gun laws. In the latest polling, the Blunt and Kander are neck and neck.
The NRA has spent nearly $3 million on the race, most of which has gone to attacking Kander, whom the group stamped with a failing rating, despite his record that looks more like a C: earlier in his career, Kander voted in favor of lowering the minimum age for gun carrying, but against legislation that would have cut back other restrictions. Americans for Responsible Solutions has applauded Kander, saying that he would “stand up to the Washington gun lobby.”
In an otherwise unremarkable Senate race, will NRA money be more potent than a gun reform endorsement? And will the NRA find its ballot referendum firewall?
The retirement of Minority Leader Harry Reid gives the GOP its only chance to flip a Senate seat to red. But the party’s candidate, Representative Joe Heck, has found it difficult to both denounce Donald Trump and mollify his base, many of whom support the Republican nominee. Heck, who has an A rating from the NRA, is in a dead heat with Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the state’s former attorney general. The powerful gun rights group has spent $2.5 million on the race. Meanwhile, in August, ARS gave Cortez Masto a full-throated endorsement, calling her “the best person in this race to fight for the responsible steps we need.” Of all registered independent voters in the state, just under half are likely to support stricter gun laws, according to Clarity.
Nevada voters will also decide whether or not to expand gun background checks in the state via an increasingly hard-fought ballot measure. Everytown for Gun Safety has spent $13 million backing the initiative, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the group’s founder, has added $3 million of his own money, accounting for the lion’s share of the $17.5 million spent on measure. (Everytown provides seed funding to The Trace.) Opponents have raised $4.9 million, nearly all of it provided by the National Rifle Association. Voter surveys show a tightening contest: A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll released at the end of October found that 54 percent of voters backed the initiative, with 38 percent opposed and 8 percent undecided.
Early voting in Nevada, where Reid’s machine remains formidable, shows ballots from Democrats outpacing those cast by Republicans — a hopeful sign for backers of the background check measure, who expect the vote on the ballot measure to track the results of the presidential and Senate races in the state.
Will deep-pocketed gun reformers be able to preserve their polling lead?
Mainers appear likely to approve a ballot initiative requiring background checks for all gun sales, though the measure’s polling advantage has shrunk to 52 percent — from 61 percent a month earlier — as opposition climbed to 43 percent in recent polling. The measure would close what critics call a loophole that allows buyers to dodge background checks if they purchase a gun through an online sale or at a gun show.
Led by $5.2 million from by Everytown for Gun Safety (which provides seed funding to The Trace), supporters of the initiative have outspent opponents at a ratio of five to one. Through the end of September, the NRA had put $420,000 into trying to block the initiative and indicated it would not be spending more, before reversing itself with a late spurt that has brought its total outlay to nearly $1 million. Backers of the measure have promoted it as a sensible, bipartisan fix that voters from both parties can get onboard with. But an expensive congressional race, coupled with Trump’s active campaigning for a single electoral vote from Maine’s northern district, has cast the ballot question into “a partisan frame” where support and opposition mirrors party identification, according to David Farmer, who heads the effort to pass the initiative.
Could a former NRA ally’s loss deter other Democrats from embracing gun reform?
Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, once had an A+ rating from the NRA. Then 20 children and six others were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and he came around to supporting a slew of gun-reform legislation. After President Obama announced he would not endorse any 2016 candidates who didn’t actively support tighter gun laws, Strickland upped the ante and secured Obama’s approval in a primary contest against an upstart Democrat whose insurgent bid featured gun safety as a centerpiece.
The NRA’s response was to make Strickland one of its first targets in the 2016 campaign. In July, the group began financing ads against Strickland to the tune of more than $2 million. Strickland quickly lost his polling advantage against incumbent Rob Portman, a Republican who has consistently voted in the group’s interests. Portman now has a 14-point edge, according to a recent Emerson College poll.
With the race all but decided, the question is what outcome its message will send. In that way, this campaign anticipates the bigger battle that looms for voices on both sides of the gun debate come November 9. The NRA, for its part, is likely to warn allies against following Strickland’s lead. On gun issues, though, Ohio is not a bellwether: Only 41 percent of its voters are likely to support firearm reform, ranking it near the bottom of the swing states where more momentous political fights loom in election years to come.