A BuzzFlash Guest Commentary
When It Comes To Political Campaigns, The NRA's Bark Is Lot Worse Than Its Bite
by Joseph P. Sudbay, Political Director, Violence Prevention Campaign
May 24, 2002
Where are all the pro-gun pundits now? Last week, with the news that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was going to launch an ad campaign against gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, pundits were predicting that the primary race was going to tighten up and probably result in Rendell's defeat. FoxNews.com ran an article, featured prominently on the NRA's web page, titled "Pa. Democratic Primary Focuses on Guns." On May 16, 2001, five days before the primary, one Pennsylvania paper, The Morning Call, featured a story titled, "NRA ads could help give Casey the edge, political analysts say." Instead, Rendell thumped the NRA-backed candidate, Bob Casey, by a wider than expected margin: 56 percent to 44 percent. This in a state where the NRA boasts membership that is second only to California. But looking back, the NRA claimed they would deliver Pennsylvania for Bush too in 2000-but they didn't. However, there will be virtually no commentary that the gun issue worked for Rendell because it defies the prevailing "conventional" political wisdom.
Take a look at another state the NRA promised to deliver to Bush: Michigan. According to polling, the NRA's work on behalf of Bush helped Gore win the state. The Christian Science Monitor reported on November 2, 2000, "In Michigan...message-mongers also need to consider the law of unintended consequences. The pro-gun lobby, backed by actor Charlton Heston, has worked hard to peel votes from the traditionally Democratic union membership. But, says independent Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus, Mr. Heston is hurting Bush, because he's reminding Republican women about guns -- and 3 of 5 Republican women agree with the Democratic position favoring greater gun control." The press focused enormous attention on Gore's reluctance to discuss the gun issue, but largely ignored the same tactic from the pro-gun Governor of Texas. The polling in Michigan shows clearly why Bush also avoided the gun issue.
This year in Illinois, Congressman Rod Blagojevich won the Democratic primary for Governor. He did not win his home city of Chicago, nor his home county, Cook. Instead, Blagojevich won because of the wide margin he secured in downstate Illinois. Another contender, Paul Vallas, banked on a campaign message that presumed downstate voters would not support Blagojevich because of his strong gun control record. Vallas, who also had a strong gun control record, tried to shift the debate downstate by attacking the record of Blagojevich on guns. Vallas touted his endorsement from the former pro-gun congressman, and the Democrat's losing candidate for governor in 1998, Glenn Poshard. Blagojevich accused Vallas of running like "Sarah Brady in Chicago and Charlton Heston in the Southern Part of the state." But, when the votes were counted, Blagjojevich beat Vallas in the Southern, pro-gun region of Illinois.
According to news reports, Poshard repeatedly stated that gun control was the issue that cost him the election in 1998. Indeed, pro-gun control Republican Governor George Ryan did use Poshard's pro-gun record against him in 1998. In Illinois, the political reality is that winning statewide candidates -- both Democrats and Republicans -- must take pro-gun control positions.
In New Jersey, often defined as the quintessential suburban state, the gun control issue was one of the key reasons for the defeat of Republican Brett Schundler who lost badly to Democrat Jim McGreevey in the 2001 gubernatorial race. Almost every analysis of the contest mentioned gun control as one of the defining issues in the race that led to McGreevey's huge margin of victory. Schundler is a textbook case of misunderstanding the power of the gun issue in a state with a strong bipartisan history of gun control.
In the Republican primary in June 2001, Schundler cast his lot with the gun lobby, offering support for one of the NRA's top agenda items: a law allowing almost anyone to carry a handgun in public. Polls in New Jersey have consistently shown strong support for strict gun control laws. Both McGreevey and gun control activists, led by Ceasefire New Jersey, constantly reminded the public of Schundler's position. Schundler repeatedly tried to back away from his pro-gun positions, but to no avail. The gun issue was a predominant factor in the candidate debates and in campaign advertising, and helped propel McGreevey to victory.
In California, the campaign of Gray Davis is quite happy to face the strongly pro-gun Bill Simon in the race for governor. Simon is trying to avoid the gun issue during the campaign but, like New Jersey, his record will work against him.
Even before these races, pundits ignored the role that the gun issue played in the defeat of pro-gun Senate candidates in Michigan, Missouri, Washington, and Florida in the 2000 elections. One of the biggest surprises from the elections was the even Senate, which was brought about by the defeat of five of the NRA's top seven candidates.
Democrats are running from the gun issue, taking their cues from Senator
Zell Miller (D-GA). But what the NRA wants is a Republican controlled
Senate -- a goal they laid out at their annual meeting in Reno, shortly
before Senator Miller toasted them at the members' banquet. What Democrats
don't seem to understand is that the NRA has become a pillar of the conservative,
right-wing movement. Make no mistake, the NRA wants to elect Republicans.
They want a Republican Senate and they want Tom "This House is a
pro-gun House" DeLay to keeping running that body. By incorrectly
imputing omnipotence to the NRA, the reality is that the right wing, and
by extension, the GOP, benefits.
Finally the Democrats should remember that the NRA poured millions of dollars into the 2000 campaign, but the top four recipients of their funds lost the popular vote. Ashcroft lost to a dead man, Spencer Abraham lost to a living woman, and George W. Bush lost the popular vote by 540,000 votes. Of the NRA's top four recipient of campaign funds in 2000, only George Allen of Virginia won -- and he had to compromise his pro-gun position even in Virginia.
It's time for the Democrats to understand that the bullying bark of the NRA is contradicted by their losing performance at the ballot box.
Democratic Primary Focuses on Guns
Gains Momentum in Pennsylvania
Wins Nomination With Huge Vote in Region
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