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Five Races in Which the Gun Debate Matters

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The murder of more than two dozen people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has catapulted the gun control issue back into the spotlight, leaving some members especially vulnerable in the upcoming election cycle.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., the politics of gun control turned upside down — or so the proponents of increased firearms regulations would like to believe. The reality, however, is the issue appears likely to affect only a handful of congressional contests this cycle.

Because of recent redistricting and partisan wave elections, Congress is filled with fewer rural Democrats and suburban Republicans — the members who find themselves in the most uncomfortable political position on guns in light of President Barack Obama’s call to revive the federal assault weapons ban. Still, Democrats argue that suburban Republicans, specifically those from greater Philadelphia, are especially vulnerable on gun control issues.

Gun control advocacy groups appear to be on offense in most of the races in which the gun control debate could matter. Additionally, one major unknown factor is where pro-gun-control New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might spend super PAC money to boost or defeat federal candidates.

The National Rifle Association, the strongest of the pro-Second Amendment organizations, declined to discuss its 2014 electoral outlook, saying it was “premature” to do so when no congressional votes on the issue had even been scheduled.

This is CQ Roll Call’s analysis at this early point in the cycle of the top races where gun control could affect the political atmosphere and the outcome.

Colorado’s 6th District

Rep. Mike Coffman’s biggest political problem is the fact that the 2012 redraw of the Colorado map transformed his once-safe GOP district into a swing seat. Additionally, the suburban Denver 6th District he represents now includes Aurora, the site of last summer’s movie theater mass shooting. That could pose a problem and a dilemma for Coffman, who has an “A” rating from the NRA.

The Aurora shooting did not have a noticeable effect on Coffman’s 2012 re-election. But Democrats and victims groups are organizing around the gun control issue. And a big difference could be his opponent: At least one possible Democratic challenger is state Rep. Rhonda Fields, whose son and his fiancee were shot and killed in 2005. Fields has earned praise for her gun control advocacy.

Republicans counter that the state has suffered a massacre before — the Columbine school shooting back in 1999 — and there was very little political fallout for pro-gun-rights elected officials in Colorado. However, Coffman appears to be treading lightly on the issue since the December shootings in Newtown.

Illinois’ 2nd District (Special Election)

Even before Sandy Hook, gun control was an issue in the race to replace former Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. Gun violence has been an epidemic in this Chicago district for years, and gun control has become a dominant issue of the race.

The 2nd District includes some rural areas. But the urban population drives the district’s politics. Former state Rep. Robin Kelly and Alderman Anthony Beale have sought to paint themselves as the candidate most in favor of gun control in the Democratic primary that will determine Jackson’s successor.

“Unlike my opponents Debbie Halvorson and Toi Hutchinson, who both received support from the NRA, I got an F rating and frankly, I could not be more proud,” Kelly wrote in a statement last week.

Halvorson, a former congresswoman, represented a more conservative district in one term in Congress and is vulnerable on this front. Hutchinson, a state senator, has a similarly conservative record on gun rights. Like most special elections, primary turnout is expected to be low. Anything can happen, but Kelly and Beale are betting on gun control advocacy to pull her through.

Massachusetts Senate (Special Election)

Former Sen. Scott P. Brown is not yet even a candidate to succeed Democratic Sen. John Kerry, and Democrats are already seeking to tie him to the NRA.

“If Scott Brown decides to run, then he is going to have a difficult time explaining to Massachusetts voters why the gun lobby donated more to him than any other Senator in the country,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter wrote in an email, citing an analysis on the website GoLocalWorcester.com. National Democrats have widely circulated numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics that show Brown was the top Senate recipient of money from gun rights groups. He received $30,000 from those groups in 2012.

Painting Brown as a hard-line anti-gun-control crusader could be a hard sell, though, especially because in 2012 he had Bloomberg’s backing.

“As a state legislator in Massachusetts I supported an assault- weapons ban, thinking other states would follow suit. But unfortunately, they have not, and innocent people are being killed. As a result, I support a federal assault-weapons ban, perhaps like the legislation we have in Massachusetts,” he said to the Springfield Republican right after the Connecticut shootings.

As The Hill reported Jan. 18, Brown’s reversal on an assault weapons ban could jeopardize his NRA endorsement. It would mean the loss of tens of thousands of dollars of support. But losing the NRA’s endorsement could help Brown politically if he runs in the special.

New Jersey Senate

As long as Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg seeks re-election, one can expect gun rights to be central to this race.

Lautenberg is one of the Senate’s top gun control advocates — talking about it for years when most Democrats didn’t want to touch it — and the issue has been central to his career.

Lautenberg can be expected to attack Newark Mayor Cory Booker from the left on the issue in a Democratic primary, and he has already used Twitter to ding Booker. In addition, an unnamed Lautenberg aide complained to Buzzfeed last week that Booker was praising Lautenberg’s gun control legislation without due credit.

There are also complaints that Booker’s rhetoric on the issue does not match the anti-gun sentiment of New Jersey Democrats.

Speculation swirls around whether the 89-year-old incumbent will retire. If major progress is made on the issue in the first part of this Congress, it could help ease his decision — knowing the legacy he leaves behind. But as long as Lautenberg’s name is on the ballot, gun control will matter.

Conservative House Democrats

Republicans say that even if Democrats such as Reps. John Barrow of Georgia, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina maintain pro-Second Amendment voting records, the nationalization of the issue puts them in an uncomfortable position in conservative districts.

Some Democrats argue the gun issue allows an opportunity for members in more conservative districts to differentiate themselves from the national brand. But at least one Democratic strategist has concerns.

Candidates such as Barrow might not have as much success in 2014 brandishing firearms in television commercials. That strategist feared such tactics could come off as “tone deaf” and alienate white female suburban voters. And, sure enough, one group has already sought to turn Barrow’s 2012 TV ad against him in light of the new gun debate.

Also, there is concern that if guns remain a dominating national issue in 2014, as the health care overhaul did in 2010, it might not even matter what the Democrat’s position is on the Second Amendment if the party is for restrictions.

The argument can be made that all of the senators in tough 2014 races — Mary L. Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Tim Johnson and Kay Hagan among them — are in states that are typically pro-gun-rights. But Democrats are operating under the logic that Senate candidates have an easier time setting themselves apart from national figures such as Obama and the gun issue won’t be catastrophic.

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