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The strategy was pretty clear from the start.
Pick a fight in a place where you have a substantial advantage and where almost nobody else is playing, dump a ton of money attacking one candidate and supporting another, and then declare victory when — surprise! surprise! — your candidate wins.
That is what happened in the special election in Illinois’ 2nd District, where Democrats held a primary Tuesday that was tantamount to selecting the district’s next member of Congress. The seat is open because Democrat Jesse L. Jackson Jr. resigned.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC, Independence USA, spent $2.5 million against the candidacy of former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who had received high ratings from the National Rifle Association while in office, and in favor of former Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly, a former state representative.
Halvorson spent little cash, and although she began with an advantage in the race because of name recognition, she was simply overwhelmed by Bloomberg’s money and messaging, much of which centered on gun control issues.
In addition to her own strong fundraising, Kelly was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, Illinois Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Danny K. Davis, Mike Quigley and Bobby L. Rush, the Service Employees International Union, Daily Kos and Democracy for America.
Oddly, Politico referred to the outcome as a “major win for Bloomberg,” even though the newspaper also noted the mayor’s political action committee “swamped the underfunded ex-congresswoman.”
Before the ink was dry on the results, Independence USA PAC was out with a “media advisory” announcing a Wednesday morning event that would allegedly show how it had “worked to level the playing field with the NRA through a robust direct mail and television ad campaign.”
In a statement released after it was clear that Kelly had won, Bloomberg called the result “the latest sign that voters across the country are demanding change from their representatives in Washington — not business as usual. As Congress considers the President’s gun package, voters in Illinois have sent a clear message: we need common sense gun legislation now. Now it’s up to Washington to act.”
In fact, if there was any message delivered it was from Democratic primary voters in the 2nd District of Illinois, which voted 80.7 percent for President Barack Obama in 2012, according to Daily Kos. The primary result said nothing about voters outside the 2nd District or about “voters across the country.” Nor did it say what “common sense gun legislation” actually is.
There certainly is plenty of polling showing that Americans favor more restrictions on gun ownership, including background checks and limits on the size of ammunition magazines. February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found 61 percent of respondents saying that laws covering the sale of firearms should be “more strict.”
But while Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York has indicated that his party plans on making “reducing gun violence” a major issue in the 2014 elections, it’s far from clear that voters will cast their midterm ballots based primarily or even to a significant extent on gun issues. And, if they do, it isn’t even clear whether those motivated by the issue will be on the gun control or the gun-owner-rights side of the issue.
The same poll that found the public favoring more restrictions on guns also found the NRA with virtually the same image as (actually, slightly better than) the Democratic Party.
While 42 percent of respondents had a favorable image of the NRA and 34 percent had an unfavorable one, 41 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party and 36 percent had an unfavorable one.
Talk of more gun control is more likely to resonate with voters as a top-tier issue in urban and suburban areas than in rural areas, but most of the representatives in and around major urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest and far West already are Democrats who support more gun control.
It’s possible, of course, that Republicans from urban and suburban districts, including Reps. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, Patrick Meehan and Jim Gerlach in the Philadelphia suburbs, or Michael G. Grimm in New York City and Peter T. King on Long Island, could have additional problems because of the issue.
But it is far too soon to know whether the issue will have legs six months from now, let alone more than a year and a half from now. That certainly depends on whether there are other high-profile shootings over the next 20 months and whether other issues for swing voters will overshadow guns.
Bloomberg, who gets kid glove treatment from reporters and commentators who would be skewering the Koch Brothers or George Soros for doing the same thing that the mayor has done with his money, will need to do a lot more than help the winning candidate in a Chicago-area Democratic primary before he has the right to claim that he has transformed American politics.
For now, the Illinois race tells us precious little about the effect of gun control in 2014 or about the midterm elections in general.
Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).