Three red state Dems flirt with instant political self destruction

As I noted this morning, five key red state Democratic Senators have thus far been unwilling to say whether they support expanding the background check system — the centerpiece of President Obama’s package of gun reforms. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $12 million ad campaign is targeting these Dem Senators — Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan, and Joe Donnelly — and a number of Republicans, too.

In response to my questions, two of these Senators — Donnelly and Heitkamp — have indicated that they are open to the proposal. Donnelly spokesperson Elizabeth Shapelle emails:

Senator Donnelly is open to a bipartisan compromise on background checks, one that helps keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill while protecting our Second Amendment rights.

Asked if this means Senator Donnelly is open to expanding background checks to all private sales (with exceptions like family members), Shappelle replied: “Yes.” That’s good.

Meanwhile, Heitkamp spokesperson Whitney Phillips emails:

Sen. Heitkamp is still reviewing the proposals on the table, she is in North Dakota this week focused on her recess events and hearing from constituents about this issue and the many others facing our state and country.

TPM’s Sahil Kapur also has a response from Hagan spokesperson Christopher Moyer, who says she “could” be willing to “start the conversation” with background checks, as long as they don’t “infringe on the rights of responsible gun owners.” Such courage on the Senator’s part! She might be willing to discuss something that has universal public support! Landrieu’s office will be responding today, I’m told; still nothing but radio silence from Pryor’s office.

By the way, the headline above is meant to be sarcastic, in case that wasn’t obvious. This should not be politically difficult: A recent Post poll found that expanded background checks are supported by nine in 10 Americans, including 87 percent of Republicans.

Surely some would argue that national polling doesn’t really give us a clear picture of the political situation in individual states. That may be true to some extent. But as Ron Brownstein has detailed, one key shift in the last election — which brought us Heitkamp and Donnelly — is that the Dem coalition that elected Obama is more united behind red state Senators than before, meaning they should, in theory, have more of an incentive to support the items on his legislative agenda, even supposedly “controversial” ones (which this isn’t). Ed Kilgore also makes an important point about the larger political context here:

We are in a period where the once-powerful force of red-state Democratic reluctance to make waves on “cultural issues” is waning. There are fewer red-state Dems to worry about, for one thing. For another, voter polarization and reduced ticket-splitting have made the route to survival for red- (and more often, purple-) state Democrats depend more on base mobilization than has been the case in the past.

So let’s be clear about this: Any red state Dems who are reluctant to back this proposal are likely only worried about pressure from the NRA. As it happens, a CBS poll found that 85 percent of people living in NRA households support expanded background checks — putting them at odds with the NRA’s leadership. Yes, the NRA is historically very good at mobilizing even tiny minorities to cow lawmakers. But that is no excuse for any of these red state Dems to cave to such pressure, given the broader realities of public opinion. No more cowardice on this issue. Time to show the courage to stand up to the NRA.

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UPDATE: The statement just in from Senator Mark Pryor:

I don’t take gun advice from the Mayor of New York City. I listen to Arkansans.

Yup, that’s all of it. His office still won’t say whether he supports expanding background checks. Also: Since nine in 10 Americans support this, which Arkansans is he listening to?

UPDATE II: A new statement from Pryor spokesperson Lucy Speed suggests at least an openness to expanding background checks:

Senator Pryor has introduced the bipartisan NICS Reporting Improvement Act of 2013 with Senators Graham (R-SC), Begich (D-AK), and Flake(R-AZ) to update the background check system, and ensure individuals who have been deemed “mentally incompetent” are not able to pass a background check and purchase firearms.  In regards to expanded background checks, he has previously stated that he will spend the next couple of weeks listening to Arkansans not New Yorkers.

 UPDATE III: Here’s the statement from Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for Senator Mary Landrieu:

Sen. Landrieu has a strong record of support for the Second Amendment. As Congress looks for responsible ways to address gun violence in America, she believes we must also protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners. She looks forward to working with law enforcement officials, who want to see additional precautions taken to keep weapons and handguns out of the hands of criminals.

So Landrieu recognizes that law enforcement officials want expanded background checks, but she’s still unwilling to say whether she can support them.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jamelle Bouie | March 25, 2013