Virginia Democrats, faced with tough odds in Tuesday's state legislative elections, have seized on gun control and the fear of another Columbine-type school massacre as their best hope to stem a decade of Republican gains in Northern Virginia and other suburban battlegrounds.
With just days of campaigning left, Democratic strategists have narrowed their list of vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Washington area to four lawmakers who have spent the last few weeks defending themselves on gun votes. A similar pattern has emerged in races in suburban Hampton Roads.
Democratic challengers have used television ads, mailings and rallies to portray Republican incumbents as beholden to the National Rifle Association. Stumping for Northern Virginia Democrats this week were a 16-year-old student from Columbine High School and Jim Brady, perhaps the nation's most visible advocate of gun control since his wounding in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Republicans call several of the ads gross distortions of their records in a region where voters and lawmakers largely agree on the need for some forms of gun control. And they warn there is a backlash among voters unnerved by the exploitation of such an emotional issue, particularly when the differences between candidates are relatively slight.
"Even the Democrats don't believe that Republicans want to arm schoolchildren," said GOP consultant Ray Allen, an adviser to Gov. James S. Gilmore III.
The Democratic strategy reflects both the party's determination to use an issue it believes is winning votes in the suburbs, and the realization that little else is working in a year in which all 140 legislative seats and control of the General Assembly are at stake.
Transportation withered as a Democratic issue after Gilmore announced his own package in August. And education, the Democrats' savior in 1995 legislative elections, has lost its edge now that Republicans are focusing on traditionally Democratic themes such as hiring teachers, shrinking classes and building schools, party leaders acknowledge.
For the Democrats, finding a winning issue couldn't be more urgent. The GOP already controls the state Senate and all three statewide offices, including the governorship. And with the House of Delegates split down the middle, Republicans are confident they can win at least the one seat they need to take control of that chamber for the first time this century.
"I think it's the big issue for the Democrats, their one ace in the hole, their one chance to hang on to something in state government," said political science professor Mark J. Rozell, of Catholic University. Yet it's unclear that gun control is a strong enough issue to swing voters.
"Putting something into law doesn't resolve it," Habib Khan, 61, a former school psychologist from Fairfax, said yesterday. "The bottom line is who's going to enforce the laws."
But Diane Curling, 50, a Reston resident and former teacher whose husband is an assistant principal, said: "Gun control is our number one issue. If push comes to shove, we will be single-issue voters on this at every level, local state and national."
Democratic Party Executive Director Craig K. Bieber said guns are the top issue in six House races statewide. In all but one, they are Democratic challenges of Republican incumbents. Such races are vital to the Democrats, who are defending five open seats, compared with one for the Republicans.
"From my perspective, that is the single issue driving those campaigns," he said. "And it is the reason why Democrats in those districts are gaining traction and are putting themselves in a position to win."
In Northern Virginia, guns are most prominent in the Democratic challenges to Republican Del. James H. Dillard II in central Fairfax County, Del. Roger J. McClure in western Fairfax and Del. Michele B. McQuigg in Prince William County.
All three voted to support a Gilmore proposal to allow students to bring hunting guns to school so long as they have a hunting license and leave the guns locked in their cars. McQuigg and Dillard, blaming a misunderstanding in the initial vote, changed their votes later that same day, helping to kill the proposal.
McClure, who both Republicans and Democrats call the most vulnerable of those three, voted for the Gilmore proposal a second time and also is the region's top recipient of money from the NRA, which has its headquarters in his district.
His opponent, Democrat James E. Mitchell III, called McClure's vote for allowing hunting guns in school parking lots "a boneheaded idea." McClure calls the attacks unfair and points to his vote to make it a felony for a student to bring a gun into a school building. Of Gilmore's proposal to allow hunting guns in cars, McClure said: "This was a minor amendment and was not the heart and soul of our policy against guns in schools. My opponent is focused on this, which is a side issue."
Jim Brady and Handgun Control Inc., the Washington-based group headed by his wife, Sarah, have endorsed both Mitchell and Dillard's Democratic opponent, Eileen Filler-Corn.
Brady blamed Dillard for voting in 1995 to streamline the process for getting a permit to carry concealed weapons--a bill Brady lobbied against in Richmond.
"More guns does not make us safer," Brady said. "If that were true, we'd be the safest nation on Earth."
Dillard said he has mostly supported gun-control bills and called the attacks on him "a stretch." "To mislead the public and say I'm soft on guns is not fair. . . . [Filler-Corn] has no record of her own, so all she can do is poke holes in mine."
State Sen Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax) held a news conference yesterday to defend her position on gun issues. She also accused her Democratic opponent, former U.S. representative Leslie L. Byrne, of being soft on crime.
"Despite literature linking me to the 'radical gun lobby,' I have been willing to stand up to the radical gun lobby and indeed to the governor," Woods told reporters. She said she had voted against allowing guns on school property and had voted to strengthen Virginia's law on carrying a concealed weapon by including a provision for fingerprint checks on permit holders, a provision that was ultimately stripped from the law.
Responding to Woods's attacks, Byrne said she voted in Congress for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that contained tough crime-fighting measures. "My record is as strong an anti-crime record as anyone else's you can name," she said. "It demeans Jane's office for her to make these wild-eyed charges."