I don’t say this lightly — I’ve been writing about the gun issue for years, and though I’ve long argued that the the NRA’s power to punish its enemies and reward its friends at the ballot box is a myth, it’s extremely rare for Republicans to actually lose elections because of the gun issue. But a confluence of events and critical timing could make 2016 different. Most surprising of all, there’s even a remote but real possibility that Congress could pass a gun control measure in 2017.
In the wake of the shooting in Orlando, Democrats are now pushing two separate ideas, both of which have failed to make it through Congress before. The first would make it easier for the federal government to stop gun sales to those who have been investigated for terrorism, which we’re going to put aside for the moment. The second proposal is universal background checks, which would extend those checks to private sales that today don’t require them, closing the “private seller loophole.”
It’s long been a source of wonder that in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre when 20 elementary school children were gunned down, and with polls showing support for the measure running at 90 percent (including huge majorities of gun owners), Congress still couldn’t pass universal background checks. If it didn’t happen then, why could it happen now? The answer is that timing is everything.
The Sandy Hook massacre took place in December of 2012. When Congress began to debate the Manchin-Toomey bill that included background checks, it was 2013. The election to which lawmakers were looking forward was the 2014 off-year election. Everyone knew that, with a Democratic president, it was going to be another big year for Republicans, since their voters are more likely to turn out in non-presidential years than Democratic voters are. So one of the big questions was how vulnerable Democrats from Republican-leaning states, who had been elected in the 2008 Obama wave, were going to vote.
In the end, the bill had a 54-46 majority, not enough to overcome the Republicans’ filibuster. Among the Democrats who voted for it were Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, both of whom lost their re-election bids that November. Four Democrats opposed it: the retiring Max Baucus, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Heidi Heitkamp of South Dakota. Begich and Pryor lost that year, too, while Heitkamp isn’t up for reelection until 2018. And on the Republican side, only Pat Toomey (the bill’s co-sponsor), John McCain, Susan Collins, and Mark Kirk voted in favor.
It’s unclear exactly how much of an impact their votes had on the campaigns of Hagan, Landrieu, Begich, and Pryor. But you can bet that facing an electorate they knew was going to be stacked against them, the vote weighed on their minds.
Now let’s think about the current environment. The senators up for re-election this year came into office in the tea party wave of 2010, which is why Republicans are defending many more seats than Democrats. The most vulnerable Republicans are those from Democratic-leaning states, who now have to face a presidential-year electorate that will be much more tilted to Democratic voters than it was when they got elected the first time. They’ll also be carrying the weight of their party’s presidential nominee behind them.
Those vulnerable senators are the following, in rough order of how likely they already are to lose in November: Mark Kirk (IL), Ron Johnson (WI), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Rob Portman (OH), and Pat Toomey (PA). If Marco Rubio decides to run again, you can put him in there too. Ayotte, Johnson, and Portman all voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill in 2013. Do you think their Democratic opponents are going to make an issue out of that? Oh yes they will.
In fact, even before Orlando, Ayotte was running ads claiming to be a background check supporter, when what she actually backed was an NRA-approved alternative to Manchin-Toomey, one that was about as meaningful as you’d expect. Portman now says he’s open to restricting sales to people probed for terrorism, but his campaign web site goes on in some length about his opposition to universal background checks. Johnson has suggested there might be a possible compromise on gun sales and the terror watch list, but he hasn’t changed his position on background checks, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Democrats to criticize him on that. Kirk is almost certain to lose anyway.
And Pat Toomey? Well, if Toomey does survive when other Republicans lose, many people will say that his high-profile advocacy for background checks was an important reason. If you combine that with defeats of other Republicans, you could see an entirely new conventional wisdom take shape, one that says that the electoral landscape on guns has shifted. Now it’s Republicans who are on the defensive, because of their doctrinaire opposition to even measures that nine out of ten Americans support.
There is a scenario in which even the NRA’s lock on Congress — which, unlike their alleged electoral potency, is real — could be broken. It’s possible (even if it’s a longshot) that the Democrats could take control of the House in an anti-Trump sweep to go with their (much more likely) win in the Senate. Passing something like background checks would require overcoming a filibuster, which is not likely at all. But it’s also possible that, in the face of broad and increasingly maddening filibuster abuse, Democrats could decide to get rid of the procedure altogether. That would be a momentous move, but it isn’t out of the question. And if they did, they could pass a background check bill for President Hillary Clinton to sign.
Yes, a lot of pieces would have to fall into place for that to happen. But even if it doesn’t, chances are we’ll come out of this election with a bunch of senators having paid a price for their alliance with the NRA, and everyone will know it. That in itself would be a major change.