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Gun policy gets its biggest political test in the Virginia Beach district that suffered mass shooting

People gather at a memorial near the Virginia Beach municipal center on June 2. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

VIRGINIA BEACH — The ad begins with grainy footage of the municipal building, somber music and a woman’s voice: “May 31 started out like any other day,” Karen Havekost says, then describes walking out of the bathroom at work and seeing a gunman on a rampage that killed 12 people.

She slams her state senator, Republican William R. DeSteph Jr., for failing to “make a difference” on gun violence. The campaign ad — sponsored by DeSteph’s Democratic opponent, Missy Cotter Smasal — has stirred raw feelings in Virginia Beach, where almost everyone seems to know somebody touched by the mass shooting in the municipal building more than four months ago.

The tragedy has elevated gun policy statewide in this pivotal election year for the state legislature, with voters calling it the top overall issue in a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll. No candidate is pressing the topic more than Cotter Smasal, who thinks outrage over the mass shooting in her city will be key in turning a red-leaning district blue on Nov. 5.

Poll finds Virginia voters focused on gun policy ahead of pivotal election

National groups on both sides of the gun control debate have poured resources into the district, viewing it as a warm-up for next year’s presidential contest as gun violence continues to make headlines around the country. And Democrats see the race as a measure of how far they can go on election night in taking majorities in the state legislature, with Republicans defending narrow margins of 20-19 in the Senate and 51-48 in the House of Delegates, with one vacancy in each chamber.

“The key battleground is Virginia Beach. It’ll speak to the kind of night we’re going to have,” one Democratic strategist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s thinking.

‘They want our state:’ Virginia Republicans and NRA say gun control is just the start of upheaval

Democrats like the optics of the race: Cotter Smasal, a business executive and Girl Scout troop leader who crusaded for school safety even before the shooting, against DeSteph, a wealthy developer and licensed gun dealer.

But Virginia Beach has strong conservative traditions, with a large population of active-duty and retired military. Not everyone agrees that the answer to tragedies like the shooting in the municipal building is to limit access to guns.

“Had the employees been allowed to carry firearms I guarantee you the outcome would’ve changed,” said Vincent Smith, who worked in that municipal building and happened to be out the day of the shooting. He does not like the Havekost ad.

“The anti-gunners,” he said, “are trying to ride that tidal wave into office.”

The 8th Senate District covers the Virginia Beach oceanfront from First Landing State Park in the north down to Sandbridge and the North Carolina line. It favors Republicans by 30 percentage points, according to an analysis of voting patterns by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. President Trump won the district in the 2016 election despite losing the state as a whole.

But the district went narrowly for Democrat Ralph Northam in the 2017 gubernatorial election, even though it supported the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Last year it gave the edge to incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine (D) over Republican challenger Corey Stewart, 52 percent to 46 percent. It’s part of the 2nd Congressional District, which last year flipped blue when Democrat Elaine Luria beat incumbent Republican Scott Taylor.

Several people with access to internal polling on both sides said the race this year looks close. Virginia Democrats have been energized by opposition to Trump, and the mass shooting in May upped the urgency.

Virginia’s ‘off-off-year’ elections were once sleepy. And then came Trump.

“What happened in Virginia Beach reordered the priorities of a number of voters in a way that has not been helpful to Republicans,” University of Mary Washington political scientist Stephen Farnsworth said.

Historically, Democrats have shied away from gun control in a state that’s home to the National Rifle Association and where gun culture permeates rural areas. But this year, many Democrats are campaigning hard on the issue. In Northern Virginia, Democrat John Bell, running for a previously red Loudoun County Senate seat, aired his first prime-time television ad Thursday that shows him striding across a school athletic field to pick up a bullet casing as he promises he’s “not afraid of the NRA.”

Cotter Smasal was one of the first candidates this year to embrace Northam after his blackface scandal. An Eastern Shore native who used to represent part of Virginia Beach in the state Senate, Northam remains popular in the area despite the uproar over a racist photo that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

Virginia Republicans thought calling Ralph Northam ‘Gov. Blackface’ would help them. That’s changed.

Cotter Smasal is the top recipient of donations from Northam’s political action committee, which has given her $60,000 so far. Everytown for Gun Safety, the national gun control group founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, has also made the contest a priority. The group has plowed $200,000 into her campaign so far, with half of that going for the Havekost ad and another chunk this weekend for direct mailers.

Gun control advocate and former congresswoman Gabby Giffords spent a weekend in Virginia Beach last month, meeting with local activists and whipping up campaign volunteers for Smasal and several other Democrats running in the area’s House and Senate districts.

The local chapter of Moms Demand Action has been especially supportive, sending members out regularly to knock on doors for Cotter Smasal. The group staged a community meeting with her over the summer on the same night that DeSteph attended a closed-door town hall with NRA supporters.

The NRA has distributed fliers blasting Cotter Smasal as an F-rated “Anti-Gun Candidate” who supports “New York and California style gun control.” The group endorses DeSteph with an A rating and promises that he “Supports your Right to Self-Defense.”

DeSteph took a high profile in the shooting aftermath, staying in the city’s command center around the clock, with only short breaks away for the first three days. When Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to take up firearms legislation, DeSteph introduced 27 bills, more than any other lawmaker.

None of them, however, was aimed at the kind of gun restrictions Northam had in mind, such as banning assault weapons, expanding background checks and creating a “red flag” law to allow authorities to seize guns from someone deemed a threat. Instead, DeSteph asked for a study about mental health, suggested stiffer penalties for violating existing laws and requested money for survivors.

In a video that was posted on the NRA Facebook page shortly before the special session, but which has since disappeared from the page, DeSteph urges Virginians to call their legislators to deliver a message: “There is no level of legislation that they can present that would have stopped what happened here.”

He joined the Republican majority in the Senate in voting to adjourn the special session after only 90 minutes, referring all bills to a state crime commission.

The Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the party’s internal polling shows that that vote got a more negative reaction in Virginia Beach than anywhere else in the state.

Smasal, 41, is a first-time candidate, Navy veteran and former owner of a Rita’s Italian Ice shop. She got involved in public life two years ago after visiting her daughter’s elementary school and finding the door unlocked and no adults in front to greet her.

She mounted a petition campaign to get the school board to change its policies. Today, doors are locked and protected by security cameras and buzzer systems.

“That story feels a little different now after everything that’s happened in our hometown,” Cotter Smasal told a small group of Democratic women at an event last month. “We have a lot more work to do . . . to make us feel safe everywhere.”

Her opponent, she said, voted to adjourn the special legislative session and “failed to take any action to protect Virginians. . . . We experienced a terrible tragedy here in our home and we need to demand action. And the way we’re going to get action is by flipping these seats.”

In the breezy living room of a home at the affluent north end of the Oceanfront, about 20 women sipping white wine and nibbling on cheese and crackers gave Cotter Smasal an enthusiastic response. Several said their top issue this year would have been the environment, with the city’s streets flooding more often and property threatened by rising sea levels. But that has been overshadowed by guns.

“It’s unbelievable to me that people wouldn’t support sensible gun control. Who needs assault-style weapons for hunting?” said Bernice Pope, 70, president of a local civic league. Though that part of the city has been heavily Republican, Pope said gun violence might change politics this year.

“There’s been so many mass shootings — you don’t know who’s next,” she said.

DeSteph has a very different view of the district.

“Cost of health care. Cost of prescription drugs. Access to doctors. Cost of education. And people care about veterans’ issues. And animal rights,” DeSteph said, ticking off the top issues he hears about from constituents.

DeSteph, 54, had served on the City Council before being elected to the House of Delegates in 2013 and the Senate in 2015. A Navy veteran, he is a successful developer and among the wealthiest members of the legislature.

Sitting at the back of a recent Rotary Club breakfast meeting, where DeSteph is known for raising huge amounts for charity, he dismissed the idea that guns have transformed his race.

“The tragedy that happened here is still in everybody’s heart,” he said, but it hasn’t increased pressure for gun control. “Everybody that I know doesn’t want gun violence. But we’ve got to figure out how to get guns out of the hands of criminals without interfering with good people . . . [and their] ability to own a weapon.”

His own status as a gun dealer is overblown, he said. He is a collector, and occasionally sells historic or collectible firearms out of his house — always to people he knows, such as police officers or members of the military.

DeSteph can be hard to pin down on particular gun-control measures. Does he support the governor’s bills? “The governor’s name wasn’t on a single bill,” he said, which is true. Northam had enlisted lawmakers as sponsors.

How about banning assault weapons? “It depends on how you define them,” he said.

“Red flag” laws? They cover “such a wide range of things,” he said.

The bottom line: DeSteph thinks none of the measures proposed by Democrats would have prevented the municipal building shooting. And he defends the idea of adjourning the special session to send the bills for further study.

“We shouldn’t take knee-jerk reactions to anything,” he said.

He bristles at the outside money coming into the race. (DeSteph had nearly $760,000 on hand at the end of August to just over $500,000 for Smasal.) And he was sharply critical of the television ad with shooting survivor Havekost, who was out of town and unavailable to comment for this report.

“I asked Senator Bill DeSteph to do something so this doesn’t happen again,” she says in the 30-second spot. “Senator Bill DeSteph did not meet with us. He blocked the Senate from even voting on gun safety laws. He has a chance to make a difference but he refuses to do it.”

DeSteph released a letter in which he had offered to meet with Havekost and specified that the measures he was interested in discussing included stiffer criminal penalties and issues surrounding mental health.

“We offered a meeting and they never came in,” he said. The ad, he said, “is just politicizing a tragedy. . . . For Michael Bloomberg to put in hundreds of thousands of dollars to push forward this ad — I’m not sure why the former mayor of New York would want to try to influence voters in Virginia Beach.”

Cotter Smasal said the reason is clear: If Democrats win majorities in the legislature, they and the Democratic governor will move quickly to enact gun-control laws. And if enough people come out to vote for her, her district would be part of that.

“We’ve been trying to make people understand just how competitive this district is,” she said. “People are starting to see this is a good investment.”

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