The National Rifle Association is wading into the Virginia governor’s race with a six-figure ad campaign, potentially reviving a debate over gun issues that has been mostly dormant in the contest.
Beginning Monday, the group will begin airing $500,000 worth of statewide television and online ads hitting Democrat Terry McAuliffe for his firearms stances, according to NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. The campaign is designed to benefit Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), a longtime gun rights advocate who has lagged behind McAuliffe on the financial front and can use the help on the airwaves.
“Terry McAuliffe has come out and basically stated his support for every gun control scheme imaginable,” Arulanandam said. “And if Terry has his way, the burden of law in Virginia will be on law-abiding gun owners and not on criminals. That’s a wrong-headed approach. Virginia needs leaders who are going to be tough on crime and tough on criminals.”
McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin used the news to portray Cuccinelli as out of step with Virginia voters on gun laws.
“The NRA is now rewarding Ken Cuccinelli for his extreme refusal to support universal background checks — a mainstream policy that 91 percent of Americans support is yet again an issue where he finds himself way out of the mainstream,” he said.
He added that Cuccinelli had shown “career-long opposition to common-sense measures that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.”
Gun rights supporters have long outnumbered foes in Richmond, but there have been signs in recent years, as Virginia has become a more purple state, that the issue has lost some of its potency. Last year, Timothy M. Kaine (D) beat George Allen (R) in a high-profile Senate race despite Kaine’s “F” grade from the NRA and Allen’s “A.”
Although McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have stark differences on gun issues, there has been relatively little public squabbling over the topic, as the race — and the thousands of ads that have crowded the airwaves — have focused instead on the economy, energy, abortion and a host of other policy areas.
But the two hopefuls did take on guns at length during Wednesday night’s debate in McLean, when they were asked for their views in the wake of the Sept. 16 Navy Yard shooting rampage. McAuliffe said he was for “responsible gun ownership.”
“I have called for universal background checks,” McAuliffe said. “My opponent doesn’t support that. I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. I’m a hunter. I own guns. . . . There are certain individuals who just should not own a gun. There are individuals that have mental illness. I think this is such a critical issue for us. . . . As governor, I’m gonna push. Most importantly, we need universal background checks for everyone.”
Cuccinelli countered that Virginia has excelled at “screening out people with mental illness from gun purchases” and “prosecuting people who attempt to buy guns illegally.”
“That is the best way to enforce our gun laws is to be aggressive and proactive,” Cuccinelli said. “I’m running against the only F-rated candidate from the NRA, the only one of all six running statewide. I will support the Second Amendment. It deserves support — as does our whole constitution. But I will continue to focus on where I believe the main source of this problem is. And that is resolving mental health issues.”
Democrats have portrayed Cuccinelli as outside the Virginia mainstream on guns, noting his endorsement from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which casts itself as a stauncher gun-rights supporter than the National Rifle Association and has called for having more guns in schools.
Republicans, in turn, have cast McAuliffe as a tool of gun control supporters such as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“Now whatever rating I may get from the NRA,” McAuliffe said at Wednesday’s debate, “I’m gonna stand here and tell you today that as governor, I want to make sure that every one of our citizens in the Commonwealth of Virginia are safe. Every one of our children, when they go into a classroom, should know that they are safe.”