If there's one politician who can tell Democrats that the NRA is overrated, it's Colorado state Sen. Mike Merrifield. In September 2013, after the gun control debate in Congress had stalled, NRA-backed candidates won two Colorado state Senate seats in recall elections. The result was covered as proof that Democrats (or anyone, but usually Democrats) would wake a sleeping, AR-15-clutching giant if they copied Colorado and passed gun legislation in the wake of a mass shooting.
Yet as reporter Alec MacGillis has repeatedly pointed out, even in the Democratic nightmare year of 2014, Colorado's Democratic governor won re-election -- and the party took back both of those state Senate seats. Merrifield's victory was an especially sharp insult to the gun lobby, as he'd been the state director of the Michael Bloomberg-backed Mayors Against Illegal guns.
In an interview, Merrifield credited some of his margin to "a backlash from people who were infuriated by the injustice of that recall" and more of it to how he finessed the gun issue.
"It came up fairly often at the doors," he said. "I said, yes, I was a Mayors Against Illegal Guns director, but I own guns. Nothing passed in Colorado gave me any inconvenience. We passed reasonable gun safety. This shouldn’t be controversial – I was a hunter in the past. Basically, I just gave my personal story and it seemed to resonate."
Hillary Clinton, who has never pretended to own guns, could not exactly copy that argument. But since the Oregon shooting that started the latest iteration of the gun debate, she has attacked the NRA, explicitly, as a malevolent political force that nobody need fear. Merrifield did the same.
"If it was an NRA member I was talking to, it was useless to argue," he said. "They want there to be no restrictions in any shape or form. They're brainwashed, maybe. It is a waste of time to get through the NRA's messaging. And I used to be an NRA member. I took the NRA hunting safety course when I was a teenager.
"It’s not the same organization anymore. My message to anyone else running in this environment is that you don’t need to be so terrified by the NRA. The majority of voters want there to be reasonable gun safety legislation. If politicians don’t have the courage to take on the NRA on these issues, we’re going to see more shootings."
Clinton's only the latest politician to go there. In 2014, two key Democrats who bucked Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and voted against a background checks bill -- Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska -- ended up buried under NRA attack ads anyway. Few Democrats thrived in 2014, but a national candidate has to look less at the Pryor/Begich triangulation strategy and more at how Barack Obama absorbed years of NRA attacks to win twice, taking states like Virginia and Ohio with huge margins in the less gun-friendly cities and suburbs. Virginia's governor and two senators all won elections, this decade, even while the NRA spent money against them. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) takes a particular joy in pointing this out.