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Opinion A harsh ad hitting Herschel Walker shows a way forward for Democrats

Herschel Walker, Georgia Republican's nominee for the U.S. Senate, on the campaign trail. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

For many years, the politics of both abortion and guns have been guided by a fundamental reality: While Democrats had majority support for their positions, Republicans usually benefited more from the two issues at election time.

For Republican voters, both issues were more important. Social conservatives turned out to elect Republicans in hopes of gaining control of the Supreme Court and overturning abortion rights. Firearms owners were driven to elect Republicans to keep gun-grabbing liberals at bay.

Meanwhile, Democrats struggled to make them into motivating issues for their voters. But because of a confluence of factors — the overturning of Roe v. Wade, continuing horrific mass shootings — these issues may suddenly drive voting behavior on the Democratic side, both with the base and with Democratic-leaning independents.

A new ad campaign from Everytown for Gun Safety is testing a way to use the issues to tell a story about GOP radicalism. The ads will run in numerous Senate races. Here’s the one hitting Herschel Walker, the GOP nominee challenging Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.):

The ad — which will air in Atlanta markets and is backed by a $1 million buy — is an effort to connect with voters in a visceral, energizing way by linking abortion and guns around the shared theme of safety and security.

These issues may suddenly be more motivating for Democratic-aligned voters than in the past. Democrats will often privately lament that for years, they could not make voters believe the Supreme Court might strike down Roe, let alone get them to vote to prevent it.

Well, now that’s happened, and Democrats can accurately say that electing a sizable enough Democratic majority in Congress will mean getting abortion rights restored and codified into law.

Meanwhile, the court recently issued a major ruling striking down a New York state gun law, putting restrictions in every blue state into question. And other states are rushing to expand “open carry” and make it easier for people to take guns almost everywhere, with little or no licensing or training required.

Put that together with another year of horrific mass shootings — in Buffalo; in Uvalde, Tex.; in Highland Park, Ill.; and so many others — and gun violence is as salient as ever. And yes, the increase in crime that Republicans blame on liberals plays a role here, too: If you’re worried about the safety of yourself and your family, candidates who want to reduce gun proliferation have a case to make.

That these issues are suddenly more motivating on the Democratic side is clearly evident in what Republicans are doing.

On abortion, Republicans are frantically working to erase evidence of previous absolutist positions or otherwise contorting themselves to appear moderate on the issue. On guns, there’s a reason 15 Senate Republicans voted to pass a gun safety bill this summer: Mass shootings are scaring suburban voters, and the issue risks getting them to conclude that Republicans are unfit for the majority. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) candidly admitted this to reporters at the time.

For Democrats, the thinking behind linking these two issues is that, in a sense, both involve safety and security. And both highlight the extremism of today’s GOP in a very similar way.

Easily available guns have led not just to horrific mass shootings but also to a continuing epidemic of daily gun deaths and a climate of fear and violence hovering over regular Americans in all kinds of situations. And the fall of Roe means that women in many states are deprived of a health-care option in a way that can endanger their health and even lives.

“Voters are most concerned about one thing, and that’s the safety and security of their families and communities,” Charlie Kelly, senior vice president at Everytown, told us. On both issues, Kelly said, “Republican Senate candidates like Walker are basically putting people at risk.”

The other thing that links these issues is that they both motivate the Democratic base and also underscore the GOP’s disconnect from the political mainstream.

“They’re not acknowledging the public will on any of these issues,” Kelly said. “It’s a motivating tool,” he said, but also “a persuasive tool, one that will be extraordinarily compelling down the stretch.”

Message-testing polls the group shared with us suggest that reminding voters that Republican candidates support tightening restrictions on abortion and loosening them on guns pushes significant numbers of votes in Democrats’ direction.

Finally, both issues could hold especially powerful appeal to female voters. A new FiveThirtyEight analysis finds that women have moved toward Democrats since Roe’s demise; a look at recent midterm elections shows that Democrats tend to win when the gender gap is pronounced.

Dealing with these issues in tandem might help. If this sort of messaging works, it could suggest a way to maximize the advantages for Democrats created by the new political reality on both.

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