Surprise: New York Republican to retire from House -- a week after endorsing gun control

I wrote about this guy on Sunday, puzzling over his announcement that he’d support a new assault weapons ban even though … no one’s seriously proposing a new assault weapons ban. Even outspoken gun-grabbers in the Senate like Chris Murphy aren’t wasting time on it, knowing there won’t be 60 votes. So why would Rep. Chris Jacobs volunteer that he’s in favor given that he has a tough primary coming up in August and his position was destined to piss off Republican voters?

The best I could do to make sense of it is that his new district encompasses parts of Buffalo, the site of the horrendous supermarket massacre last month, and therefore Republicans there might be somewhat more receptive than usual to gun-control measures. But still: An assault weapons ban? Which isn’t even on the table?

Five days later, Jacobs has declared that his congressional career is over:

Liam Donovan makes a smart point that other gun-rights activists have been keen to note recently. The left likes to hyperventilate over the influence of the NRA and the “gun lobby” but the NRA is largely a spent force in politics, cannibalized by scandal. Insofar as politicians like Trump made a point of attending its recent conference, that’s less to signal that the NRA as an institution has sway over them than that the voters to whom the NRA caters have influence. That is, Jacobs isn’t retiring because he got an angry phone call from Wayne LaPierre. He’s retiring because he got many angry calls from gun-rights supporters in his district, which is a much tougher political nut for the gun-control side to crack.

Support for gun rights in Congress isn’t a top-down phenomenon in which the gun lobby calls the tune and the right dances to it. It’s a bottom-up dynamic driven by the fact that guns have become one of the right’s most sacred cultural totems. How did Jacobs not understand that? What did he think the reaction to his announcement last week would be?

He made no bones about what drove his decision in today’s announcement. No “I want to spend more time with my family” nonsense for this one:

“This obviously arises out of last Friday, my remarks, statements on being receptive to gun controls,” Jacobs said in an interview. “And since that time, every Republican elected (official) that had endorsed me withdrew their endorsement. Party officials that supported me withdrew, most of them, and those that were going to said they would not. And so obviously, this was not well received by the Republican base.”…

“Somebody obviously gave out my cell phone (number) and I’ve gotten an immense amount of calls and texts urging me to leave the race, and not one of them had any intimation of a threat,” Jacobs said. “There was nothing along those lines.”

The head of the local conservative party was so angry about what Jacobs said last week that he demanded the congressman come to his office to explain himself and declared that he’d support a primary challenger. Jacobs looked around him at all of the upset and evidently thought: Why bother?

The primary for his seat should be wide open, although Elise Stefanik just endorsed a guy who once compared Michelle Obama to a gorilla. So consider him the frontrunner, I guess.

Jacobs’s political demise is a nice complement to Nate Cohn’s new piece today about polling on guns. Conduct a poll anywhere in America on expanding background checks and you’ll find massive bipartisan support for doing so, he points out. But when states have held referendums on whether to expand background checks, the Election Day results have been far weaker than the polling. In fact, in states like Washington, Maine, Nevada, and California, they closely resembled the Democratic share of the vote from the 2016 election. It seems that when righties have a chance to vote on gun control directly they resort to standard partisan voting habits regardless of what they happened to say to pollsters about gun policy. Cohn:

All of these theories may have merit, but the results of referendums add another possibility: The apparent progressive political majority in the polls might just be illusory. It simply may not exist for practical purposes. And the tendency for referendum results of all ideological colors to underperform the polls may betray an overlooked dimension of public opinion: a tendency to err toward the status quo…

The findings suggest that whatever large majority appears to exist for background checks is prone to evaporate in a campaign, as Republican-leaning voters who support gun rights can quickly be swayed with appeals to their more abstract and deeply felt concern on the issue.

We’re never going to have a national referendum on an assault weapons ban. But if we did, Cohn’s findings suggest that Democrats given to touting the gaudy polling in favor of one would be sorely disappointed with the outcome.

As for Jacobs, the biggest political consequence of his sudden retirement is likely to be the effect it has on the small number of Senate Republicans who’ve been mulling a gun-control deal with Democrats that would involve … something. It’s not clear what, although McConnell’s point man, John Cornyn, wants to get “something” done mainly to show that the Senate is capable of acting after several massacres. The most noteworthy measure that stands a chance of passing is federal grant money for states that choose to enact their own red-flag laws, which is as mild as it gets, but if the local backlash to Jacobs was so ferocious that he felt obliged to step down then reluctant dealmakers like Cornyn may start to get cold feet. Stay tuned.

I’ll leave you with this guy, who, like Jacobs, won’t hold any elected office next year.