Could Obama's gun-control push cost Democrats the Senate?

So far, we’ve heard a lot of bluster coming from Barack Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill about how the voters will punish Republicans for opposing a series of gun-control measures that didn’t even keep all the Democrats in the fold.  The real problem with “the audacity of mope,” as National Hotline’s Josh Kraushaar writes today, is that voters may end up punishing Democrats in key 2014 Senate contests.  Obama and the Democrats just learned the wrong lesson over their spectacular and embarrassing failure, and may lose the Senate as a result:

If this doesn’t demonstrate the limitations of the president’s political muscle and the influence of his newly minted Organizing for Action lobbying group, I don’t know what does. Yet, despite the embarrassing setback, Obama nonetheless argued that he still held the upper hand, politically: “If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass commonsense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.”  That couldn’t misread the political environment heading into 2014 anymore. That’s the audacity of mope.

Put simply, the 2014 Senate elections will be fought predominantly on the very turf that is most inhospitable to gun control–Southern and Mountain West conservative states. It’s no coincidence that three of the four Democrats who opposed the Toomey-Manchin bill are facing difficult reelections in 2014 and presumably are attuned to the sentiments of their constituents. Blame the National Rifle Association for the bill’s failure, but the lobby is feeding into already deeply held opposition to gun regulations and a broader sense of anxiety about the president’s and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s intentions–particularly given the president’s past publicized remark about “bitter” rural voters who “cling to their guns and religion.”  It doesn’t take much for the gun-rights crowd, significant in these states, to jump to inaccurate conclusions given that history.

And how do the White House or allied groups plan on punishing gun-control opponents? The notion of challenging the Second Amendment is as fanciful as it is self-defeating. Democratic primary voters in the deep South have significantly different views on gun rights than their coastal counterparts. Even if they support expanded background checks, the chance of landing a candidate running a one-issue campaign against brand-name Democrats like Mark Pryor and Mark Begich defies common sense. Three years ago in Arkansas, liberals poured their money and manpower in to defeat former Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a primary with the state’s lieutenant governor. Even though Lincoln was unpopular in the state–later losing reelection to Republican Sen. John Boozman by 21 points–she fended off the challenge.

In fact, Kraushaar wonders if Obama is signaling to Democrats who abandoned him that he won’t be doing much to stave off Republican challengers next year:

Surely the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has its hands full with the competing interests of its incumbents, doesn’t want to see the type of internal conflict that’s riven their Republican counterparts over the last four years. They’ve encouraged their vulnerable Southern members up for reelection to cultivate independent brands, to show they don’t follow the president blindly. That’s what Pryor, Begich, and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana did in opposing the background-check compromise. Obama didn’t say it outright, but he came awfully close to suggesting he won’t be supporting members of his own party who deserted him at a key moment of his presidency.

Kraushaar later concludes that Obama’s impotence on gun control will damage the chances for a White House win on immigration reform.  Perhaps, but the two issues don’t line up all that closely; there are different constituencies in gun rights and immigration reform, and the problem in the latter issue is clearly a lack of government action for people on both sides of the issue.  It might lessen the influence that Obama has on the outcome (if any) for immigration reform, but Obama hasn’t really been part of that effort in any significant degree anyway.  That wasn’t the case on gun control, where Obama pulled his party into a fight it had long avoided, and for good reasons.

Kraushaar’s colleague Jill Lawrence claims that Democrats will continue fighting for gun control, blaming an “intensity gap” for Obama’s loss. But is that what really happened?  Even her own analysis seems to argue otherwise:

Many blame the intensity gap for what Giffords describes as a Senate in thrall to the gun lobby. How intense is the NRA? Here’s an example from former Sen. Ted Kaufman, who was Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff in 1994,when Biden was the lead senator on a crime bill that included a 10-year assault-weapons ban. During Biden’s 1996 campaign, Kaufman told me, a fellow from Biden’s office was going fishing in rural southern Delaware. He drove down a dirt road, got out, and walked another mile, to a stream, “and some guy comes by and hands him an anti-Joe Biden leaflet from the NRA,” Kaufman said. “These are incredibly dedicated folks.”

But …

Bloomberg was the first to play hardball in campaigns through his super PAC, Independence USA. The other group he founded, the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns, announced this week it is scoring senators on their gun votes–just like the National Rifle Association. Obama is urging Americans to “sustain some passion about this” and tell members of Congress that if they don’t support expanded background checks, “you will remember come election time.” There’s no doubt that Organizing for Action, the political group dedicated to his agenda, will remember.

So will Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in the head two years ago in Tucson, Ariz., and now leads gun-safety efforts through her group Americans for Responsible Solutions. “Mark my words: If we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s,” she wrote Wednesday night in a gut-wrenching New York Times op-ed.

A day before the Senate vote, Mark Kelly–Giffords’s husband–said they will try to oust Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a longtime Giffords friend, if he opposed sensible gun-safety measures. His vote Wednesday helped kill the bipartisan compromise that would have expanded background checks to online and gun-show sales. Yet Flake is not up for reelection until 2018, and therein lies the challenge: Will anyone remember this issue, and the impact of these votes, by then?

Combine that with the massive grassroots efforts from Obama’s OFA and the media blitz that overwhelmingly favored gun-control legislation, and you have to wonder how anyone could believe that the NRA was winning an “intensity gap.”  Morning Joe, the most moderate of MSNBC’s shows, and CNN’s primetime host Piers Morgan went on full-time campaigns for the assault-weapons ban and universal background checks, for instance.  All of this took place in the immediate aftermath of a horrific massacre of the most innocent of victims. And yet, Gallup showed that only 4% thought gun control was the most important issue facing the nation, even after all the hysterical coverage and rhetoric.

Obama lost because he miscalculated the mood of the nation, and the danger to Democrats in pushing gun control.  And that may make him a very lonely Democrat in DC by 2015.

Update: Matt Lewis sums up the “90% support” issue nicely:

I’m not saying that the polls were skewed, but rather, that they are easily misinterpreted. The fact that 90 percent of Americans favor something is largely irrelevant. Most Americans probably favor chocolate over vanilla, but that doesn’t mean they are intent on doing anything about it.

When measuring polls, it’s important to weigh intensity versus preference. According to Gallup, just 4 percent of Americans see guns as the most pressing problem to be addressed. So the support for gun control is an inch deep and a mile wide.

Why does this matter? It tells us that while Americans might prefer background checks, but it’s not an issue that will drive them to the polls. Meanwhile, the minority of Americans who want to defend the 2nd Amendment are likely much more passionate.

The experts agree. Consider this quote from Dan Balz’s column: “If you ever wanted a textbook example of intensity trumping preference, this is it,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.”

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Jazz Shaw 1:01 PM on April 01, 2023