Gun-Control Groups Reignite Debate by Crossing the Aisle in Senate Races

September 7, 2016
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The political arm of former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords’s gun-control group this week endorsed two GOP senators, reigniting a longrunning debate over whether groups focused on liberal issues advance their agenda by backing Republicans willing to cross the aisle.


It’s a particularly thorny question this year, when the GOP-controlled Senate could lose its slim majority in November’s elections. As Democrats grow increasingly optimistic they could take over the chamber next year, few have welcomed steps taken to bolster GOP incumbents. That’s at times pitted party strategists and campaign operatives against those in groups focused on issues like preventing gun violence or expanding gay and lesbian rights.

“You can’t blame some of these groups for trying to show some bipartisanship by supporting Republicans, but I’m not convinced it’s ever worked,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) “It doesn’t change the fundamental dynamic: Republicans are still in control.”

But others argue that these groups are helping neutralize blowback Republicans could face when they buck powerful interest groups like the National Rifle Association.

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky is vice president“These movements are playing the long game,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, a vice president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “They know that if a Republican can come back and say ‘Taking on the NRA didn’t kill me, it helped me in my race,’ more Republicans could start to crack open their doors for a genuine conversation.”

In the most recent example of this, Ms. Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, said in an op-ed published on this week that the gun-control advocacy group they founded was endorsing GOP Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mark Kirk of Illinois because they crossed party lines to support legislation expanding background checks for gun sales in 2013.

“In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Republican Sens. Pat Toomey and Mark Kirk broke from the gun lobby and supported a bill to help prevent felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill from obtaining firearms at gun shows and online,” wrote Mr. Kelly and Ms. Giffords, who survived being shot in the head in 2011.

New York City Mayor Michael BloombergEarlier this month, Independence USA, the political action committee founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also endorsed Mr. Toomey, citing his support for widening background checks.

Messrs. Toomey and Kirk are trying to fend off Democratic challengers in two of this year’s most competitive Senate races in states won twice by President Barack Obama and where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is currently leading GOP nominee Donald Trump in recent polls.

The Senate Democrats’ campaigns didn’t welcome the across-the-aisle boost to their GOP rivals, arguing that the Democratic candidates would be more effective advocates at establishing stronger gun curbs — particularly if their party is back in control of the chamber and its agenda. The Senate’s floor schedule is set by its majority leader, currently GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Pat Toomey back to the Senate makes gun safety“Sending Pat Toomey back to the Senate makes gun safety legislation less likely, not more likely,” said Sean Coit, a spokesman for Katie McGinty, Mr. Toomey’s opponent. “Pat Toomey would love nothing more than to keep Mitch McConnell as the majority leader, which would almost certainly block any hope of sensible gun safety bills from passing.”

Mr. McConnell did permit votes this year on a flurry of measures aimed at winnowing gun violence and thwarting suspected terrorists from obtaining firearms, but none secured the 60 votes needed to clear procedural hurdles.

Critics argue that Republicans willing to cross the aisle on tough votes on liberal-leaning bills do so because it’s in their political interest — and aren’t able to bring many other GOP senators with them.

“Make no mistake, if the voters of Illinois choose to send Tammy Duckworth to the Senate, she will work tirelessly to pass commonsense solutions to address gun violence, and unlike Kirk, she’ll work to persuade her colleagues to join her,” said Matt McGrath, spokesman for Mr. Kirk’s challenger, Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

But with neither party likely to capture 60 seats in the chamber next year, issues advocates say they need to reward bipartisan cooperation to get any remotely contentious legislation passed.

Mr. Kirk, who became the second sitting GOP senatorThe Human Rights Campaign faced criticism from some liberal bloggers after the group in March endorsed Mr. Kirk, who became the second sitting GOP senator to support same-sex marriage in April 2013. He also was a lead proponent of a bill to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation that passed the Senate but fizzled in the House.

“When members of Congress vote the right way and stand up for equality—regardless of party—we must stand with them,” HRC President Chad Griffin wrote in the Independent Journal Review, defending the group’s endorsement. “We simply cannot ask members of Congress to vote with us, and then turn around and try to kick them out of office.”

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