Can Vulnerable Democrats Defend Themselves Without Guns?

Jessica Taylor January 23, 2013 · 2:31 PM EST

Rural House Democrats are an increasingly endangered breed. And in President Obama’s second midterm election, they’ll be squarely on notice again, particularly with gun control issues coming into the political forefront -- which could have mixed implications for their 2014 prospects.

In 2012, Blue Dog Democrats such as Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah) survived well-funded challenges, despite GOP nominee Mitt Romney handily winning their districts. Predictably, Republicans have once again named the trio among their top targets for next cycle.

All three Democrats earned endorsements from the National Rifle Association, touting the nods heavily in their successful campaigns.

But in 2014, moderate Democrats may find there is a fine line between touting that support openly and overtly bucking their party leadership, which is sprinting toward more gun control measures. The issue has an immediate sense of political urgency in the wake of the Newtown tragedy and as President Obama and Democratic leaders prepare to propose legislation to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and to expand background checks.

The bad news for Democrats is that they need these conservative members to win again in 2014 -- and add similar districts to their ranks -- as part of their party’s strategy to win back the majority.

Barrow’s most memorable ad from last cycle shows just the quandary Democrats find themselves in. Hailed then by Republicans and Democrats as one of the best of the cycle, the Democrat pulls out of his back pocket his “little Smith and Wesson” that his “grandfather used to stop a lynching,” then grabs his father’s rifle he always had nearby “just to keep us safe.”

“These are my guns now,” says Barrow in his deep Southern drawl. “And ain’t nobody gonna take ‘em away.”

But could that same showcase of firearms still happen in the wake of the Newtown school massacre? Just how far do pro-gun Democrats need to go to showcase their independence from their party?

“I can’t look at it the same way,” said one Southern Democratic strategist of the ad, who praised it the time as brilliant. “I have a hard time seeing how that ad gets greenlit again.”

But other strategists see the pressure on lawmakers to pass gun control measures as a way for conservative lawmakers to again show that they depart from the national Democratic Party line, and think that same spot would still be appropriate to be aired even now.

“I think you’ll see a lot more of those ads,” said another Democratic strategist. “There’s no evidence that voters blame gun owners or even semi-automatic rifles for what happened at Newtown. I think the increased polarization over the issue, driven by gun control advocates seeking to ban assault weapons, will make the issue more relevant, not less.”

That’s exactly what seems to be happening, with that same Barrow ad becoming the focal point in a new campaign from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). In an ad from the group running against Barrow, CSGV splices footage from Barrow’s original gun ad with tragic scenes from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. But the doctored spot omits those phrases explaining why Barrow and his family used the weapons -- to stop violence and for protection. Fallout from the spot is more likely to help Barrow in his district, not hurt him

Like Barrow, other conservative Democrats are sure to find themselves under pressure by even more progressive groups on gun issues. But it is difficult to see how dramatically changing their position on gun control -- to support a ban on assault weapons, for example -- could help them electorally in 2014.

Expanded background checks could gain support from many in the gun owners’ rights community, including the NRA, but an assault weapons ban seems unlikely to pass Congress. Proposals to limit the size of clips could put conservative, pro-gun Democrats in a more awkward position.

The overall gun control debate poses another problem for Democratic strategists, who must recruit in and win rural districts that they have lost over the past two cycles, as the national party (and particularly the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) struggles to find a path back to 218 seats.

“Those seats aren’t coming back with more progressive or liberal gun control talking points,” said the Southern Democratic strategist, pointing to losses of long-held Democratic seats in North Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Indiana in 2012. “People that think it doesn’t matter in a lot of ways don’t have a true pulse of the district.”

Nonetheless, national Democrats have embraced the president’s proposals, while their GOP counterparts in the campaign world have stayed strikingly more silent.

Just the day after President Obama put forward his recommendations on gun control, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi penned an email for the DCCC, encouraging supporters to sign the campaign committee’s petition to “take on gun violence.” DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward chimed in with a similar message to the group’s fundraising email list.

National Democratic operatives privately acknowledge they expect certain members to distance themselves from gun control measures, as they have all along, and they won’t receive pressure to vote a certain way from them. But that doesn’t stop outside groups, such as CSGV, from weighing in.

Gone largely unnoticed was that the NRCC hasn’t issued any statements or fundraising emails on the gun issue, even with some of their members already coming out against parts of the proposal, particularly an assault weapons ban or magazine limitations. But some more moderate, suburban Republicans, including Pennsylvania Reps. Patrick Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick, have said they will support closing loopholes for background checks.

Republican strategists don’t plan to make it a key argument, realizing that even some of their more moderate members, atop Democratic target lists, may need to vote differently than Republicans from Tennessee or Texas.

The tenor of ads may have to change after Newton -- just as partisan jabs and talking points did after the Tucson shooting that seriously wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others. But that detente was short lived, and predictable rancor is sure to follow if gun control legislation moves forward.

But what it does mean is that Democrats opposed to the proposals must remember that they will have to face voters next year, and they can use their differences with the national party in establishing a reputation for political independence. That is especially true the further back the horrible events in Newtown look in the rearview mirror.