Gun control activists set to flex muscle in battle for Senate

Groups like March for Our Lives and the Brady PAC are mobilizing to defeat senators who oppose gun control legislation in the aftermath of two mass shootings that have shaken the country.

The focus on shaping gun control legislation comes after two separate shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend resulted in more than 30 people dead. 

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Gun control groups mobilized in 2018, outspending the National Rifle Association (NRA) for the first time, to help Democrats take over the House.

Democrats then followed up by passing anti-gun legislation. But that legislation has stalled in the Senate where Republicans have a 53-47 advantage, giving urgency to the push by activists to target senators who have opposed stronger gun control laws.

The chief focus for these groups this time around will be defeating senators in battleground states, mainly Republican Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior faces legal scrutiny for keeping controversial acting leaders in office | White House faces suit on order lifting endangered species protections | Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of protesters The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ MORE (Colo.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators The Hill’s Campaign Report: It’s primary night in Georgia Tillis unveils new 0,000 ad in North Carolina Senate race MORE (N.C.), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police No evidence of unauthorized data transfers by top Chinese drone manufacturer: study Senate Democratic campaign arm launches online hub ahead of November MORE (Ariz.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsRepublicans prepare to punt on next COVID-19 relief bill Trump tweets spark fresh headache for Republicans Trump’s tweet on protester sparks GOP backlash  MORE (Maine) and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGeorge Conway group hits Ernst in new ad GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ MORE (Iowa).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) will also be in focus as he faces challenger Amy McGrath, who has slammed the senator over his record on gun control after the two mass shootings.

Like in 2018, the groups are likely to ramp up spending, including with attack ads, in the lead-up to the 2020 Senate races, while organizing town halls and voter registration drives for young people.

“As far as the Senate, we’re setting up town halls in several states, including Arizona, North Carolina, Texas and several others, and we’re going to be inviting both candidates just to ask them about their stances on the issues that we care about and making sure that they’re held accountable for stances that they’ve taken in the past,” Charlie Mirsky, the co-founder and political director of March for Our Lives, told The Hill.

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March for Our Lives, which was launched by students following the Parkland, Fla., shooting in 2018, is also focusing their strategy in large part, on bringing young people into the political fold to advocate for gun control. 

“We’re also going to be doing extensive voter registration in all of these Senate states, and of course, we’re going to be focused on the House races as well, but especially in these key Senate states that are so close, and some of these states that are turning from red to purple or blue to purple,” Mirsky added. 

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Republicans being targeted by gun control activists have generally received high marks from the NRA. Gardner and Ernst received an “A” rating from the NRA in their last Senate races in 2014, while Tillis had an “A+” rating.

They have also received heavy financial backing from pro-gun groups. McSally, for example, ranked 22nd in Congress on receiving NRA and NRA political action committee money.

Collins has had a more moderate stance, having signaled support for a number of gun control efforts, including a red-flag plan and closing background check loopholes, but a group of more liberal Democratic challengers are fighting to take her on next year.

Democratic campaigns and groups have also signaled they plan to zero in on McConnell for not reconvening the Senate during the August recess to take up the House-passed background check legislation. 

“I think McConnell is going to be a big issue in the race,” a Democratic strategist told The Hill. “As much as it’s about gun safety, it’s also about the fact that these senators aren’t willing to be independent from their party leaders in D.C., and McConnell, in particular, is the one person blocking legislation.”

Already, gun control advocacy group Giffords on Friday released a pair of advertisements pressing McConnell and Gardner to vote on background checks legislation for gun purchases.

Polls show Americans generally support taking some action on gun control, including supporting an assault weapons ban.

A Morning Consult/Politico poll released Wednesday found that 7 in 10 respondents said they were in favor of an assault weapons ban. That number also included 54 percent of Republicans saying they were in favor an assault weapons ban. 

“Public opinion is on our side. There’s a lot of data out there now showing that voters, even independents, even Republicans, want action on this issue,” the Democratic strategist said. “I think that’s why you see Republicans starting to crack and acknowledge that they need to support something.” 

McConnell signaled to Kentucky radio station WHAS on Thursday that he and President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE are eager to take action to address gun violence when the chamber reconvenes in September after its current recess. 

McConnell said in the same interview that red-flag laws, background checks and an assault weapons ban would all be part of the discussion.

Trump later called for “intelligent background checks” on gun purchases, while expressing confidence that Congress would come together to take action. 

Still, defeating these incumbent Republican senators will not be easy given the gun lobby is expected to go all out in efforts to get the GOP not to change course.

The NRA tweeted on Thursday that it is “not enough anymore to simply say that ‘we need more background checks,’ ” and its chief executive Wayne LaPierre reportedly told Trump a background check bill would not be popular among his supporters.

The NRA has faced internal turmoil this year, but it is nonetheless gearing up for 2020 as it aims to keep the Senate under GOP hands. 

“The NRA is fully committed to electing pro-gun candidates across the board in the 2020 elections. We will engage our members and supporters to ensure that the U.S. Senate remains under the control of those who support our Second Amendment freedoms,” Andrew Arulanandam, managing director of NRA public affairs, told The Hill in a statement.

But gun control advocates, along with supportive PACs will likely have financial muscle after outspending the NRA and its allies in 2018. 

In 2018, the Brady PAC spent nearly $500,000, Everytown spent $30 million in support of candidates at the state and federal level, and Giffords PAC spent nearly $7 million. The NRA’s spending was estimated at $20 million.

“The NRA is weaker than it’s ever been in its history. The gun violence prevention movement is stronger than its ever been so they go into 2020 really with their hands tied behind their backs,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the grass-roots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, told The Hill in an interview in July.

And gun control activists believe they have momentum on their side, hoping to see a repeat of 2018 when the House turned blue, including through the victory of gun control advocate Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathFloyd’s brother urges Congress to take action The Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE (D) in a suburban Georgia district.

“We saw what happens with the gun violence prevention movement really focuses together on an issue in 2018 with the historic election of the gun violence prevention majority in the House,” said Kris Brown, president of Brady.

“In 2018, a big part of that success was the fact that gun violence prevention was very much on people’s mind when they went to the ballot box,” Brown said.

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