When Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz warned last year that “we are coming” after state lawmakers who don’t support DFL-backed gun measures, Sen. Warren Limmer had a response:
“Bring it on.”
That calculation seems to have paid off as the Maple Grove Republican and judiciary committee chairman held his seat in an election night nail-biter that helped Republicans maintain control of the Minnesota Senate.
Gun control proponents in Minnesota had looked at 2020 as a pivotal year for winning back a Democratic majority in the Legislature to pass gun proposals such as expanding background checks and a new “red flag” law to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.
Fresh off wins in Virginia a year earlier and polling that showed surging popularity for new gun restrictions in Minnesota, groups including the Michael Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety poured more than $1 million into Minnesota elections as part of a broader effort to flip legislatures around the nation.
Yet no statehouse in America transformed this year into what advocates hoped would be a “gun-sense majority.” Instead, the issue receded in the midst of roiling debates over the pandemic, police reform, racial justice and the Trump presidency.
Gun-control activists now concede that failure to consolidate DFL control of the State Capitol means that background check and red-flag legislation will likely meet another blockade in 2021.
“They were very much planning on having complete control of the Legislature … as well as governor,” said Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus. “I think this is going to put on hold a lot of their plans.”
Of the five Minnesota races targeted by Everytown and the affiliated group Moms Demand Action, only Aric Putnam’s challenge of GOP incumbent Sen. Jerry Relph in St. Cloud was successful. Republicans maintained a one-seat majority in the Senate.
Still, gun-control activists and the DFL candidates they backed are finding silver linings in this year’s election returns.
Limmer’s Democratic challenger, Bonnie Westlin, a lawyer and gun-safety advocate, turned a 10,000-vote defeat to Limmer in 2017 into a 900-vote loss this year.
“I would think that what would come out of this race is that everybody takes a look at the fact that I don’t think the Republicans in the Senate can say they have a clear mandate,” Westlin said. “I think that it would behoove all of the people they represent to take a look at some of these issues that are clearly very important to their constituents.”
Gun violence prevention, Westlin insisted, easily makes the cut.
“My suggestion is, look, if you oppose it that’s one thing, but give it a vote and give it a hearing,” she said. “Let people come in and testify on it and let’s get everybody on record with a vote.”
While the DFL-led House passed background check and red-flag bills this year, similar measures failed to advance out of Limmer’s committee in the Senate. Limmer has suggested the Democratic proposals were too extreme and questioned how big a role they played in the race for his seat.
“They were talking about state and national health care proposals; they weren’t talking about guns at all,” Limmer said. “I take that as a sign of if Mr. Bloomberg did his research on my district he would realize the same thing I do: that the gun issue, at least in the suburbs I represent, is not the boogeyman that some people think that it is.”
Senate Democrats argue that the GOP’s narrow majority should be seen as a mandate for compromise on the broader public’s gun-safety concerns. DFL Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent points to past Star Tribune Minnesota Polls showing close to 90% support for new gun restrictions. “I can’t think of much more common ground when you have an issue that is important to 80 to 90 percent of Minnesotans,” she said.
While direct mail paid for by Everytown during the fall campaigns highlighted proposals to expand background checks for gun sales, the group also targeted Republican incumbents’ positions on health care. The pandemic also dominated the attention of voters and the campaigns trying to reach them.
Democratic candidates and activists largely shifted to phone-banking or “text-banking,” taking the campaign virtual to try to mitigate the virus’ spread on the campaign trail. Republicans did the opposite, maintaining a traditional in-person approach to win votes.
While that might have cost Democrats and their gun-control allies, Westlin said it was the right thing to do. “I don’t think you can tell people how dangerous the pandemic is and then go door-knock,” she said.
Westlin also noted a sizable lack of voting down-ballot in her district: She pointed to a roughly 1,600-vote drop-off between the presidential race and her contest with Limmer.
Doar also suggested that support for new gun restrictions, even among Democrats, will continue to break along geographic lines. He pointed to the defeat of state Rep. John Persell, a Bemidji Democrat who co-sponsored the red-flag proposal.
“Given the makeup of the House, it was not necessarily a tactical victory but it was a symbolic victory just to show that the same policies that are favorable to urban centers don’t play out very well in greater Minnesota,” Doar said. “I think that is an important message to send to the Legislature as a whole, that what the urban representatives and urban senators want may not be representative of the state as a whole.”
Moms Demand Action activists like Jessica Deweerth of Minneapolis and Democratic challengers such as Westlin already have their eye on 2022 and vow to have a presence at the Capitol — even if only virtually — in the coming year. Westlin has already promised to run again when Limmer’s seat is back on the ballot in 2022.
“We remain energized, we remain positive,” Deweerth said. “We’re not going away.”