WASHINGTON – Democratic strategists say President Obama’s pledge to fight for gun control in his last year in office is unlikely to make it No. 1 on voters’ minds in 2016.
But it could help Senate candidates in battleground states target both base and independent voters, who polling shows overwhelmingly favor expanded background checks.
“We have this weird habit in this culture of mourning and, you know, 48, 72 hours of wall-to-wall coverage, and then … suddenly we move on,” Obama told Bill Simmons in a GQ interview that was published Nov. 17. “And I will do everything I can to make sure that there’s a sustained attention paid to this thing.”
Justin Barasky, a former Senate campaign staffer who now serves as communications director for the super PAC backing Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, said Obama’s focus on the issue could be a net gain for Democratic Senate candidates in 2016.
“I think the president’s focus on gun control will help to stop the violence, and I think that stopping gun violence is something that all Democrats running for Senate would like to see happen,” Barasky said.
While the gun control debate has been a polarizing issue in America, certain aspects of the debate have grown in popularity in the wake of multiple mass shooting incidents over the past few years.
For example, polling conducted in July by the Pew Research Center found 85 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks — the proposal the Obama administration has pushed since the 2012 Newtown shootings killed 26 students and teachers in an elementary school in Connecticut.
Outside groups such as those backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a super PAC run by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head during a constituent event in 2001, spend millions each cycle on the gun issue.
Democratic strategists say it’s too early to say whether campaigns themselves would use the issue in widespread television advertising buys. Especially given that past efforts to get Congress to expand background checks have proved futile.
But they added targeted communication on the issue with white suburban swing voters, who strategists say support measures such as expanded background checks, could help drive turnout with that segment of the electorate. Senate Democrats need to make inroads with white voters to have any chance of taking back control of the Senate.
“Democrats can use [expanded background checks] to talk to swing voters in a very targeted way, to suburban mothers, and when you are targeting like that you’ve really got options,” one national Democratic strategist said.
Some cautioned, however, that the places a gun control debate would not help Democratic Senate chances are places like Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Arizona — heavily Republican states where voters oppose measures to restrict gun access or anything to do with Obama, for that matter.
“When the NRA says Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are going to take away your guns, the red states will regress to what you will expect,” the Democratic strategist said.
Republicans agreed, but went further to say a focus on gun issues will not be a winning strategy for Democrats.
“If the Democrats are so desperate to motivate their base that they have to resort to the issue of gun control, then they are in for a long 2016 election cycle,” said Chris LaCivita, an adviser to Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.