David Frum

04.24.13

Do Democrats Really Want to Make Guns a Litmus Test Issue?

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At the Atlantic, David Graham explains that the Montana Democratic primary to replace Sen. Max Baucus may be the first major display of progressive efforts to challenge Democrats with heterodox positions on guns.

In the more militant corners of the left, there have been calls for a liberal Tea Party to enforce more ideological purity, forsaking the likes of Baucus and Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, all of whom voted against the gun bill.

(It's worth noting that even a unified Democratic caucus would have fallen short of the 60 votes required to pass the measure.)

A liberal Tea Party, the contentious post-Newtown vote, and changing American demographics -- all against the dramatic backdrop of Big Sky country, where a Democrat has won the presidential vote just twice in the last 60 years (Johnson in '64, Clinton in '92) -- it's a great stage to play out a big battle.

Baucus's retirement both alters and accelerates that process. Progressives won't have a chance to try to primary him, but they will be able to choose sides in a primary. One well-placed Democrat has already told NBC that former Governor Brian Schweitzer, who left office this year, is interested in the seat. (He's also made noises about a 2016 presidential run, but it's hard to imagine that being successful.) Schweitzer sure looks like a prohibitive favorite if he runs -- his name recognition is through the roof, he's a proven quantity, and he was immensely popular in Montana as governor. Of course, to continue the Tea Party analogy, Mike Castle and Dick Lugar seemed unassailable once upon a time, too.

This "progressive Tea Party" approach made its appearance on a smaller scale in a recent special Congressional Election in Illinois. Greg Sargent: 

Bloomberg’s PAC wasn’t the only group that sought to swing the race. A number of liberal organizations and online groups also got involved: CREDO Super PAC did on the ground organizing against Halvorson; DailyKos raised money for her; Democracy for America also raised money and contributed phone banking; and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee did some last minute organizing. The success of this effort is likely to encourage such groups to look for other “gun rights” Dems to target.

“As long as Democrats and Republicans keep voting with the NRA instead of their constituents, you will see progressive groups like CREDO, DFA and the Daily Kos community continue to make the NRA a major factor in our election organizing — including in Democratic primaries — going forward,” Becky Bond, the president of the CREDO Super PAC, tells me.

As a Republican, let me extend my blessings to this fine endeavor. By all means, please repudiate Howard Dean, the conservative hack who decided Democrats should be competitive in all 50 states by aggressively recruiting qualified and electable candidates in even the most conservative districts.

That meant (gasp!) being ok with culturally conservative, pro-gun, not exactly orthodox progressives. It was that decision to aggressively push into red states that helped Democrats take back the House in 2006, and it was that newfound moderation that aided President Obama's landslide in 2008.

It's this strategy I hope Republicans adopt to push back into urban areas and the Northeast. It requires calming down just a little on litmus tests, it makes the party more diverse (and yes, more moderate), and it makes national parties genuinely representative of national interests.

At this moment, Democrats can claim to be a more national party than Republicans. Why would they throw that away?

And if you're thinking "but there's no way this would actually matter in a real race," remember this - and remember it well:

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