Over the holiday weekend, in between various sports and Dorian coverage, I caught a few minutes of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott giving a press conference following the mass shooting in Odessa. Few sights make me sicker than watching Republican politicians after these massacres holding press conferences to reassure people that they’ve got everything under control. No, dude. We have this situation in the first place in part because of people like you.
Last month, at the time of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, I wrote a column in which I discussed Abbott, who had just signed 10 pro-gun bills into law. He signed these before the El Paso and Odessa tragedies, but as you may have read recently, they went into effect just after seven more bodies piled up in Odessa. My favorite is the one that prohibits “no firearms” clauses in residential leases, because the one thing we as a society most definitely need to do is to make it easier for people to rent apartments and fill them up with arsenals that rival that of a small country.
So here we are again. What are we to do? About places like Texas, not much. If anything, they’re moving in the direction of arming school teachers.
But in Washington, the story is different. The mood has definitely changed, what with the continuing horrors and the National Rifle Association’s recent controversies. I’ve come to think it’s possible to beat the NRA within maybe three or four election cycles. Doing so requires three elements. One, some anti-NRA Democrats beating some pro-gun Republicans in some high-profile races. Two, some Republicans turning against the NRA and living to tell the tale. I’ll get to three later.
On the first point, there are some races to watch in next year’s elections. The biggest and most obvious one is the Senate race in Arizona. The incumbent is Republican Martha McSally, whom the governor named to fill John McCain’s term. The Democratic challenger is Mark Kelly, the ex-astronaut and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the former House member who was shot in the head outside a supermarket in 2011.
Obviously, reining in guns is pretty central to his campaign. With his wife, he’s the co-founder of a political action committee dedicated to trying to take down the most pro-gun Republicans. McSally got $227,000 from pro-gun lobbies in the 2018 cycle, making her the second-leading recipient of gun money that year. Over her career, according to opensecrets.org, the NRA has invested $300,000 in her. So little wonder that just three weeks ago, when asked by a constituent about mass shootings, she issued the brave reply: “I believe in states’ rights. Most problems can be solved at the state and local level.”
A Senate race in a large and complex state turns on many factors. But the gun issue will be central here for obvious reasons. Look for the NRA to up that investment considerably. If Kelly can win—and right now, Kelly is at least tied and maybe has a slight edge—that will be a big blow to the NRA in a state where it’s controlled the senators for years (yes, St. John, too, for the most part).
In Iowa, Republican first-term incumbent Sen. Jodi Ernst is an NRA favorite. The group spent north of $3 million helping her win in 2014. The leading Democrat against her is Theresa Greenfield. From what I can see, she’s not making a huge issue of guns so far, although she did post on her Facebook page on Aug. 10 about being “moved and grateful” to be at an event put on by Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety.
There are also a few House races where a Democrat might pick off an NRA-backed GOP incumbent. In Illinois’ 13th District, a rural district in the south-central part of the state that Cook rates R+3, Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan is running to unseat Rodney Davis. He beat her by less than 1 percentage point in 2018.
There are a few others, I won’t go into detail on them all. The point is this. If anti-NRA Democrats beat pro-NRA Republicans in just a handful of seats, especially in Republican-leaning districts, that’s a big deal. It doesn’t need to be 15 seats. It needs to be three or four. It needs to be shown that it can be done.
Now, element two. A number of Republicans have in fact cooled a bit on the NRA in recent years. The Trace overturned an impressive number of rocks before the 2018 election to discover that the NRA had downgraded its ratings of 15 Republicans that year (impressive because the NRA makes it hard to find these ratings). Ten of these 15 were in Congress.
The sharpest downgrades were in Florida, where after Parkland, a couple House members said basta. Brian Mast of Palm Beach went from an A to an F rating because he came out in favor of universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Carlos Curbelo of Miami went from B+ to F for similar reasons. (Even Rick Scott went from an A+ to a C post-Parkland).
Curbelo lost in 2018, but Mast won. This year, Mast and seven other Republicans voted with the Democrats in late February to pass a background-check law. The other seven were: Vern Buchanan of Florida; Mario Diaz-Balart, also of Florida; Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania; Will Hurd of Texas; Peter King of New York; Chris Smith of New Jersey; and Fred Upton of Michigan.
Hurd is retiring, and others may. Of the ones who seek re-election, will they be primaried, and will the NRA back that primary opponent to the hilt? This is an absolutely crucial question. If they can stare-down NRA-backed primaries and win, even if it’s just three or four of them, that will show every Republican on the Hill that the NRA can be beaten. And that is the exact moment when this poison will start to weaken.
I mentioned a third element. I know this gets a bit ghoulish but let me put it this way. In the face of more murder sprees—which, sad to say, we know will happen—let the NRA continue its intransigence, carry on celebrating with each new state that allows people to tote semi-automatic guns into schools, churches, and airports. As they do, more Republicans like Mast and Curbelo will say they’ve had it. And they’ll turn against the NRA, and they’ll survive. And one day, the power will be broken. It’s sick that it’s taken this many dead bodies and will take that many more. But it will happen, while Wayne LaPierre’s hands are still alive and warm enough to feel the sting of it.