WASHINGTON — The families of the Newtown, Conn., shooting victims who have converged on Capitol Hill this week made a point of visiting Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a freshman Democrat known for the “North Dakota nice” of her home state, but on the main issue that brought them here — limiting the capacity of gun magazines and universal background checks — she curtly rejected their pleas for support.
“In our part of the country, this isn’t an issue,” she explained in an interview afterward. “This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents.”
Bottom line, she said, “I’m going to represent my state.”
For years, guns have been the issue that swing-state Democrats like Heitkamp have sought to bury. Leading Democratic strategists still believe the assault weapons ban and the creation of background checks were a driving force in the Republican landslide of 1994. Six years later — after the Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore lost his home state, Tennessee, the once-reliably Democratic West Virginia, and Arkansas, home to Bill Clinton, amid an onslaught of advertising by the National Rifle Association — many of those strategists vowed to let the issue of gun control lie dormant indefinitely.
Today, however, many Democrats insist the mass shootings in December at Newtown, after similar shootings in Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and Virginia, have changed the politics of guns.
“We’re letting our country be governed and dictated to by the extremes,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who once fired a rifle at President Barack Obama’s energy bill in a campaign commercial, lamented as he met with seven family members of children and educators slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
To other Democrats from rural Republican states, however, the landscape does not look all that different, especially if they are standing for re-election next year. Only two Democrats, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, voted against Thursday’s procedural vote to break a filibuster to take up the gun legislation. But others are in question for the final votes.
“We might feel good about passing something new, but what we need is already law,” Begich said after the vote, echoing the traditional gun-rights argument that greater enforcement of existing laws — not additional legislation — would suffice.
Besides senators Begich and Pryor, there are other Democrats in question for the final gun votes. Max Baucus of Montana, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina all face tough races next year — and tough choices now.
“I don’t support the bill, but I support open debate,” Baucus, who won the endorsement of the NRA in 2008, said after the vote. “Montanans are opposed to this bill — by a very large margin.”
The political perils for such Democrats are real, said Vic Fazio, a former California congressman who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1994 when a four-decade Democratic House majority was swept away. There were other issues — tax increases, a failed health care overhaul — but gun control loomed large, he said. The NRA’s power may have diminished since then, he said, but it has also concentrated in rural, conservative states.
President Barack Obama, until Newtown, had been a dutiful subscriber to the theory of avoiding the gun issue at all cost since the early days of his first presidential run. As recently as the second presidential debate with Mitt Romney in October, the president greeted a voter’s question on assault weapons with a meandering answer that started, “We’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.”
And supporters of the current push seem to accept that Democratic losses are inevitable.
“It’s going to be a very tough vote for a small handful of Democrats,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the bill’s shepherds. “Regardless of whether we get 52 or 55 Democrats, we’ve always known we need Republicans.” Democrats like Heitkamp staked their conservative claims on guns. Her last campaign commercial of 2012 declared “schools and tractors and guns” to be “part of how we live.” Six days after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, she called the Obama administration’s gun proposals “way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about.”