A big day for Bloomberg’s gun-control doctrine, loopholes and all

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Democratic voters in a Chicago-based House district have decided between a candidate who opposes the assault-weapons ban and a pro-gun control candidate who has been backed, to the tune of $2 million, by Michael Bloomberg. 

Bloomberg's candidate, Robin Kelly, has prevailed by a large margin, in large part due to the mayor's help.

As Steve Kornacki noted yesterday, the result should send a message to other candidates around the country that if they oppose the National Rifle Association on gun policy, someone will have their back. 

Except, well, then there's Rep. Elizabeth Esty.

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She's a pro-gun control Democrat who represents Newtown, Conn. She's a member of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, and a proud advocate for tougher gun control laws, including a robust new version of the federal assault weapons ban.

Last fall, Bloomberg opposed her, in favor of a socially liberal Republican who was decidedly less favorably inclined to gun regulation than Esty is.

Even as Bloomberg's personal super PAC has made a conspicuous crusade of pummeling Debbie Halvorson, the pro-gun Democrat running to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Chicago, Esty stands as an illustration that its mission and methods as a would-be counterweight to the N.R.A. are still evolving. 

In short, Bloomberg is interested in using his money to promote gun control, but he is also interested, in keeping with his self-styling as an antipartisan champion of centrism, in backing candidates perceived as moderate because they defy their parties.

When those two things come in conflict—usually when a relatively liberal Republican runs against an actually liberal Democrat who is closer to the mayor's position on guns—the antipartisan agenda, the one that aims to heal the Republican Party rather than displace it, often wins.

Case in point, in a district that was to take on enormous symbolic importance on the gun issue because of Sandy Hook: Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC spent $1.1 million to back Republican Andrew Roraback against Esty, with television ads touting Roraback as a "rare moderate" based on non-gun issues including abortion rights, campaign finance reform, and environmental protections.

The ad's only mention of guns was a quote from newspaper story saying Roraback supports "better enforcement of existing gun laws," but the narrator skipped over the word "existing." And the ad didn't cite the next line from the same story, when Roraback told the Record-Journal, shortly after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado: “I don’t think that more gun control is the answer."

Around the same time, the mayor hosted a fund-raiser for Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, even though Brown was the more gun-friendly candidate in his race against Elizabeth Warren.

And, in Illinois, Bloomberg backed Robert Dold, a moderate Republican who touted his work with Bloomberg to close the gun-show loophole, against a Democratic opponent who was more comprehensively for gun control. (Brown came out against a federal assault weapons ban, and Dold reportedly declined to make known his position on the ban.)

Bloomberg, who has said on numerous occasions that he isn't judging candidates solely on their position on guns, explained his support for Brown by saying it was a reward for the senator "single-handedly" stopping an N.R.A.-backed measure that would have forced states to reciprocally respect other states' concealed-carry laws. 

"I said to him ‘You do that, and I’m going to support you,’" Bloomberg told the New York Times. "Now, I don’t have to agree with him on a lot of other things, although he’s certainly no crazy right-wing – he’s just more conservative than I am – but here’s a guy that really made a difference, and if we don’t support people like that, nobody’s going to take risks.”

All three of the Republicans who Bloomberg backed lost their races.

Bloomberg's biggest victory was essentially an intra-party warning to Democrats. In California, he spent $3 million to unseat incumbent Democrat Joe Baca, who was considered relatively safe until Bloombeg's last-minute push to elevate fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod, a little known state senator with a history of supporting gun control. (Negrete McLeod now sits on the congressional gun task force, with Esty.)

But the two Democrats were only competing in the general election because of California's quirky system of nonpartisan elections, and the message was essentialy the same one Bloomberg is trying to send in Illinois, where he's investing in the Democratic primary, in a heavily Democratic district. 

Baca, who has already declared his intention to run again, now says he supports the assault weapons ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, which the N.R.A. has denounced.

Bloomberg's spending has had a less noticeable effect on marginal Republicans. Among the Republican members ranked most vulnerable by the Cook Political Report, most have publicly stated, in the weeks since Newtown, that they don't favor any new gun laws, and some said they would actively oppose them.

"The fact is proposals to limit guns rights only provide the illusion of reducing gun violence," said Rep. Gary Miller, whose Southern California district borders Baca's old one.

"Any regulations on guns should be debated in Congress, and during that debate I will be a strong advocate for gun owners and the Second Amendment," said Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, a Republican former reindeer farmer who represents a Detroit-area district.

Even Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents Aurora in Congress, has been conspicuously quiet on the issue, saying only that he'll "review" any new legislation that comes up in the House.

Unlike the N.R.A., with its brutally simple for-us-or-against-us letter-based grading system, Bloomberg hasn't yet made known exactly what he expects from his friends, or how he'll determine his enemies.

"I would think he would want to very specifically reach out and say we will give you some real money for your campaign, maybe $500,000 or a million, which would obviously be a great deal for a House race," said Robert Spitzer, author of Politics of Gun Control, and a professor at SUNY Cortland.

Bloomberg's spending, and his high-profile lobbying for gun regulations since well before Sandy Hook, often when the bulk of the national Democratic Party was nowhere to be seen on the issue, has obviously had an emboldening effect on the forces of gun control.

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, have declared their intention to raise $20 million to pour into congressional races, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already announced that it will make guns one of its major issues in 2014. 

And President Obama's evolving campaign apparatus has already begun targeting vulnerable gun-rights Republicans.

Chuck Schumer, who made a national name for himself on gun control when he was a congressman from a Brooklyn-based district, thinks Bloomberg can have a positive effect, even before the next election cycle, in the swing districts where it matters most.

"I'm very glad that Mayor Bloomberg is getting heavily involved in the gun issue, because the N.R.A., particularly in parts of the country, is extremely, extremely powerful and has been able to thwart legislation that would increase gun safety," he told me recently.

"The resources that Mayor Bloomberg will add, with ads and calls and things like that, is very helpful, because even though the majority of Americans are for more gun safety measures, the calls you get to offices around the country—particularly in the midwest, the south and the west—are overwhelmingly against, because the N.R.A. is mobilized and the other side is less mobilized, even though it has greater support. So if Bloomberg can mobilize those areas, it will be of great help."

Gun-rights advocates, who are also working to mobilize voters in those areas, seem to be perfectly clear on what it means to be a Bloomberg-backed candidate, in terms of gun control. And Bloomberg's victory in Chicago should make things that much clearer. 

But there's still no knowing what Michael Bloomberg intends his spending arm to be when the next election comes around or, for that matter, the next time there's a big fight in Congress over gun control.

Will he limit himself to promoting moderates in each party? Or will he actually do what the N.R.A. has done so effectively, even if that means supporting many more candidates from one party than the other?

Referring to the issue of gun control shortly after the massacre in Newtown, Rep. Esty said, "When you are a public servant, sometimes you chose the issues and sometimes the issues choose you."

For Bloomberg, who will be leaving office next year but is only just getting started as a national force in campaign finance, it's his choice entirely.

NOTE: This article, which was published on the day of the election in Chicago, has been updated to include the result.

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