Bloomberg’s spending pressures pro-gun Democrats, except when it doesn’t

Pryor. (SenRockefeller, via Flickr.)
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Yesterday, Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana, one of five red-state Democrats targeted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told a local newspaper that he supports expanding background checks

But while that pronouncement can be chalked up as a victory in Bloomberg's $12 million campaign to pressure fence-sitting senators to take such a position, the mayor's spending is giving pro-gun Democrats in other states an excuse to dig in their heels.

"I doubt Mr. Bloomberg's ad campaign will have the desired effect here," said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, and the director of the Arkansas Poll, in an email to Capital.

In Arkansas, Bloomberg is targeting Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat who once supported new gun laws, but is adjusting to the realities of a more right-leaning state, and an uncertain re-election in 2014.

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Pryor voted for the renewal of the assault weapons ban in 2004, two years after he beat a Republican incumbent by running as a pro-gun Democrat. National Republicans ran ads accusing Pryor of being soft on Second Amendment rights, but his opponent in that race, Tim Hutchinson, later lamented that he wasn't able to get to the right of Pryor on guns, said Parry.

Since then, the state has only gotten more hostile to the Democratic Party and its platform.

"Because the political climate is much less hospitable to Democrats now then it was then—indeed, it's a different universe—Pryor is considered endangered almost a full two years in advance of his next re-election bid," Parry said. "To think he could be persuaded to take a position—however popular nationally—that inevitably would be construed by his opponents as 'pro-gun-control' is naïve, and—to be frank—likely to backfire."

The ad campaign, and its ties to Bloomberg, have gotten a fair amount of notice in the state. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the state's largest newspaper, ran the New York Times story announcing the ad campaign on its front page on Sunday, under the headline: "Pryor is on Bloomberg gun-control ad blitz list."

Pryor's reaction probably wasn't what the mayor was hoping for.

"I’ve gotten a lot of questions about NYC Mayor gun ad," he wrote on Twitter on Monday. "My response? I don’t take gun advice from the Mayor of NYC. I listen to Arkansans."

Bloomberg's group touts polls showing more than 80 percent of Arkansans support expanded background checks.

"If he makes a political decision to be on the wrong side of an 80-20 issue in his state, that's obviously his decision," said Howard Wolfson, a top adviser to the mayor. "I mean, he is a deeply embattled incumbent, he is the Democrat most likely to lose, so, you know, I assume he's going to have to figure out how to navigate the political situation he's in. And if he thinks that being on the wrong side of this issue is the way to do that, then that will obviously be the choice that he makes."

Other red-state Democrats targeted by Bloomberg have expressed more of a willingness to consider the issue, though Bloomberg has come up in other states too.

"New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg insists on taking gun-driven crime statistics in his city and from other major cities and trying to force those numbers into a narrative that just does not fit North Dakota," said Heidi Heitkamp, one of those red-state Democrats, who was elected to the Senate from North Dakota last year.

"I do not need someone from New York City to tell me how to handle crime in our state," she added, according to the Associated Press.

Wolfson said the issue was going to be highly public regardless of the mayor's ads, and defended decision to launch a big ad campaign right as the senators were coming home to their districts for a two-week recess.

"This isn't a quiet issue," he said. "This isn't an issue that people are able to vote one way or the other and not have people notice. The N.R.A. has been active since the president's package came out, in activating its members against the bill. ...The N.R.A. is out there. They're making their case, they're activating their members. They are attempting to influence elected officials, they do that very well.

"It was important for other voices to be heard, the voices of the majority of people in that country. So that's the role we're playing. We're facilitating the other part of that debate."

Bloomberg has promised he'll be recording the names of those who oppose him during the upcoming gun debate in the Senate, but it's not entirely clear what he might do to a pro-gun Democrat like Pryor in 2014.

Pryor's Republican opponent—whoever it ends up being—is likely to be much more pro-gun than he is, and the prospect of Bloomberg pouring money into a Democratic primary against Pryor would probably only help the Republican candidate.

But, ironically, Bloomberg's involvement could help Pryor hang on.

Pushing back on the mayor could "give Pryor an opportunity to distinguish himself from East Coast liberals as well as re-establishing his pro-gun credentials," according to Parry, who said she was discussing the mayor's campaign in her political science classes this week.

"So, the opportunity to speak loudly against the Bloomberg push could be the best thing that's happened to Mark Pryor in a while," she said.