Senators Paying a Popularity Price for Siding with the NRA
The backlash against Senators from both parties who voted on April 17 against an expanded background check law for gun buyers is growing, despite knee-jerk comments from mainstream media that gun control proponents lack the fervor and commitment of the NRA and its allies.
The first sign that some of the 54 senators who voted against the background check bill were in trouble came from New Hampshire, where first-term Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s approval rating fell to 44 percent, a 15 percent drop from a survey last fall by Public Policy Polling. New Hampshire newspapers slammed her vote, with the Concord Monitorcalling it “utter nonsense” and an “abomination.”
Many of that state’s voters work in the Boston area, where two days before the Senate’s vote the Marathon bombings occurred, and a day after the vote the Tsarnaev brothers had a major gunfight with police using a handgun that they had obtained illegally.
More recent polling finds the backlash is growing—and not just in New England.
There have been drops in support for five senators who did not vote for the expanded background checks. Alaska Democrat Mark Begich, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, Nevada Republican Dean Heller and Ohio Republican Rob Portman all saw their approval ratings fall because of their vote, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released this week. In contrast, Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who co-sponsored the gun buying amendment with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, saw his rating jump to 48 percent in a new Quinnipiac poll.
These polls do not even present the full picture. North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp was assailed in a Washington Post op-ed days after the vote by Bill Daley, one of the Democratic Party’s most centrist leaders. The former Clinton administration Commerce Secretary, JP Morgan Chase executive and Obama ex-chief of staff wrote that Heitkamp “betrayed me,” and demanded his $2,500 donation back.
Daley also slammed the other Democrats who voted against the expanded background checks, namely Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, Alaska’s Begich, and Montana’s Max Baucus. And he praised the handful of Republicans, including his home state Senator Mark Kirk, for supporting the proposal and noted that Kirk “also voted to ban assault weapons—a measure quite a few Democrats wouldn’t even touch.”
Baucus has since announced that he will not seek re-election in 2014, implying that the backlash from his gun control vote was at least a contributing factor to that decision.
Where the polling and backlash politics gets interesting is it suggests that voters in these states are not buying the facile explanations given for their senators’ vote. Begich told The New York Times “it’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment because human emotions then drive the decision. Everyone’s all worked up. That’s not enough.”
Contrast that to what former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the victim of an assassination attempt, wrote in her New York Times op-ed after the vote.
“I was elected six times,” she wrote. “I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association.”
In New Hampshire, Concord Monitor editor Felice Belman responded to a reader who complained that the newspaper was publishing too many letters criticizing Ayotte by noting that “the volume” of critical mail “has certainly been extraordinary.”
This past Sunday, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told Fox News that he would be bringing the background check bill back for another vote.
The growing backlash and Manchin’s announcement confounds the staff-written analysis pieces that ran in national newspapers, such as the Washington Post, and on poll-tracking websites, such as Real Clear Politics, after the Senate vote. Those concluded that gun-control proponents would not recover from the Senate vote for a variety of political insider reasons. The Atlantic even cited a Pew poll finding that less than half of the country—only 47 percent—was really upset by the vote.
Clearly, this moment is not falling under the ‘politics-as-usual’ moniker that cynical analysts thrive on. Even the Atlantic’s explanation suggests that there is sizeable support for reasonable gun controls and bolsters proponents claims that for too long the NRA has exaggerated its supporters’ ranks.
“Who's mad about the bill's failure?” it wrote. “According to the poll, 67 percent of Democrats said they are ‘angry.’ They are also postgrads (31 percent), followed by people in the Northeast (26 percent). A fifth of women say they’re angry. And then take a look at who’s on the other side and ‘very happy’ the legislation died: 29 percent of Republicans, 28 percent of people from the West, and 26 percent of independents and white people without a college education.
There are always reasons to be cynical and disappointed in politics. But there is a growing backlash against the lawmakers who blocked the expanded background check amendment and no shortage of passion from Americans who are tired of gun violence that just continues—after Tuscon, after Newtown and after Boston.
“Mark my words,” Giffords wrote in the Times. “If we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s. To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.”