Nicole Gaudiano reports on Kantar Media data showing gun control messaging is far outweighing pro-second amendment messaging in 2018 midterm elections
Correction: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the location of the National Rifle Association headquarters.
WASHINGTON â€“ Candidates across the country and alliedÂ outside groups are seizing on the issue of guns in advertising this election cycle, but with a twist: More spots now promote gun control than oppose it.
That messaging represents a reversal from the last midterm cycle in 2014 and even 2016, when the combined total of pro-gun-rightsÂ spots in governors, House and Senate races eclipsed those touting restrictions on guns, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Kantar Media.
The shift follows a rash of mass shootings, including the killing of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School six months ago Tuesday.
Democrats are driving the surge inÂ advertising favoring gun control as polling shows the public generally supports stricter laws covering the sale of firearms and overwhelmingly supports expanded background checks.
It could be a gamble, given that curbing access to guns has long been considered the third rail of politics. For decades, prominent Democratic candidates, especially in battleground states,Â have sought to reassure voters of their support for protections under the Second Amendment for the right to bear arms.
In 2018, however, candidates and outside groupsÂ â€“ particularly in House and governors races â€“ are flooding the airwaves with pointed and sometimes dramatic messages.
â€œIâ€™m running for governor because Iâ€™m a parent who will not stop at anything until we make our gun laws stronger and our children safe,â€ says Philip Levine, a candidate in Floridaâ€™s Democratic gubernatorial primary, which has drawn the largest number of spots favoring gun-control.
From Jan. 1 through Aug. 6, the total number of spots in governors, House and Senate racesÂ favoring gun control outpaced those opposed to it, representing about 59 percent of the total spots that took an explicit position in the gun debate. That’s up from 31 percent in 2016 and 11 percent in 2014.
Overall in those races, there were aboutÂ 82,000 pro-gun-control spots, mostly by Democrats, and about 57,500 anti-gun-control spots, mostly by Republicans, this year so far.Â Another batch of more than 19,000Â â€œmiscellaneousâ€ spotsÂ by both parties this year mentioned or showed a gun without taking a position.
The pro-gun-control spots this year had 81 sponsors, compared to 72 for anti-gun-control spots â€“ also a reversal from the two previous cycles when anti-gun-control spots had a higher number of sponsors than pro-gun-control spots.
Spots consideredÂ “pro-gun-control”Â may call for increased restrictions on guns or opposition to the National Rifle Association while “anti-gun-control” ads may express support for the Second Amendment, the NRA or the freedom to bear arms, according to Kantar, which tracked the spot count or the number of times ads have aired.
For instance, GOP Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who has run the most anti-gun-control spots, made waves during his primary with an ad showing him pointing a shotgun toward a teenager named â€œJakeâ€ who wantedÂ to date his daughter. He announcedÂ his approval when he discovered Jake metÂ Kempâ€™s qualifications: â€œRespectâ€ and â€œa healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.â€
Democrats have long tried to counter such messaging and attacks from the National Rifle Association by showing an affinity for hunters and expressing support for Second Amendment rights. In 2004, for example, John Kerry, appearing in camouflage, took his presidential campaign to a duck blind. And President Obama, in an appeal to the heartland in 2008, supported a Supreme Court decision overturning a ban on guns in Washington, D.C. That came after he angered Midwestern voters by saying at a fundraiser that they get bitter and “cling to guns or religion.”
Something “flipped,” at least for some politicians, after former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., lost her seat in 2016 following her vote against an expansion of background checks,Â said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president for social policy and politics at the center-left think tank, Third Way. That same cycle, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., won his election after toutingÂ his work on the background check bill as a strategy to mobilize suburban women.
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Only in the Senate races this year did pro-gun-rights spots â€“ all aired by Republicans â€“ outpace pro-gun-control spots. DemocratsÂ instead aired more miscellaneous gun-related messages in Senate races than thoseÂ promoting gun control.
This approach makes “perfect sense” for Democrats when looking at where the competitive Senate races are this year, said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former Republican National Committee spokesman
Senate Democrats haven’t had competitive primaries this cycle, but they face a challenging November, defendingÂ 10 Senate seats in states that President Donald Trump won. States like Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota have large rural populations where voters remain opposed to gun control, Conant said. For Senate Democrats running for re-election in red states, their party’sÂ emphasis on gun control this cycle could be “awkward,” he said.Â
â€œGun control polls well in urban enclaves, but the further you get from a big city, the less support youâ€™re going to find for it,â€ Conant said. â€œItâ€™s a real liability for Senate Democrats if gun control emerges as a national issue in the midterms.â€
Suburban vs. rural voters
But while the Senate’s geographical battleground is more rural and Midwestern, most key House races are in suburban districts former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016, Erickson Hatalsky said.
â€œRepublicans are on defense on guns in most of the House races, because the suburban women who will decide those elections strongly support commonsense gun-safety laws,â€ Erickson Hatalsky said. â€œThe terrain is different in the Senate, given the states that are up, and both parties may worry they have something to lose from leaning in on guns in the key Senate races.â€
In a Northern Virginia district near the nation’s capital, Democratic House candidate Jennifer Wexton kickedÂ off one ad by highlighting her fight as a state senator for universal background checks for gun purchases. Wexton, who is running against GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock,Â saidÂ sheâ€™ll work in Congress to ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.
The message makes sense, considering a Public Policy Polling survey following last yearâ€™s Virginia governorâ€™s race showed the gun issue was an important deciding factor in the election of Democrat Ralph Northam and that 60 percent of Virginians want stronger gun laws.Â
Comstock has an â€œAâ€ rating from the NRA and has been among the top recipients of NRA funds in the past. She is also considered among the most vulnerable House Republicans in a districtÂ Clinton won by 10 percentage points.
â€œIâ€™ll show Donald Trump how progressive we are in Virginia,â€ Wexton saidÂ in her ad.
Pro-gun-control ads ranked highest â€“ fifth â€“ among issues in ads for Democratic gubernatorial races, drivenÂ by large ad buys in Florida followed by California. Such ads ranked seventh among issues highlighted in advertising in Democratic House races.
Rather than talking about â€œgun control,â€ James said most candidatesâ€™ messages use other terms. Theyâ€™re talking about gun safety, strengthening gun laws, making communities safer and standing up to the gun lobby. â€œGun control,â€ she said, is a term thatâ€™s been co-opted by the gun lobby and â€œweaponizedâ€ against candidates who use it.
â€œCandidates have found a new way to talk to voters about the policies that they know voters support without suggesting that they oppose the Second Amendment or the right of responsible gun owners to bear arms,â€ she said.
Contributing: Fredreka Schouten and Donovan Slack
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