The gun control test

A certain New York billionaire wants to use a special election in Illinois to scare politicians across America

Topics: Opening Shot, Michael Bloomberg, Debbie Halvorson, Gun Control, Jesse Jackson Jr., Robin Kelly, Toi Hutchinson, Anthony Beale,

There are a few reasons why the politics of gun violence have changed dramatically in the last few months – and why, even with Republicans controlling the House, there is a real chance that meaningful gun control legislation will pass in the coming months. The obvious one is Sandy Hook, which gripped and horrified the nation in a way that previous mass shootings didn’t and thrust gun issues back into the national debate. But as it unfolds that debate will be shaped by another new phenomenon: a gun control lobby that has some serious money.

That money comes courtesy of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been a loud and lonely proponent of stricter gun laws for the past decade. Bloomberg created a super PAC, Independence USA, in the closing weeks of last year’s campaign to advance his gun agenda and a few other pet causes. Neither party wanted to touch guns back then, but now neither can ignore the subject, which has created an opportunity for Bloomberg to exert serious influence with his checkbook.

Which brings us to the special House election now playing out in the Chicago-based district that until recently was represented by Jesse Jackson Jr. The actual election in Illinois’ 2nd District is scheduled for next month, but since the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, the real action is in the primary, which will be held a week from Tuesday. And so far, the most dominant figure in the race has been Bloomberg, who has spent more through his super PAC than any of the candidates.

The money – about $1.5 million through last week – is having a big impact. Jackson’s resignation attracted a crowded field, which initially put Debbie Halvorson, a former House member whose hometown was redistricted into the 2nd in 2011, in good position. Halvorson had won a seat representing the suburban 11th District in 2008, then lost in the GOP tide of 2010. But with Jackson’s legal problems mounting in 2011 and redistricting adding suburban areas to his district, Halvorson decided to challenge him in the 2012 primary. But the demographics of the district, which is designed to encourage the election of a minority to the House, still favored Jackson over Halvorson, who is white. He ended up winning the primary with 71 percent.

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When Jackson resigned, though, Halvorson immediately jumped in the race to succeed him. Her ’12 vote share left her far behind Jackson, but in a splintered field, it might be enough to win. Thus, she began the special election race as the front-runner.

This is where Bloomberg comes in, because Halvorson is precisely the kind of candidate he created his super PAC to defeat: a Democrat who previously received an “A” rating from the NRA. More to the point, Halvorson hasn’t moderated her stance in the wake of Sandy Hook, or in the face of Chicago’s gun violence epidemic. At the start of the campaign, she reiterated her opposition to a new assault weapons ban, arguing only for a stronger background check system and a crackdown on straw purchasers. Bloomberg’s super PAC began gobbling up airtime for ads attacking Halvorson’s gun stance and hasn’t let up.

Then, last Friday, Bloomberg’s group went a step farther, launching a new ad that endorsed one of Halvorson’s opponents, former state Rep. Robin Kelly, and that attacked another candidate with an anti-gun control past, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson. Within 48 hours, Hutchinson dropped out of the race and threw her support to Kelly. In her withdrawal statement on Sunday, Hutchinson specifically chided Halvorson for “her refusal to moderate her views on banning dangerous assault weapons.”

Suddenly, the once wide open race is more clearly defined. There are numerous candidates on the ballot, but only three seem to have significant support: Halvorson, Kelly and Anthony Beale, a Chicago alderman. Already, Bloomberg has succeeded in consolidating support around a pro-gun control candidate, and his well-funded attacks on Halvorson figure to hurt her even more in the race’s final week.

Bloomberg’s gambit could have significant ramifications nationally. Obviously, if Halvorson somehow survives the barrage and wins the primary, it will be a major blow to gun control proponents. But if Bloomberg gets his desired outcome, it will serve notice to senators and House members across the country about what they might face if they oppose gun control measures that make it to the floor. This is why President Obama’s plea for Speaker John Boehner to simply allow votes on his gun control agenda is so important. Even if each measure doesn’t pass, it will force every incumbent on the record – and provide Bloomberg with a target list for the 2014 cycle.

When it’s come to gun issues for the past two decades, members of Congress were mainly influenced by fear of angering the 2nd Amendment crowd. Republicans didn’t dare deviate from the NRA line for fear of primary challenges; Democrats stayed quiet for fear of endangering their colleagues in states and districts with large gun-owning populations. But now, with Bloomberg engaged, these same members of Congress will be forced to consider the potential consequences of voting against gun control. The threat to do to a candidate what Bloomberg is doing to Halvorson simply hasn’t existed for the past two decades.

But it does now. Debbie Halvorson may end up the first victim of the new post-Sandy Hook political realities. And if she does, she probably won’t be the last.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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