With Guns in the Spotlight, Candidates for Governor Recalibrate Their Positions

Guns have suddenly emerged as a central issue in this year's races. Navigating the issue will be difficult for both parties.
by | March 1, 2018
In 2013, Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis said that banning military-style weapons would make it harder for Coloradans to defend themselves. He now favors such a ban. (AP/Tom Williams)

Candidates for governor will have to win two elections this year to take office, a primary and then the general election in November. On one issue, at least -- guns -- many will offer different messages for each contest.

"Right now, the Democratic candidates for governor are climbing all over each other to get as far to the left as possible," says Daniel Cole, communications director for the Colorado Republican Party. "Then, whoever wins will have to hope the public forgets about all that by November."

Democratic hopefuls are increasing their calls for gun control measures, even in red states such as Georgia and Texas. In states such as Florida and South Carolina, Democratic candidates are trying to explain away parts of their records that make them seem like they've only recently come around in their opposition to assault weapons. In his congressional runs, Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz regularly received backing from the National Rifle Association, but now, as a candidate for governor, he's supporting a ban on assault rifles and has returned past donations from the gun rights group.

Progressive Democrats are using the issue as a way to distinguish themselves from rivals who hold less adamant positions against guns, or have in the past.

Dennis Kucinich, a former congressman and presidential candidate who's now running for governor of Ohio, said in a speech in Cleveland Monday that his opponent, former state Attorney General Richard Cordray, had been the NRA's "boy," defending a state law that preempted local gun-control measures.

"As attorney general, Mr. Cordray clearly made his office an extension of the NRA," Kucinich said.

Cordray, who has received support from the NRA and other gun rights groups in the past, has come out in favor of stricter background checks and said last week that it's time to "rethink our approach to military-style weapons," but he has not called for a ban.

Since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., two weeks ago, some Republican governors have spoken favorably about limited gun control measures, including Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Florida and Bill Haslam of Tennessee. All of them will be term-limited out of office this year. In Vermont, a liberal state that imposes few restrictions on guns, GOP Gov. Phil Scott has come out in favor of requiring gun purchasers under the age of 21 to take safety training and might sign a bill requiring universal background checks. Scott is seeking a second term this year.

President Trump seems to have embraced certain gun control measures, telling a surprised group of lawmakers at the White House on Wednesday that he supports a "comprehensive" gun bill that would strengthen background checks and remove guns from the hands of people deemed high risk.

But many Republican candidates are restating their staunch support for the rights of gun owners. At a gubernatorial forum in Maine on Monday, the entire field rejected gun control proposals out of hand.

"Taking someone's gun away from them is not going to make our schools safer," said Mike Thibodeau, the president of the state Senate. "We have approached this problem that way, and it's the wrong way."

In Georgia, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, considered the GOP frontrunner in the governor's race, drew attention from national media and late-night comics with a tweet asserting his displeasure with Delta's decision to end an NRA membership discount program. Delta is a leading employer in the state and is hoping for an extension of a sales tax break on jet fuel.

"I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA," Cagle wrote on Monday. "Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back."

Cagle's GOP rivals have all attacked Delta as well. On Wednesday, a Georgia Senate committee stripped the jet fuel break out of a larger tax bill.

Polls have shown a striking increase in support for gun-control measures since the Parkland killings, and some state-level Democrats are responding.

On Monday, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order requiring police to disarm potentially dangerous people. Last week, Raimondo joined with the Democratic governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to create a coalition to share information about gun purchases and suspects.

On Tuesday, the Washington state Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, passed a ban on bump stocks, which allow rifles to shoot faster. The shooter in October's massacre in Las Vegas used bump stocks.

In Colorado, state Sen. Mike Johnston is positioning himself as a stronger gun control advocate than his opponent in June's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Congressman Jared Polis.

"The NRA's never scared me before and they sure don't scare me now," Johnston said in an ad released Tuesday.

"In the case of Mike Johnston, he sees this as an opportunity for a wedge issue against Polis, the nominal frontrunner," says Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst.

Polis said in 2013 that a proposal to ban military-style weapons would make it harder for Coloradans to defend themselves. He now favors such a ban.

"Jared and his colleagues have introduced legislation similar to the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004," Jenn Ridder, his campaign manager, wrote in an email appeal on Tuesday.

Johnston co-sponsored a Colorado law in 2013 that required background checks for private gun sales and he supported a limitation on magazine sizes to 15 rounds. Those laws were passed in the wake of the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

The laws led to the recalls of two of Johnston's state Senate colleagues, as well as the resignation of a third senator who stepped down to avoid a recall. The recall campaigns became big money fights between groups on either side of the gun debate.

John Morse was the president of the state Senate when he was recalled. He notes that he narrowly lost due to the anger of a "vocal minority" and argues that the politics of gun control will change if the "silent majority" that favors restrictions refuses to stay silent.

"I think Coloradans will have a clear choice and I think the entire country needs to make a choice that we're sick of burying our children and we have to do something differently," Morse says.

Democrats may have calculated that the NRA and its membership are going to be on high alert no matter what they do. There's already some evidence of that.

Charles Cotton, a member of the NRA board, posted on a private forum Tuesday about his concerns that gun rights may be more endangered under President Trump than they were under President Obama.

"We've never had this level of opposition, not ever," Cotton wrote. "It's a campaign of lies and distortion, but it's very well funded and they are playing on the sympathy factor of kids getting killed."

Guns may not remain this hot an issue on the national scene all the way until November. And candidates from both parties may continue to "evolve" in their positions.

Some Republican candidates -- even among those who are now touting their support for Second Amendment rights -- will offer some support for measures such as improving background check systems and keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. They recognize that this is an issue that could hurt them among suburban women, who are likely to be the key demographic group determining the course of this particular midterm.

"Gun control has always polled well in the suburbs," says Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

Maybe not as well as in the cities, but far better than in rural areas, he says -- and neither the cities nor rural counties are up for grabs, politically.

"It's the relatively moderate, independent suburbs -- with their obsession with children and schools and safety -- that will decide who runs this country," Levy says.

Toward that end, Democrats see guns as part of a basket of issues that could help them win over suburban voters who may have soured on the GOP due to Trump's controversial presidency. Right now, they see their primary voters as enraged and activated by the issue.

But Morse, the former Colorado Senate president, recalls believing that Sandy Hook would "steer the conscience of a generation" and that he "couldn't have been more wrong."

Gun control has long been an issue that performs better in polls than it does as a voting issue in elections.

"All of the evidence that we have in Colorado in particular indicates that these measures aren't going to fly with our voters," says Cole, the GOP spokesman.

Democrats will have to speak to two audiences, Sondermann says -- first, their outraged primary voters and then the broader electorate in November.

"Most of these candidates are worried about June," he says. "You worry about what's in front of your nose."

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