Last week’s Supreme Court victory for a statewide candidate who took aim at the National Rifle Association in a late campaign ad could embolden Democrats in the fall election to use the gun issue to their advantage.
Democrats and gun control groups see Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet’s victory as a sign that the national tide is turning against the NRA. The group has come under fire for its hard-line position against gun regulations by a national student-led movement in the wake of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“If these kids sustain that energy over the next seven months there’s no doubt that you’ll see more candidates who feel passionately about this issue making it a part of their campaigns,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist who worked on Mary Burke’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign. “Whereas in the past consultants might have told (candidates), ‘Oh no, this is Wisconsin. Guns are the third rail. Stay away from talking about that issue,’ right now it is fair game for any candidate who is passionate about this issue.”
Sean Lansing, a spokesman for Dallet’s opponent, Sauk County Circuit Judge Michael Screnock, challenged the idea that gun control played a key role in Dallet’s victory. Rather, it was one piece of Dallet’s broader strategy to nationalize the race and channel voter anger at President Donald Trump or support for women’s health issues or marriage equality — a strategy he said he expects Democrats to continue pressing into the fall.
“There’s certainly an effort on the left to demonize those associated with the NRA, but I don’t think that works in Wisconsin,” Lansing said. “If it did you would have seen the Dallet campaign make a more concerted effort to do so and more significant ad spending behind it.”
The gun issue certainly became front and center in the state during the campaign. In February, Assembly Democrats forced their Republican colleagues to take a procedural vote on universal background checks. Then in March Gov. Scott Walker announced he was working on a package of bills to address school safety, though none of the proposals that eventually passed dealt with gun regulations.
A month after the Parkland shooting thousands of Madison-area students marched on the Capitol demanding an increase in the minimum age to buy all firearms to 21; a ban on bump stocks, which make guns fire faster; limits on magazine capacity; more accessible gun safety training; and universal background checks that would apply to all gun sales, including those by private sellers.
In the waning days of the spring election, Dallet’s campaign ran a one-minute radio ad featuring astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, survived an assassination attempt in 2011.
“Our family has experienced gun violence firsthand,” Kelly said in the ad. “What we need on the bench is judges like Rebecca Dallet who understand that pain, who will enforce the law and who won’t be swayed by special interests. The NRA has endorsed Judge Dallet’s opponent in hopes that he will be a rubber stamp for the corporate gun lobby’s agenda.”
Dallet’s campaign declined to say how much money it spent on the ad or where it ran.
Polls reporting negatives for NRA
Dallet campaign pollster Matt Canter said in an interview an early March poll he conducted found the anti-NRA message to be persuasive with undecided voters.
The poll of 600 likely Wisconsin voters found 51 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the NRA, compared with 40 percent who had a favorable view, he said. The poll’s margin of error was +/-4 percentage points.
Those results were similar to a national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month that found 40 percent held a negative view of the NRA and only 37 percent held a positive view. That was the first time the national poll found a negative view of the group since at least 2000.
The most recent Marquette Law School Poll didn’t ask about the NRA, but it found 81 percent of respondents favored universal background checks for gun purchases. It also found 56 percent favored a ban on assault-style weapons, while 40 percent opposed such a ban.
Poll director Charles Franklin said an analysis of those poll results found those who supported an assault weapons ban were more likely to have a favorable view of Dallet and those who opposed a ban were more likely to favor Screnock. That correlation held up even when accounting for party identification. Not even gender offered a reliable predictor of support, Franklin said.
“This is supporting the idea that guns as an issue played some role in this election,” Franklin said.
Canter’s poll found when undecided Wisconsin poll respondents were read a message saying Screnock was “bought and paid for by the NRA,” 70 percent said it gave them doubts about voting for him.
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“There’s not a lot of precedent in Wisconsin for candidates running against the NRA,” said Canter, a former aide to Gov. Jim Doyle, who the NRA unsuccessfully targeted in 2006 by driving garbage trucks around the state with the message “Dump Doyle.”
Doyle had twice vetoed a bill allowing concealed carry of firearms that was later signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker, who has received $3.5 million in support from the NRA, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Gun issue eyed
in fall elections
Lansing, who is also working on state Sen. Leah Vukmir’s U.S. Senate campaign and U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman’s re-election campaign, said he doesn’t expect Grothman will shy away from his support for gun rights in the fall. He also noted U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has emphasized her support for the Second Amendment in the past.
“I don’t think in Wisconsin, simply attacking gun owners or attacking the NRA is a winning strategy,” Lansing said, adding Republicans will be best served by embracing successes they’ve had cutting taxes and regulations. “If Republicans aren’t embracing the successes they’ve had and the policies they’ve passed … they’re going to be in a whole lot of trouble.”
Isabelle James, political director for Giffords’ group, said it’s not surprising there is opposition to the NRA in a state like Wisconsin, where 42 percent of respondents to the Marquette poll said they own a gun.
“Touting an NRA endorsement is not going to be a winning strategy in a state like Wisconsin, where there is a proud tradition of responsible gun ownership and voters are growing frustrated with the organization,” James said.
She said the gun issue has come up in other local races, including the Pennsylvania special House election in which Democrat Conor Lamb ran as a Second Amendment supporter, but called for more background checks.
“We’re going to see this continue on in 2018 and play a huge role in suburban races that will determine who controls the majority after election day,” James said, adding the issue particularly resonates with suburban women.
James said Giffords plans to be involved in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 1st Congressional District race and Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race. The group isn’t looking at gubernatorial races, though she said the Wisconsin race is “not outside the realm of possibility.”
Jeri Bonavia, executive director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, said gun control groups such as Every Town for Gun Safety and Giffords are becoming increasingly involved in state and local politics.
“It’s relatively new for our movement to have that dynamic,” Bonavia said. “The NRA has staked out some space that shows it to be very radical in relation to where its own members are and it’s not a message that’s resonating well here in Wisconsin or elsewhere.”
Bonavia said historically in Wisconsin politicians who favor “common sense gun violence strategies have been rather quiet on the issue, fearing the NRA might have some kind of impact on the election.”
She said she has seen a change in the wake of recent shootings in Las Vegas and Florida where politicians have shifted in their speeches from leading with their support for the Second Amendment to leading with their belief in the need to protect children.
“It seems pretty obvious that the NRA has more of a bark than a bite,” Bonavia said.