In Many GOP Primaries, No Calls for New Gun Laws

By James Arkin
March 08, 2018

In Indiana, one Republican Senate candidate released his first ad last week with a clip of himself shooting a rifle and declaring himself “pro-gun” while touting an “A” rating from the NRA.

In West Virginia, a GOP Senate candidate’s new digital ad released the same day touted an NRA “A+” rating and said the candidate was “endorsed by West Virginia gun owners.”

In Montana recently, a Senate candidate posted on Facebook a picture from a gun show; in Ohio, a Senate candidate did the same from a local gun shop.

And in Florida, two top Republican candidates vying to replace outgoing Gov. Rick Scott came out against his plan to raise the age for purchasing all guns to 21, which the two-term governor introduced in the days following the deadly school shooting in Parkland last month.

Students from the state have mounted a public campaign for gun control measures in the weeks since a gunman killed 17 people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. Believing that the politics of new gun legislation had shifted, gun control activists and Democrats rallied around the cause, several Republican lawmakers signaled openness as well, and even President Trump appeared to endorse several new measures that most in his party oppose.

But in statewide primaries across the country, GOP candidates have not embraced this movement and, in many cases, have doubled down on their support for the NRA and gun rights, signaling that there has been little if any shift in the politics of guns from the party’s perspective.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Republican strategist in Florida, said of candidates opposing new gun measures. “If you don’t, you may not win the nomination. If you do, you may not win the general election.”

The situation is most prominent in Florida, where legislation that includes raising the age limit to 21 for all firearm purchases, a three-day purchase waiting period and funding for mental health and school safety narrowly passed the state Senate this week. Both of the top Republican candidates for governor, Rep. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, opposed the proposed restrictions. Putnam, who previously referred to himself as a “proud NRA sellout,” received praise from the organization on Twitter after announcing his stance.

The politics in the gubernatorial race are in stark contrast to the politics in the Florida Senate race, where Scott is widely expected to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson without facing competition in the primary. Stipanovich said Scott can afford to take a risk because he lacks an intraparty rival, while Putnam and DeSantis have to try to thread the needle between the GOP base and the broader general electorate.

In several cases, Republican candidates have gone out of their way to highlight the issue and flex their muscles on gun support. In Georgia, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a leading candidate for the nomination for governor this year, led the charge to prevent a tax break for Delta after the airline ended its discount for NRA members. Cagle called it “discriminating against law-abiding gun owners.”

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, another candidate in the gubernatorial primary, proposed that the tax break instead fund a sales tax holiday over the Fourth of July for the purchase of guns, ammunition, holsters and safes.

Other Republicans across the country haven’t been nearly as high profile on the issue as those in Florida or Georgia, but have nonetheless emphasized their pro-gun stances. Rep. Todd Rokita, who is in a three-way primary in the Indiana Senate race, showed a clip of himself shooting a rifle in his first ad of the cycle. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey similarly highlighted his pro-gun position, along with his NRA rating, in a digital ad that same day.

In Montana, which has a crowded GOP Senate primary, businessman Troy Downing posted pictures of himself at a gun show, and touted his support for the Second Amendment. In Ohio, businessman Mike Gibbons, who is challenging Rep. Jim Renacci in the Senate primary, posted a picture of himself at a local gun shop holding a rifle.

The positioning of these candidates makes sense as they battle to win over primary voters. Though the NRA has a negative image in the country overall, it remains highly popular among the Republican electorate. In a Quinnipiac poll this week, only 38 percent of voters had a positive view of the NRA, but 78 percent of Republican voters held a favorable impression of it. More than half of GOP voters said the NRA has the right amount of influence over politicians, and 58 percent of Republican respondents oppose stricter gun laws.  

In the Buckeye State gubernatorial race, there’s a similar situation to Florida, with candidates to replace Gov. John Kasich opposing new gun restrictions the governor proposed, including banning armor-piercing ammunition and bump stocks, and banning third party purchases. In a statement after Kasich’s proposal was released, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor said she was “deeply concerned” that a Republican administration proposed to “roll back the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Ohioans in response to a tragedy.”

“Banning the sale of certain weapons, ammunition, or accessories does nothing to address the root causes of these evil acts,” she said.

Taylor had worked to make guns an inflection point in the primary before the Florida shooting thrust it into the national spotlight. She said in a speech in January she didn’t trust Attorney General Mike DeWine, her main opponent, on the issue. DeWine had an “F” rating from the NRA when he served in Congress in the 1990s and early 2000s, but his standing with the organization improved after his first term as attorney general. DeWine proposed a three-point plan after the Florida shooting that included improvements in school security and the background check system but no new gun restrictions.  

“Reducing the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners or proposing new ban​s doesn't address the problems,” DeWine said. The Buckeye Firearms Association has endorsed him in the race, while Ohioans for Concealed Carry has backed Taylor. 

Given the unprecedented and sustained attention on gun violence in the aftermath of the Florida massacre, Republicans have proposed policy solutions that could help prevent future shootings. However, though some moderates and lawmakers in swing House districts have called for gun restrictions, the main focus has centered on school security and mental health. Josh Holmes, a veteran Republican strategist, said Republican candidates need to present some ideas for change, but should avoid having the debate revolve around firearms. 

“You have to have an answer to the question of how you want to make sure our kids are safe in school,” Holmes said. “That doesn’t need to be a gun control answer because for two-thirds of the country those things are incompatible. But if you dismiss it as a candidate, you do it at your own peril because it is a serious concern, a serious problem, and something I think virtually every American is looking for answers to.”

In several primary debates that have taken place since the shooting -- key opportunities for candidates to distinguish themselves from opponents on policy -- Republicans instead answered in lockstep on backing school security measures while opposing any new gun restrictions. In a Republican debate for the Maine gubernatorial election, none of the five candidates supported any new gun measures, but rather supported allowing teachers to carry guns, or putting armed guards at schools. In a Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate, all three GOP candidates (pictured) similarly talked about improvements in school security and opposed any new restrictions.

“I don’t think we should automatically go to and equate the monster in Florida with those that are trying to exercise their Second Amendment rights here in Pennsylvania peacefully,” said Paul Mango, one of candidates.

They did diverge in one area, though: Mango and state Sen. Scott Wagner said they would not refuse donations from the NRA; Laura Ellsworth, a lawyer, said she would.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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