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November 8, 2010

A Winning Issue

It has already been well chronicled that gun control supporters fared well in the November 2 elections. As the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pointed out, candidates who endorse common-sense gun laws won Senate races from both sides of the aisle. Victorious on Tuesday were the following Democrats: Barbara Boxer in California; Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, Ron Wyden in Oregon; Barbara Mikulski in Maryland; Daniel Inouye in Hawaii; Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, Michael Bennet in Colorado; and Chris Coons in Delaware. Then there is the incoming Republican Senator from Illinois, Mark Kirk, who currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Task Force on Illegal Guns in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Much was made of the fact that the National Rifle Association (NRA) endorsed many Blue Dog Democrats running for re-election in the House, but the support of the gun lobby did little to improve their fortunes. Of the 49 Democratic incumbents who lost in the November 2 elections, 29 (59%) had an A rating from the NRA, 27 were endorsed by the NRA (55%), and 25 (51%) received financial support from the NRA. On the flip side, only three of the 101 Democratic House incumbents who co-sponsored legislation to close the Gun Show Loophole (H.R. 2324) lost on Tuesday. The loophole allows private individuals to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting background checks on purchasers or maintaining records of sale.

One particularly interesting House race took place in Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, where first-term Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly faced off against Keith Fimian, a local businessman. The 11th is as “an odd-shaped Congressional District stretching from the rural Virginia horse country near Warrenton, then meandering east through the battlefields at Bull Run, and finally racing north headlong towards the uber-metropolian suburbs of Fairfax and Arlington. Nestled near the armpit of the District lies the impressive headquarters of the National Rifle Association.” In 2009, the 11th supported the Republican slate, voting for Bob McDonnell as Governor, Bill Bolling as Lieutenant Governor, and Ken Cuccinelli as Attorney General.

The NRA’s endorsement in its home district went to Fimian. The gun issue did not figure large in the race, however, until Fimian made the following controversial comments:

I think that at Virginia Tech, if one of those kids in one of those classrooms was packing heat, I think that would not have happened … The perpetrator of that crime would have thought twice before walking into a classroom if he thought there was any chance of someone being armed and preventing him from doing that.

Gerry Connolly immediately bucked the “conventional wisdom” among Democrats in rural and conservative districts that the gun control issue is “untouchable” and “a loser.” James Walkinshaw, Connolly's campaign manager, told the press that “Keith Fimian's extreme position on guns and outrageous comments about the Virginia Tech tragedy serve to show yet again that he is too extreme for Northern Virginia. Fimian's opposition to closing the Gun Show Loophole, his callous lack of regard for the victims of the tragedy, and belief that guns should be allowed on our schools and college campuses are way out of the mainstream.”

Survivors of the shooting at Virginia Tech also took great offense to Fimian’s remarks. Omar Samaha, who lost his sister Reema during the tragedy, appeared in a television ad sponsored by Americans United for Safe Streets (AUSS). "Ask Keith Fimian why he's protecting criminals, instead of protecting us,” he implored his fellow Virginians. Retired Lt. Col. Peter Read, whose daughter Mary was also killed, accepted an apology from Fimian for his remarks, but noted, “He has yet to decide his answer on the simple question of whether he'll support background checks for every gun sold at a gun show. I need my representative in Congress to know the answer to that question.”

The pressure to clarify his stance on these issues became so intense that Fimian’s campaign literally began to run from questions.

Overcoming a massive wave that saw the Republicans gain 60+ seats in the House, Connolly prevailed in the 11th on Election Day. He currently holds a 935-vote lead over Fimian, with only 300 ballots left to be counted. As one voter told The Connection Newspapers, “I heard some comments that one of the candidates made about Virginia Tech, and I decided to come out and vote for the other guy.”

Even the blog Red NoVA had strong words on the matter: “Keith’s comments saying that if a student was ‘packing heat’ there would have been fewer deaths were incredibly insensitive and damaging to his cause … To make matters worse, this entire drama unfolded on every network news station in the DC region.”

Time will tell if other Democrats in the Commonwealth and across the country catch on, but public safety was clearly a boon to the party in an otherwise disastrous 2010 election. Resources also make a difference—AUSS spent $450,000 on ads and mailers in the VA-11 race and it paid off. Far from a liability, strong support for policies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals is a career booster.

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