New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a kingmaker with caveats, and the National Rifle Association has lost its monopoly on the gun debate. Those are among the national implications of a special congressional election in Chicago.
State Rep. Robin Kelly won the Democratic primary Tuesday night to replace disgraced Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., thumping once-favored former Rep. Debbie Halvorson. Bloomberg swayed the outcome with $2 million in ads attacking Halvorson's "A" rating from the NRA.
To be sure, Jackson's seat is heavily Democratic and is centered on Chicago's South Side, but it also is one of the most gun-riddled districts in the country. The seat is also in Chicago's expensive media market, which magnified the importance of Bloomberg's money. Despite these caveats, the outcome matters beyond Chicago:
King for a day: The billionaire mayor may want to be president, but that's not likely to happen. The next best thing is to be viewed as a person who creates congressmen, senators, and presidents. Bloomberg has what it takes to be a power broker: Money, name recognition, a provocative issue, and powerful allies--among them President Obama, who joined Bloomberg in the gun-control fight after the Newtown, Ct., school slaughter.
A check on the NRA: The gun-rights lobby saw a surge in membership after Newtown because many people feared the government would restrict or ban guns. Kelly's victory could advance the NRA's fear-for-dollars strategy. But it also means that the gun lobby no longer has a monopoly on the public square. It won't be as easy to demonize its rivals as gun haters. Bloomberg could help shift his cause's frame away from the phrase "gun control" (voters hear it and think "liberal" and "big government," according to polls conducted by both sides of the issue) to the more benign "gun safety."
Bloomberg's targets: There are a few dozen Democrats in the House and a handful of U.S. senators who must now pick their poison--buck the NRA and face gun-lobby attack ads, or toe the NRA line and get "Bloomberged." The mayor's team calls it the carrot-and-stick approach: Cover for those who oppose the NRA and punishment for those who don't. And he's looking beyond the next election cycle. Among the senators on Bloomberg's radar: Robert Casey, D-Pa., Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Among them, only Hagan is up for reelection in 2014. In addition, Bloomberg's team believes races will be close enough in up to 60 House districts in 2014 for his money to matter.
Bloomberg may be overly optimistic. First, most of the vulnerable senators up in 2014 are from conservative, gun-owning states. That may be why the partial list of Senate targets includes only one who is is up for reelection next year. Second, there simply aren't 60 vulnerable House Republicans and Democrats. The Cook Political Report lists only seven toss-up House seats for 2014, a sign of how polarized the country is.
Buying votes: Bloomberg's power is derived from a Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United that eased restrictions on how money is raised and spent in U.S. campaigns. The ruling affirms Bloomberg's First Amendment right to influence campaigns until his money runs dry. Halvorson tacitly accused Bloomberg of buying votes. "We all know how rough it was to run an election against someone who spent $2.3 million against me," she complained. The NRA supported Halvorson, making the gun lobby just as guilty as of "buying votes."
An issue with legs: This issue isn't going away soon. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that among all of Obama's proposals, gun control is one of the top three topics drawing the most support and disagreement. On the specifics of his gun agenda, voters tend to favor Obama over the GOP-controlled Congress. "This is an important victory for commonsense leadership on gun violence, a problem that plagues the whole nation," Bloomberg said in a Tuesday-night statement. Eight hundred miles from Chicago, the mayor-turned-kingmaker had made his mark.
Democratic flip-flop: Obama and other Democrats denounced the Citizens United ruling and the resulting political action committees funded by billionaire Republicans. You won't hear much grumbling now that Bloomberg is advocating a liberal position on guns and Obama has created his own super PAC, run by his campaign team and financed by billionaire Democrats.