In a race defined by gun-control issues, former state Rep. Robin Kelly's landslide win Tuesday spawned a narrative that the special-election Democratic primary in a Chicago-area House district is illustrative of larger national trends. Some pundits argued it signifies the declining influence of the National Rifle Association and the elevated ability of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to boost his preferred candidates to power and a warning to pro-gun Democrats.
But the sweeping parallels drawn from Tuesday's election don't take into account a myriad of factors that made Kelly's race unique. And a look at the electoral landscape finds few instances where those circumstances will be replicated. For starters, Congress is not heavily populated with pro-gun Democrats who represent deeply liberal constituencies. Most of the party's gun-rights supporters in Congress come from rural, moderate areas and are more vulnerable from the right than the left — limiting the scope of Bloomberg's potential targets.
In the Senate, for instance, Democrats in states like Alaska, Montana, and West Virginia are unlikely to fear that the greatest threat to their 2014 reelection comes from an NRA "A" rating. One potential target, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is likely to be facing a stiff challenge from Republicans — which could make her unlikely to move left on gun control and unlikely to be challenged from within her own party.
Similarly, House Democrats who buck their party on gun control come largely from districts that skew rural and more conservative — not exactly ripe territory for a gun control-favoring primary challenger. And just as the national landscape offers few similarities to Tuesday's primary, the factors at play in that race are unlikely to be replicated in 2014.
The district: Illinois' 2nd District is no one's idea of a battleground, giving President Obama nearly 81 percent of its vote in 2012. It's also based in the violence-wracked South Side of Chicago, making gun-control arguments particularly salient. It stands to reason that the NRA lacked influence here, just as the Sierra Club wouldn't expect to back a winner in a West Virginia Republican primary. In addition, the expensive airtime in the Chicago media market magnified the impact of Bloomberg's money. Given the limited time frame of a special election, the candidates' abbreviated fundraising made the insertion of outside money a bigger factor than it would be in a normal election cycle.
The candidate: Kelly's win was notable because she defeated former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, the early favorite in the race. Halvorson's front-runner status and pro-gun stances are what prompted Bloomberg to get involved. But, as Slate's David Weigel points out, Halvorson only earned 24 percent of the vote in a 2012 primary with then-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the seat's former occupant. Unlike many of Bloomberg's potential targets, Halvorson was not an entrenched incumbent with strong allies in the House and local political circles.
Kelly's broad-based support: Simply calling Kelly the "Bloomberg-backed candidate" overlooks the overwhelming support that coalesced around her campaign. Four Chicago-area representatives endorsed her, as did the Chicago Tribune and state Sen. Toi Hutchinson — a leading candidate who dropped out of the race. Halvorson received no such high-profile backing, and the local support alone may well have been enough to boost Kelly's momentum without Bloomberg jumping into the race.
The timing: Just months after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, with Chicago gun violence at an extreme high, Halvorson could hardly have picked a worse time to stage a political comeback. With a number of gun-control issues likely to come before Congress soon, Kelly was able to focus the race on that single issue, arguing the district needed a representative who would vote to limit the violence plaguing the city. Both at the national level and in 2014's contested races, it's unlikely gun control will remain such a defining factor after Obama's proposals pass or fail in Congress.
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