In the Aftermath of Gun-Bill Loss in Senate, Liberals Put Incumbent Democrats on Notice

The political M.O. for most red-state Democrats, especially those up for reelection next year, is to avoid issues that make them look liberal.

But after last week's failed gun-control vote in the Senate, in which a handful of moderate Democrats defected from their party, a coalition of progressive groups is warning those at-risk incumbents to start avoiding votes that make them look too conservative. If not, these liberal activists say their support, enthusiasm, and contributions will dwindle — or, in a worst case for Democrats, they'll mount a potentially damaging primary challenge.

The liberal anger is evident in threats from the Michael Bloomberg-funded Mayors Against Illegal Guns to run a months-long ad campaign against Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who voted against expanding background checks. Or in declarations from an official at Organizing for Action, ostensibly the political arm of President Obama, to work against senators — including the four Democrats who opposed the measure.

Whether these efforts lead to primary challenges remains uncertain — notably, no serious candidate has yet to appear to take on Pryor in Arkansas or Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska. But the Senate's failure to expand gun-sale background checks showed the first serious divisions between Democrats and their liberal base, one they must be mindful of as they plot their political strategy for the rest of the year.

"Democrats who voted against the gun bill are in the doghouse in a big and important way with the progressive left in this country," said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America.

The gun vote alone might not be enough to elicit sustained backlash from the Left; some progressives quietly concede that although emotional, gun politics only emerged on the political scene in January following the shooting massacre at Newtown, Conn.

Democrats, who assiduously avoided gun politics for more than a decade before the December tragedy, are more likely to be engaged on issues they have worked on much longer, like immigration or entitlement reform. To boot, many liberals say that even if it had passed the Senate, House Republicans would likely have prevented the gun measure from ever becoming law.

Many progressive activists say Democratic incumbents will face a sterner backlash if they support cutting entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. That's potentially critical because Obama has already publicly supported a plan for switching to a so-called "chained CPI" for Social Security benefits that could become a centerpiece of a major deficit-reduction deal.

"A vote against our safety net will rate higher than [the gun-control vote]," said Markos Moulitsas, a liberal activist and commentator. "We consider protecting our social net to be a core Democratic issue. If you don't believe in doing that, I don't understand why you'd even be a Democrat. And given how popular Social Security and Medicare are, it's not as if it's politically courageous to support those programs."

According to Sroka, progressive groups have drawn a "line in the sand" on reducing entitlement benefits.

"Anyone up in 2014, and really any Democrat period, needs to know, if they do vote to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits, it's going to be a clarion call to the entire progressive community," he said. "It will fire up the grassroots base of Democratic Party."

Even if they don't draw a primary challenge, left-leaning activists say the senators will hurt themselves by caving to conservative pressure because of the effect it will have on their liberal base. Those supporters are often the ones most inclined to donate money or volunteer for a campaign — instilling the kind of enthusiasm many campaigns count on.

"No matter what, people want to feel good about a person they're volunteering for or donating to," said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "So even Democratic voters who hold their nose to vote for an out-of-touch Democratic incumbent might be less likely to volunteer or donate, which could make a huge difference in a close election."

Not all red-state Democrats have engendered the Left's wrath. Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, for example, each backed the gun-control measure. Begich, along with Hagan, also supports same-sex marriage. Perhaps the progressive Left's No. 1 Democratic target, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, this week announced his retirement.

And a "grand bargain" deficit deal — one that includes cuts to Social Security — remains a long shot, meaning these Democrats might never have to risk a potentially damaging vote.