When President Obama vowed last week not to endorse or campaign for candidates who opposed “common-sense gun reforms,” his ultimatum escalated a feud between the two leading Democratic candidates to replace him, who bickered over which of them had the stronger record of fighting the NRA.
But the importance of the president’s line in the political sand might be more vividly realized in his party’s second biggest priority in 2016—recapturing the Senate majority. Democrats are fighting to pick up Republican seats in a number of swing states with a strong tradition of supporting gun rights, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.
That was the case the last time Democrats tried to crawl out of the Senate minority, in 2006, when they knocked off GOP incumbents in pro-gun states like Montana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Yet such a declaration by a Democratic leader would have been unthinkable a decade ago, at a time when the party made a deliberate effort to recruit socially conservative candidates who would de-emphasize issues like gun control, abortion, and gay rights on which Democrats were then seen as vulnerable.
In 2006, Democratic challengers Jon Tester in Montana, Jim Webb in Virginia, and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania all won after receiving robust support from the national party while touting their strong backing for gun rights. This year, however, Obama’s firm demand hasn’t made for a hard choice—at least in the Senate races that have already taken shape. While Democratic candidates in battleground states aren’t exactly disavowing the Second Amendment, they’ve had no problem supporting the president’s call to strengthen background checks, eliminate a ban on federal gun research, and keep people on the terrorist “no-fly” list from buying firearms.