It happened unexpectedly during the final debate before Tuesday’s election for Virginia Governor: Democrat Terry McAuliffe thundered words that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable for anyone seeking statewide office south of the Mason-Dixon line.
“I don’t care what grade I got from the N.R.A,” McAuliffe bristled. The rebuke came after his Republican opponent, Kenneth Cuccinelli, boasted that he received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. McAuliffe got an “F”
It was McAuliffe’s boldest admonition of the pro-gun group thus far, delivered in the final days of the race in a hall on the campus of Virginia Tech University where 32 students were gunned down by a mentally disturbed student in 2007.
“As governor, I want to make sure our communities are safe. I don’t want to see another Newtown, Aurora, or Virginia Tech,” McAuliffe said. “It’s time we stood up.”
On Tuesday night, with nearly all the votes tallied, McAuliffe edged out Cuccinelli by about two percentage points, with third-party candidate libertarian Robert Sarvis winning around seven percent of the vote.
But the victory wasn’t McAuliffe’s alone. Heembraced wide, public support from gun control groups that poured millions into the state, attacking Cuccinelli and the state’s Republican attorney general who was running for reelection with the unbridled support of the NRA and the gun lobby.
New York City’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg spent nearly $3 million in the state attacking pro-gun candidates through his Independent USA PAC. A group run by Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic Congresswoman from Arizona who survived a gunshot to her head, pledged $500,000 to match the amount the NRA had pledged in support of Cuccinelli. Asa result, Northern Virginia voters were inundated with anti-Cuccinelli mailers and television ads.
McAuliffe’s spurning of the N.R.A. and his victory may very well represent a long awaited shift in the way gun-politics are played in purple states. Democrats in southern and Midwestern states often tip-toe around the gun issue, wary of turning off middle-of-the-road voters who nonetheless support strong gun rights.
Tuesday’s victory is sweet payback for recent losses suffered by gun control groups in Colorado, where two state lawmakers who supported tougher gun control legislation were ousted in recall elections.
“I think it’s a pretty significant shift,” said Arkadi Gerney, a gun violence prevention expert at the Center for American Progress, who points to last year’s massacre at Connecticut school, changing demographics and more organized gun control efforts for laying the seeds of change. “I think if the gun issue can change in a state like Virginia, it is a real bellwether of where the gun issue stands in the country or where other issues stand.”
Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who represented Northern Virginia, said McAuliffe’s public pronouncement against the gun lobby is only shocking in the context of the more recent strategy by Republicans to use gun issues as a litmus test.
“I think it is gutsy for him to do that but what the Republicans don’t understand is the NRA is very influential in convention and the Republican primary but not among independents and the like,” said Davis
Davis described Virginia as relatively moderate, and that typically, gun issues fell along regional lines.
“This was the kind of thing where you felt one way if you lived in an urban area and another way if you were in a rural area,” Davis said. “What you’re finding now, as the Republican Party has started to make some of these issues litmus tests, they are losing voters,” he said. “Some people are saying, I can’t meet that test so they are walking and becoming independents.”
Earlier this year, Davis’s wife, former Republican state senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, lost a contentious bid for lieutenant governor largely because of her support for background checks. Fellow Republicans and pro-gun groups targeted Jeannemarie Davis. At the state Republican convention, men walked around holding guns over their heads and wearing buttons with her initials and a big “X” crossing them out, Tom Davis said.
“They savaged her,” he said.
Davis said that as Virginia’s demographics have shifted to include people coming from all over the country and world, the Republican Party continues to drive away voters with its cultural tone-deafness.
“Folks are very singularly focused. [Republicans] have traded on the issue, not on the majority but on the intensity of their followers. But that intensity doesn’t translate in a general election,” Davis said. “What it does is paint a narrative of the Republicans as being out of touch on everything from abortion, gun ownership to global warming and climate change.”