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Why Democrats Are Shifting Away From NRA Support


On Tuesday, in Minnesota, Tim Walz won the Democratic nomination for governor. What is notable is that he did it without the backing of the National Rifle Association. Just two years ago, Walz ran for re-election to the U.S. House, and the NRA donated to his campaign. But while running for governor, he has disavowed their support. Walz took the $18,000 the NRA gave him over the course of his political career and donated it to charity. So is it a change of heart? Is it political expediency? Or is it a shift in the Democratic Party? Reid Epstein is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who's written extensively about the Democratic Party and gun control, and he joins me now in studio.

Reid, good morning.

REID EPSTEIN: Good morning.

KING: So we started with that story about Tim Walz, but really, we could have picked any number of Democrats who seem to be turning their backs on the NRA. Are we reading that right? And if we are, what's going on?

EPSTEIN: During the 2012 campaign, the NRA donated to 30 House Democrats. This year, they've donated to three. We're looking at a couple things here. One is the NRA has become a far more partisan organization, essentially only backing Republicans. And two, it has become much more difficult for Democrats with pro-gun positions to explain those positions to primary voters.

KING: Why?

EPSTEIN: Because Democratic voters have turned against the NRA and are much more in favor of new restrictions on gun ownership - background checks, bans on assault weapons, et cetera. We're seeing this all across the country. Ann Kirkpatrick is in a primary for a House seat in Arizona. In 2010, she was on television with ads bragging about her NRA rating. Now she's on TV with ads bragging about her support for an assault weapons ban.

KING: I want to ask you about Tim Walz in particular. He wrote this op-ed in a local paper where he essentially said, you know, look; I've taken money from the NRA in the past; I'm a father; I'm a former teacher; I'm a former coach; I think about those people in Parkland, Fla., and my mind has changed.

EPSTEIN: Candidates that have had NRA support in the past have to have some sort of explanation for what has happened with their positions. The districts that are competitive now for the Democratic Party are in the suburbs. In the suburbs, the types of voters that are coming out, particularly in Democratic primaries, are educated, wealthy suburbanites, particularly women, people who have kids coming home from school telling them about the active-shooter drills. That has really done a lot to activate the subset of voters who are in favor of gun control and are seeing it as an issue, really for the first time in 2018, that is motivating people to vote.

KING: And so things have changed, we would assume, because of a number of very, very high-profile mass shootings.

EPSTEIN: When I have written about this - and talking to the elected officials, they say, before Sandy Hook, there was no one on the other side to make this push. And politicians, like it or not, react to piles of postcards and phone calls that come into their offices. And for years, they only heard from people who supported the NRA's position because the NRA was and remains very good at activating their voters to pressure elected officials.

KING: How much sway does an NRA endorsement have in 2018?

EPSTEIN: In a Democratic primary, not that much. And what we've seen in - really, for the first time, in 2018, we've seen Democrats putting gun control front and center in their paid media, in their TV advertising. In 2014, something like 35 percent of all ads that mentioned guns or the NRA were run by Democrats.

KING: Wow.

EPSTEIN: And a good percentage of those were Democrats touting their NRA credentials. This year, 63 percent of all ads mentioning guns are run by Democrats, and virtually all of them are pushing their gun control positions. It's really been a total shift on how Democrats are pushing this issue front and center.

KING: Well, let me ask you something. Let's say Democrats do win control of the House in November. Do you expect we could be looking at gun control legislation?

EPSTEIN: Mike Thompson, who chairs the House Democrats' gun control caucus or gun violence prevention group, has said that it will come very soon in the new Congress if Democrats take the majority of the House. My sense is that they'll start with issues that they think have broad support - background checks. That's an issue that, in polling, has 85 to 90 percent support.

KING: Wow.

EPSTEIN: An assault weapons ban will be a little trickier. But, of course, all of this is relatively academic because President Trump isn't going to sign a bill like this.

KING: Do you think that a pro-gun Democrat can get elected in a primary in 2018?

EPSTEIN: Very difficult. There have not been any pro-gun Democrats that have won Democratic primaries in 2018 that I know of to this point.

KING: Reid Epstein is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Reid, thanks so much for coming in.

EPSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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