By Brad Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Texas Democrats are pulling out a new playbook in this year's Congressional races, loudly backing gun control in a bet a strategy that paid off in Virginia can also win elections in a conservative-leaning state long associated with gun rights.
Their fears of facing a political backlash for supporting gun regulations have evaporated after years of mass shootings, with candidates, party officials and gun-control advocates arguing that making the case for strengthening gun laws will win them more votes.
"I am heartbroken by the loss of life caused by mass shootings across Texas and the United States and determined to take on the corporate gun lobby and its enablers," said Wendy Davis, a former Texas state senator who shot to political fame in 2013 when she filibustered an anti-abortion bill with a speech lasting more than 11 hours.
Gun control will be a strong part of her campaign message as she takes aim at an Austin-area U.S. House of Representatives seat that Republicans have held for 41 years. That is a shift from her unsuccessful 2014 run for governor when she supported the open carry of handguns in her state.
Davis is targeting one of six seats the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks it can flip. Republicans hold 23 of the state's 36 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Along with another Texas candidate, she made the DCCC's "Red to Blue" list, which right now includes just 12 people nationwide who will get extra funding and organizational support from the party.
Davis and other Democrats say that years of high-profile mass shootings, including the August massacre of 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, have convinced them to directly confront opponents of stronger gun laws.
One of the biggest reasons for the apparent lessening blowback on the issue is the emergence of powerful national groups calling for tougher gun regulations, particularly the Mike Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety, which has countered the National Rifle Association pro-gun lobby.
Everytown spent $2.5 million on the campaigns that led Democrats to win control of both chambers of the Virginia state legislature in November, and officials with the group said they plan to spend more in Texas, without specifying numbers.
"We see gun safety as a winning issue in Texas as the state becomes younger and more diverse and because there has been a huge amount of gun violence in the state," said Shannon Watts, founder of the Moms Demand Action group, which is affiliated with Everytown.
Iraq War veteran Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democrat who lost a 2018 bid for Texas' 23rd Congressional district by 926 votes and is running again this year, takes a similar approach to Davis. She is running for a seat representing an enormous stretch of the border with Mexico that includes the outskirts of El Paso, where she has met with the family members of those killed in the August shooting.
"For too long we've had too many folks cashing checks from the gun lobby and not worrying about doing the right thing," Jones said in a phone interview. "For me, this is a moral courage issue."
Longtime observers of Texas politics warn that candidates backing gun control may want to rein in expectations.
Nonpartisan U.S. political analysts forecast that the man Davis is trying to unseat, Republican U.S. Representative Chip Roy, has better-than-even odds of winning reelection. They give Jones a better chance of capturing the seat that will open when incumbent Republican Will Hurd steps down at the end of his term.
"The gun issue is a good mobilizer for Democrats at this stage," early in the campaign, said James Henson, a University of Texas political scientist and pollster. "But that's much trickier in the polarized environment of a general election when you try to persuade people across party lines."
A Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll published this month found 86% of Texans favor universal background checks on gun buyers and 68% want red flag laws - in line with other recent surveys.
Roy, the incumbent Davis is challenging, has long made clear his support for the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to keep and bear arms.
"We have to stand strong right now, stronger than ever before, because the left is motivated like they've never been before and Republicans are going wobbly," Roy told a conference of Libertarian college students in Austin last fall. He declined to comment for this story.
"I'm telling you, in the United States Congress, even right here in Texas," Roy said, "members of the Republican Party are going wobbly on the Second Amendment."
James Dickey, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said there are differing opinions within his party, but that ultimately Democrats would be unwise to try and make too much political hay on the issue of gun laws.
"Texas voters are not only not persuaded by attacks on their ability to defend themselves, they are appropriately repelled by them," he said. "There are elected officials in both parties whose automatic reaction is to improve safety by giving government more control. That's an understandable reaction, but not the correct one."
NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said Democrats' election wins and their push now to pass sweeping gun laws had ignited a nationwide backlash.
"Virginia has served as a warning to voters all across the country and revealed (Democrats') true agenda of gun bans, gun confiscation and a systematic destruction of our fundamental right to self-defense," she said. "Those voters will turn out in November and anyone who ignores them does so at their peril." (Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)