Republicans suffered a major defeat in Virginia this week, losing control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in nearly 25 years. While electoral strategists are still poring over the results, one major takeaway is clear: Candidates, especially those who rely on swing suburban voters, can win by making gun safety a central part of their campaign. And given Virginia’s status as a reliable national bellwether, the results should strike fear in the heart of every candidate up and down the ballot who is controlled by the gun lobby — including President Donald Trump.
The outcome shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Virginia Republicans. Gun safety has been a key issue in the state for years now, dating to the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007. But it was a more recent tragedy, the May 31 killing of 12 people in Virginia Beach, that laid the groundwork for Richmond’s new gun-sense majority.
Four days after the shooting, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a special session on gun violence. One month later, Republicans ended the session after just 90 minutes without taking up a single piece of legislation.
Republicans' big mistake on guns
This would prove to be a decisive mistake. It soon became clear that voters did not share Republicans’ disinterest in keeping their communities safe. A Washington Post poll found that 75% of Virginia voters ranked gun policy as “very important” to their vote, ahead of bread-and-butter concerns like education and health care. And preventing gun violence is the driving issue for one critical group of swing voters: suburban women.
Recognizing this, my organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, spent $2.5 million to let voters know which candidates stood for gun safety and which stood with the National Rifle Association, headquartered in Northern Virginia. With our support, candidates across the commonwealth made this their signature issue. Now the voters have spoken and their message was clear: They want leaders who promise to put gun safety ahead of the gun lobby.
The Virginia results are just the latest example of a national trend. We saw this in the 2018 midterms, when voters sent a gun-sense majority to the U.S. House of Representatives and elected gun-sense champions to state houses across the country. And this trend doesn’t just apply to Democrats — one recent poll found that 83% of Republicans want to expand background checks, and that 85% support red-flag laws allowing guns to be taken from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others.
Take it from a doctor: Gun violence is a health crisis, not a political football
If there’s one politician who should be especially shaken by Tuesday’s results, it’s Trump. After the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this summer, Trump said he was open to taking action to prevent gun violence. But when NRA leader Wayne LaPierre visited the White House and made it clear that the organization’s continuing support for Trump hinged on him doing nothing, the president quickly fell in line, according to The New York Times.
Trump can't ignore suburbia
What Trump doesn’t seem to be considering is that in order to win reelection, he needs swing district suburban voters far more than he needs the NRA’s backing. Unless he uses Tuesday night’s results as a wake-up call and pushes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up the backlog of gun safety bills passed by the House, the president can expect to pay a serious price at the ballot box — just like the Virginia Republicans did.
Tim Kaine on Virginia Beach shooting: Will we fix laws or let the carnage continue?
Trump and members of Congress who take their cues from the gun lobby need to realize that the old myth of the NRA as a political juggernaut has been debunked. The organization is under the harsh microscope of investigations by two attorneys general, paying tens of millions in legal fees, and trying to rationalize exorbitant spending on private jets and luxury clothes.
As the dust settles in Virginia, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Everytown out-organized the NRA on the ground and outspent it 8-to-1.
Next year's candidates face a simple choice when it comes to gun safety: Follow the lead of Virginia Republicans and hope against reason that history won’t repeat itself, or side with the American people and pledge to do something about gun violence. Savvy politicians, particularly those who need to win over suburban swing voters, will see that standing up to the gun lobby isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s also smart politics.
John Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnFeinblatt
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As Democrats win on gun safety, will Trump & Republicans divorce NRA?