Why Bloomberg's Targeting of a Democratic Senator Could Backfire

Elahe Izadi

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, may launch a months-long campaign against Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor for not voting to expand gun background checks.

It would put Democratic groups, determined to protect the party's majority, in an awkward position.  While Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to support the kind of gun reforms Bloomberg wants, there aren't many vulnerable Republican senators up for election in 2014.  And Democratic groups' mission is to support all Democratic candidates, no matter their stands on specific issues.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ messaging might not even focus on guns, which would make sense given the issue doesn’t play well in Arkansas. That’s not unusual for Bloomberg; his Independence USA PAC, also designed to elect members supporting gun control, spent $3 million in 2012 to defeat pro-gun Democratic Rep. Joe Baca by attacking him on issues such as water. A TV spot in the race didn’t even mention the word “gun.”

For Bloomberg to go after Pryor -- a vulnerable Democrat facing a tough reelection battle, possibly against freshman GOP Rep. Tom Cotton -- is frustrating for some Democratic strategists, and confounding for others.

“It doesn’t seem like a smart, long-term strategy to target Sen. Pryor, only to help elect an extreme ideologue like the potential Republicans being discussed in this race,” says a Democratic operative with experience in Arkansas. “If these new organizations are desperate to have an impact now, there are likely more productive ways to do that, by picking battles in suburban districts represented by Republicans, or Democrats, where this issue plays to their advantage.”

Some Democrats are skeptical as to whether Bloomberg’s group will actually run ads attacking Pryor, or what kind of impact they would have. Money matters in races, sure, but so does strategy; conservative outside groups’ spending loads of money in 2012 ended up having little impact in the outcome in the presidential race.

In many ways, it’s damned if they do, damned if they don’t for these pro-gun control groups in 2014. Even running ads thanking the red state Democrats who voted for background checks, such as Louisiana's Sen. Mary Landrieu, could hurt their reelection chances more than help in conservative states. Landrieu emphasized her vote was actually one to strengthen Second Amendment rights.

Some analysts think that going after Pryor from the left on gun control could actually work to his political advantage in a general election.

“Pryor could be so lucky to have people attacking him on [gun control],” Arkansas Democratic strategist and Talk Business columnist Michael Cook said before news of the Bloomberg group broke. “In some ways, that’s the best news for him, so he can say, ‘Look, I’m getting heat for standing up for your right to own guns.’ ”

Primary races may be more fertile ground to get pro-gun control legislators elected. That’s the influence Bloomberg exerted in the Baca race, where Baca lost to a pro-gun control Democrat, or in Illinois, where the Bloomberg-backed candidate won the primary to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

Instead of spending money on attack ads, another approach would be to funnel money into state-based, pro-gun control efforts to force the hands of senators such as Pryor, in conservative or pro-gun states.

“Investing money in partnering with local groups and getting Arkansans to bring this up from the grassroots, I think that’s sometimes more effective in accomplishing the end goal,” says a strategist with a Democratic outside group. “Every senator listens to their constituents... In the end, that’s the people who matter to them politically, but more importantly, the people they’re there to serve.”

Pryor certainly wasn’t swayed by Bloomberg’s group before, when it spent $12 million on ads in 13 states, including Arkansas, to pressure Senators to vote for gun control measures last week.

“I don’t take gun advice from the mayor of New York City,” Pryor said in a statement then. “I listen to Arkansans.”