A leading gun-control group is spending millions to boost swing state Democrats, but its latest ads highlight non-gun issues, potentially signaling the limited appeal of gun restrictions in many key Senate races.
Everytown for Gun Safety's super PAC, backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, is running ads in Iowa and North Carolina that go beyond the group's core mission of gun control. The ads attack Senator Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) and Senator Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) on health care and energy in addition to mentioning gun issues.
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"Ernst has taken thousands and thousands from big oil, the insurance industry, and the gun lobby," narration in the group's Iowa ad said. "Voting for them, against us. That's Joni Ernst."
In North Carolina, the group first criticized Tillis's vote to repeal Obamacare and contributions from the health insurance lobby before taking aim at his vote on universal background checks and contributions from gun-rights groups. The ad then claims Tillis's door is "always open" for "lobbyists with cash."
Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Everytown's attempt to appeal to issues beyond the Second Amendment could indicate that the group is not confident in gun control's appeal in swing states.
"One reason Everytown brings up those other issues may be that the Democratic Senate candidates in Iowa and North Carolina will probably need some Trump voters to win," Coleman told the Washington Free Beacon. "In both states, there were several Obama-to-Trump counties in rural areas. Hitting Republicans on gun control may not be enough to make them unacceptable to those voters."
The Everytown strategy is in contrast to the one employed by the National Rifle Association's super PAC so far. The gun-rights group's first ad buy of the year put more than $5 million behind an ad that attacked Democratic nominee Joe Biden's gun-control policies. An NRA official with knowledge of its election strategy said it intends to focus exclusively on gun issues in 2020.
Coleman said gun issues could boost the incumbent Republican senators. He pointed to the Second Amendment as an issue that could bridge the gap between lukewarm Republican voters and Tillis.
"The Second Amendment is an issue that's clearly close to the Republican base voter's heart—both Tillis and Ernst will want high loyalty from that group," he said. "Perhaps that's why the NRA hasn't deviated much from discussing guns…. Tillis has some weakness with the Trump base; [guns] may be one of those issues that pushes GOP partisans home to Tillis in the end."
Everytown put $5 million behind the two ads, which represent the group's first major ad buy of the 2020 election. While the group did not return a request for comment, Shannon Watts, leader of Everytown subgroup Moms Demand Action, called gun control a winning issue in a statement.
"The gun lobby is on the run because politicians are now running on the issue of gun safety," Watts said.
However, even beyond Everytown's own ads being supplemented with non-gun issues, at least one former Everytown staffer appears to be overseeing a pro-gun campaign push by a Democratic congresswoman. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D., N.M.), who hired former Everytown deputy political director Emma Caccamo as her campaign manager this summer, unveiled an ad in which she fired a number of guns in the desert.
Democrats running in more conservative races are not the only ones who have minimized gun control. Despite committing to spend tens of millions to back Everytown in 2020, billionaire Mike Bloomberg skipped over the issue entirely during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. The Ernst campaign said Everytown's involvement in the race demonstrates the disconnect between Greenfield and Iowa voters.
"Mike Bloomberg is bankrolling these special interest ads because he knows Theresa Greenfield will be a loyal supporter of Nancy Pelosi’s gun control plan to roll back Second Amendment rights," an Ernst spokesman said. "Don’t be fooled. Theresa Greenfield is perfect for California, but she’s far too liberal for Iowa."