MEMO: Ahead of Virginia Election Night, Gun Safety Defines State’s Changed Political Dynamics
TO Interested Parties FROM Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence DATE November 5, 2019 RE Ahead of Virginia Election Night, Gun Safety Defines State’s Changed Political Dynamics
A coin toss in a Newport News district allowed Virginia Republicans to cling to a razor-thin General Assembly majority in 2017. With 40 Senate seats and 100 House seats up for grabs tonight, Democrats could capture complete power for the first time since 1993. How did Republicans’ stranglehold in Richmond become so precarious? In many ways, it boils down to gun safety becoming a motivating issue for Virginia voters.
Earlier this year, Republican-led Virginia Senate and House committees did what they always do and refused to vote critical gun safety bills out of committee. But the conversation wasn’t over: after the horrific Virginia Beach shooting left the community shattered, Gov. Northam called a special session to deal with the crisis of gun violence.
Republican leadership ended the special session in less than two hours. Republican inaction on this epidemic followed the expected pattern, except for one key difference: Virginians spoke up. In the wake of the special session, gun safety became a rallying cry for candidates seeking to join leaders like Delegates Kathleen Murphy, Chris Hurst, Hala Ayala, and Eileen Filler-Corn, and Senator Dick Saslaw who are already in Richmond working to pass stronger gun laws. Public outcry on this issue has resulted in gun safety platforms becoming centerpieces of campaigns, and voters eager to turn out for this life saving issue.
Giffords Pushing Gun Safety Champions to Finish Line
Giffords has spent the past year supporting candidates who put gun safety front and center in their general assembly bids.
This fall, Giffords PAC launched an innovative $300,000 digital ad campaign to support gun safety champions through Election Day. With a target audience of Democratic voters for whom gun safety is a motivating factor, the three ads ran across the state in 38 Senate and House districts with a heavy focus in the Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Virginia Beach areas.
Along with motivating voters on screens, Giffords also came to their communities. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords hosted a gathering outside the headquarters of the NRA with former Governor Terry McAuliffe. She then traveled to Virginia Beach for a roundtable with gun violence survivors, where she was joined by Congresswoman Elaine Luria (VA-2) and Delegates Kelly Convirs-Fowler and Cheryl Turpin (also a current candidate for state senate), as well as candidate for state senate Missy Cotter Smasal. The weekend also included a number of stops at canvassing events.
In September, Giffords endorsed a slate of gun safety champions. The announcement followed the previous endorsements of Sheila Bynum-Coleman, who is challenging the Republican Speaker of the House, and Herb Jones, who is challenging the Senate Majority Leader. In June, Giffords backed Missy Cotter Smasal, Dick Saslaw, and two northern Virginia sheriff candidates. Last March, Giffords made its first endorsements of the year for Dan Helmer and John Bell, which coincided with a trip to support them from Congresswoman Giffords.
2017: Watershed Year for Gun Safety
Gun violence has become a core issue for Virginia voters. Shootings claim the lives of nearly 1,000 Virginians each year —one person every nine hours. These tragedies carry with them a yearly price tag of $5.3 billion. No corner of the state is untouched by this violence.
In 2017, voters sent a message at the ballot box from the NRA’s backyard. The National Rifle Association (NRA) spent more than $2 million in statewide races that year—but their investment failed to pay off. NBC exit polling found that 16 percent of Ralph Northam voters reported gun policy as their top issue, second only to healthcare. Those voters helped Democrat Ralph Northam beat out Republican Ed Gillespie in the gubernatorial race—a clear sign that the tide was turning in the Commonwealth.
Giffords helped change this tide. In 2017, Giffords PAC hosted a gun violence prevention forum with Northam, ran a complementary digital campaign during the general election featuring Facebook and Instagram ads targeting 25,000 persuadable voters, and released a radio ad featuring former President Barack Obama highlighting the difference between the candidates on the issue of gun safety.
In all, 12 out of the 13 Giffords-endorsed candidates were victorious. In 11 of those races, Giffords-endorsed candidates defeated NRA-backed opponents. Despite these victories, control of the legislature came down to a coin toss, and Republicans stayed in power.
2019: Gun Safety Central to Victory
After a gunman walked into the Virginia Beach Municipal Center with two pistols this summer, killing 12 and injuring four others, Republicans in the state legislature stuck to their same tired playbook of inaction. When the governor called for a special session of the legislature, Republicans still refused to consider a single solution to this growing crisis.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted after the special session found gun safety to be the top issue for Virginia voters ahead of the November elections: 75 percent of voters rank gun safety as their top issue in this year’s election. Among voters that rank gun safety as their top issue, 47 percent support Democratic candidates and 44 percent support Republican candidates. Gun safety policies such as universal background checks and extreme risk laws each received 88 percent and 82 percent support, respectively.
Republican candidates and endangered legislators around the Commonwealth are starting to acknowledge that they may be on the wrong side of gun safety after spending the last few months face-to-face with voters, but it may be too little too late. The New York Times reported last week on Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican state senator from outside Richmond who said in an ad she supported a federal ban on bump stocks—despite the fact that she voted against such a ban in the state senate. And then there’s Randy Minchew, a Republican trying to reclaim his Loudon County seat by obscuring his past NRA “A” rating and running on a general platform of “stronger gun laws.”
Where Giffords Virginia Work Began
In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, the first political test for Giffords and the gun safety movement was the 2013 Virginia races. Terry McAulliffe made it clear that gun violence was a priority for him when he discussed the issue everywhere he went during his campaign for the governor’s office. Giffords worked closely with McAulliffe and his team to spread the word about gun safety and ran a groundbreaking political program that showed other candidates that they could run and win on the issue. This included a targeted mail program, online advertisements directed at voters, a telephone town hall, and recorded calls to Virginia households inviting them to learn more about gubernatorial candidates.
Unlike 2017, it doesn’t look likely a coin toss will decide the legislature’s fate in Virginia. In large part, that’s due to the changing dynamics in the state, and the ascendance of issues like gun safety. Regardless of what happens, it’s clear that bold plans to reduce gun violence have become a core part of what unites and motivates Democratic voters and their candidates.