Guns to Play Big Role in First Post-Newtown Connecticut Governor’s Race

Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy will be carrying the flag for gun-control supporters in his close bid for reelection.

HARTFORD, CT - APRIL 4: Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy speaks during the gun control law signing event at the Connecticut Capitol pril 4, 2013 in Hartford, Connecticut, After more than 13 hours of debate, the Connecticut General Assembly approved the gun-control bill early April 4, that proponents see as the toughest-in-the-nation response to the Demember 14, 2012 Newtown school shootings. (Photo by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images)
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
Aug. 12, 2014, 1:10 a.m.

De­bate over the na­tion’s gun laws largely re­ceded from na­tion­al polit­ics after the Sen­ate failed to ad­vance a bill re­quir­ing uni­ver­sal back­ground checks for gun buy­ers in 2013. But the is­sue re­mains at the fore­front in one cam­paign this year in Con­necti­c­ut, home of the New­town tragedy that gal­van­ized fed­er­al law­makers at the be­gin­ning of last year.

Less than two years after the Decem­ber 2012 shoot­ing at Sandy Hook Ele­ment­ary School that left 26 people dead, the pack­age of gun laws passed posthaste by the Con­necti­c­ut Le­gis­lature in April 2013 is poised to play a sig­ni­fic­ant role in the race between Gov. Dan Mal­loy and his Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent, Tom Fo­ley.

Mal­loy has made the new laws a center­piece of his cam­paign, even as guns have caused polit­ic­al trouble for an­oth­er Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor in a state af­fected by a mass shoot­ing, Col­or­ado’s John Hick­en­loop­er. In Con­necti­c­ut, the is­sue is put­ting the main Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate on the spot as the state moves in­to gen­er­al-elec­tion mode fol­low­ing Tues­day’s primary.

The state re­form pack­age ac­com­plished sev­er­al goals the Sen­ate couldn’t find votes for, in­clud­ing uni­ver­sal back­ground checks, an ex­pan­ded ban on as­sault weapons, the ab­ol­i­tion of high-ca­pa­city magazine sales — cov­er­ing magazines hold­ing more than 10 rounds.

Con­necti­c­ut’s gun laws played al­most no role in the state’s gubernat­ori­al con­test four years ago, when Mal­loy nar­rowly beat Fo­ley by 6,404 votes, but that’s bound to change this year now that the gov­ernor is fo­cus­ing on his lead­er­ship in the af­ter­math of the shoot­ing and us­ing the is­sue as a wedge in an oth­er­wise dead­locked race. The most re­cent pub­lic opin­ion poll, con­duc­ted in May by Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity, had the can­did­ates tied at 43 per­cent apiece.

The first two tele­vised ads run by Mal­loy’s reelec­tion cam­paign tout his lead­er­ship dur­ing tough times, in­clud­ing in the af­ter­math of the New­town shoot­ing and dur­ing re­cov­ery ef­forts after Hur­ricane Irene and su­per­storm Sandy. One of Mal­loy’s ads fea­tures Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was one of the 20 stu­dents killed at Sandy Hook. In the ad Hockley praises the gov­ernor for hav­ing “the cour­age and con­vic­tion to stand up and do the right thing.”

Mal­loy’s em­brace of the is­sue could vex Fo­ley, who has yet to ar­tic­u­late a clear stance on the state’s bans on as­sault weapons and high-ca­pa­city magazines, in the fall cam­paign.

In­deed, the May Quin­nipi­ac sur­vey found that 56 per­cent of Con­necti­c­ut voters sup­port the state’s new, stricter gun laws, while just 38 per­cent stand op­posed.

Shan­non Watts foun­ded the grass­roots group Moms De­mand Ac­tion for Gun Sense in the days after the New­town shoot­ing and re­cently merged the or­gan­iz­a­tion with May­ors Against Il­leg­al Guns to form an um­brella group, Everytown for Gun Safety. The groups are now work­ing to mo­bil­ize 1 mil­lion voters in the 2014 midterms na­tion­wide to vote for can­did­ates who sup­port stricter gun laws, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on wo­men. Watts says they haven’t yet rolled out a list of 2014 en­dorse­ments, but the Con­necti­c­ut gov­ernor’s race is one she’s keep­ing an eye on.

“I think [Fo­ley] has been pretty clear he does not want to dis­cuss gun safety,” Watts said. “It’s prob­ably not help­ful for him to dis­cuss it be­cause the voters of Con­necti­c­ut sup­port gun laws so over­whelm­ingly.”

The busi­ness­man and former am­bas­sad­or to Ire­land has cri­ti­cized the 2013 gun bill and said he would veto ad­di­tion­al gun-con­trol meas­ures if elec­ted, but for the most part, Fo­ley has avoided dis­cuss­ing the is­sue if he can. Dur­ing a joint in­ter­view with the ed­it­or­i­al boards of sev­er­al loc­al news­pa­pers in early Au­gust, Fo­ley de­scribed the events in New­town as “something that happened sev­er­al years ago,” and said, “I’m look­ing down the road. I’m look­ing ahead. I’m look­ing at jobs and the eco­nomy. I’m not gov­ernor and I wasn’t gov­ernor at the time.”

Fo­ley spokes­man Chris Cooper said the Re­pub­lic­an would have taken a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to re­form. “He be­lieves in fo­cus­ing on the men­tal health as­pect of these is­sues,” Cooper said.

That’s opened Fo­ley to cri­ti­cism from his GOP primary op­pon­ent, John McKin­ney, a state sen­at­or whose dis­trict en­com­passes New­town and who sup­por­ted the new gun le­gis­la­tion.

Fo­ley is likely to with­stand McKin­ney’s chal­lenge in Tues­day’s primary, thanks partly to the su­per­i­or statewide name iden­ti­fic­a­tion earned dur­ing his 2010 race, but the at­tacks won’t go away. Mark Berg­man, a seni­or ad­viser to Mal­loy’s cam­paign, in­dic­ated the gov­ernor has no in­ten­tion of shy­ing away from the is­sue.

“Part of the pro­gress Con­necti­c­ut has ex­per­i­enced over the last three years un­der Gov­ernor Mal­loy has been be­cause of the pas­sage of one of the coun­try’s smartest, strict­est gun laws in 2013,” Berg­man said. “That’s part of his re­cord, and his re­cord is go­ing to be an im­port­ant part of his cam­paign.”

Cooper ar­gued the fo­cus is there for a dif­fer­ent reas­on. “It’s about the only part of his re­cord that polls well with people,” Cooper said. “When they look at him on jobs and the eco­nomy, he doesn’t look so good.”

Mal­loy isn’t the only Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor who pur­sued gun re­forms dur­ing his first term who faces a tough race for reelec­tion in 2014. Hick­en­loop­er led his state’s ef­forts to pass sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion in 2013 in re­sponse to both New­town and the shoot­ing at an Au­rora movie theat­er, but he faced quick re­pris­al in the form of re­call elec­tions that cost two Demo­crat­ic le­gis­lat­ors their seats later that year.

This midterm elec­tion is short on races where gun laws have fea­tured prom­in­ently, but Con­necti­c­ut and Col­or­ado may come to be ex­amples of how mem­bers of both parties can suc­cess­fully handle the is­sue in 2016. Just as gun con­trol was ab­sent from Con­necti­c­ut elec­tions in 2010, it was ab­sent from the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race — but it likely won’t be in two years. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton has been vo­cal in her calls for re­newed ac­tion to ad­dress gun vi­ol­ence, for ex­ample. Demo­crat­ic vic­tor­ies in places like Con­necti­c­ut could em­bolden the party to use the is­sue in swing sub­urb­an areas such as Phil­adelphia in 2016.

On the flip side, if Mal­loy or Hick­en­loop­er loses, that means voters will have re­jec­ted some of the only gov­ernors to try new gun le­gis­la­tion in the last couple of years. Des­pite the com­plex nature of both con­tests, Watts un­der­stands what’s at stake. “The gun lobby will claim it as a win if it has any­thing to do with guns at all,” she said.

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