Why NJ Democrats aren’t leveraging gun control against GOP rivals

Gun Rights

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The campaign mailer — sent by state Sen. Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer, and his running mates seeking Assembly seats in the 16th Legislative District — features some of New Jersey Democrats’ core themes of attack on their Republican rivals in this fall’s campaign for the Legislature.

It accuses “pro-life” state Senate candidate Mike Pappas and his Republican Assembly running mates, Grace Zhang and Ross Traphagen, of being stalking-horse extremists. If elected Nov. 7, the mailer alleges, they will join a GOP crusade to ban abortion and oppose contraception coverage.

But as to the Republican candidates’ position on gun control?

Not much, except the appearance of a small lapel pin of an AR-15 assault style rifle on the mailer’s cover. It was not accompanied by rhetoric or explanation.

This passing nod to gun control is emblematic of a head-scratching hesitancy among the Democrats in the final stretch of the fall race for all 120 seats of the Legislature.

At a time when Democrats are besieged an aggressive Republican Party whose campaigns are focused on culture war issues like “parental rights,” offshore wind power and book banning, gun control would seem to be a natural issue for Democrats to use to deflect the GOP barrage and even go on the offensive.

Yet New Jersey’s Democrats have remained low-key-to-silent on the issue. It’s a surprising strategic decision, given that Democratic lawmakers have spent nearly two years cultivating gun control as a political advantage for this fall contest. And New Jersey’s strict gun control laws remain widely popular with the public.

Defending those restrictions — considered the among the most stringent in the country — would seem to be an easy way to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans, who have largely sided with the gun lobby and other gun rights groups.

The Democrats may very well decide to become more vocal after last Wednesday’s shooting massacre in Maine, where a gunman killed at least 18 and injured 13 others in a crowded bowling alley and bar.

But as of late last week, there was little evidence of a switch from the current strategy of hammering at Republicans on abortion and painting them as rubber stamps for Trumpian extremism.

‘A curious absence’

“It’s a curious absence from the campaign trail this election cycle, especially because we’ve had this resurgence of so many culture war issues,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics poll at Rutgers University.

That’s not to say it has been totally absent from the campaign in several of the more competitive districts. In the 11th District in Monmouth County, the Democratic slate — led by incumbent state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth — accused Republican Assemblywomen Kim Piperno and Kim Eulner of ducking out of a vote on a bill last year that enumerated the “sensitive places” where concealed, licensed firearms would be prohibited — such as schools, beaches, day care centers and mental health institutions.

In the Bergen County-based 38th District, Democratic state Sen. Joe Lagana and Assembly running mates Lisa Swain and Christopher Tully took aim at “radical gun groups” that also opposed the new “concealed carry” ban.

“As we fight to keep Bergen County safe, radical gun groups are fighting to allow guns at playgrounds and Little League games. These Texas-style gun laws have no place in New Jersey, and we will continue to fight for common-sense gun laws throughout New Jersey,” they wrote on Facebook.

Still, there hasn’t been a consistent partywide drumbeat on the issue. Democratic leaders offered little insight last week for their hesitancy other than to say each campaign decides the issues to emphasize in their districts.

More Charlie Stile: Family-friendly NJ Democrats turn to the middle as vote looms. Here’s why

“We have an incredible record of success, and I think candidates are making a decision about which [issues] to highlight,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex.

Coughlin made his comments at a press conference highlighting the “concealed carry” law that has been mired in a closely watched court case since it was first enacted last December. That law was passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down New York’s concealed carry law as unconstitutional. That ruling also nullified New Jersey’s long-standing concealed carry restrictions.

The sweeping new law — an attempt to effectively reinstate the limits without violating the terms of the new court ruling — listed a ban on firearms in a wide array of public places. Gun rights groups quickly sued, and a federal district court judge sided with them, enjoining the state from enforcing it.

The state appealed, and both sides returned to court last week to argue the case.

Regardless of the outcome, some strategists say it was the legislative history behind the law — namely that most Republicans voted against it when it reached a final tally in both houses — that has given Democrats ample attack fodder for the campaign.

On the trail at the Shore: Democrats fret about a possible ‘red wave’ | Stile

Opportunity for leverage

Those Republican “no” votes could easily give Democrats the ability to plausibly accuse Republicans of allowing people to tote guns in schools and day care centers — and yet, they have timidly chosen not to.

That’s puzzling, some say, given an Eagleton poll this year showing that a majority of New Jersey residents supported the new law.

“It would seem, by the public opinion alone, to be a good issue for somebody in terms of a pro-gun control or limitations and requirements stance,” Koning said.

There are several reasons for the hesitancy, political veterans said:

  • One reason is pre-campaign polling. Most campaigns survey voters in their districts before the fall campaign begins in earnest and shape their messaging strategy on those results. And, in most cases, property taxes and education top the list of voters concerns. While voters may support gun restrictions, it rarely surfaces as an election season priority. The Democrats are portraying themselves as “kitchen table” legislators more concerned about voters’ ability to pay their bills. They appear determined not to get distracted from that issue.
  • Another reason in history. The Democratic Party still remains shellshocked by the fierce backlash from gun rights groups after Gov. Jim Florio signed New Jersey’s historic assault weapons ban in 1990. The gun lobby’s fury over the measure contributed to the tax revolt the next year that routed Democrats from power and left the Republicans in charge with veto-proof majorities.

Since then, Democrats have avoided provoking the gun rights groups, although some Democratic operatives privately argue that the gun lobby’s political threat has ebbed in the three decades since that debacle. This year, the National Rifle Association’s Victory Fund has spent a token $10,000 on behalf of Republican candidates around the state, Election Law Enforcement Commission reports show.

Republicans, however, are bracing for a late-campaign focus on the issue. The press conference on concealed carry — held two days before the Maine shooting — signaled the Democrats’ intentions, some Republicans believe.

“Political scare tactics by Democrats around guns and abortion in the closing days of this election shows they are desperate to hold onto two decades of power that have only delivered an extreme and costly progressive agenda out of step with New Jersey,” state Senate Minority Leader Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said in a statement. “It’s time for a change.”

Charlie Stile is a veteran New Jersey political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com 

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