Seeing red? Gun issues temper Pennsylvania electorate

Pennsylvania voters hurled a big red brick through the Democratic party’s enduring blue wall of reliable electoral votes in the northeast and rust belt Tuesday, clinching the presidency for Republican candidate Donald Trump and bucking a quarter century tradition.

Republicans have tried — and failed — in the last six presidential elections to carry the state’s 20 electoral votes, the second largest prize in the Northeast behind New York. So how did the controversial billionaire win over a narrow majority of the state’s nearly 6 million voters?

Some say it’s his straightforward appeal to the white working class, disenfranchised by a decimated manufacturing industry, stagnant wages and weak economic recovery, while others attribute his appeal to an underbelly of racism and bigotry emboldened by a meteoric rise in politics never before seen.

While analysts and pundits alike debate the merits of both arguments for years to come, sources on the ground say gun rights, too, played a role in getting voters to the polls Tuesday.

Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Gun Crimes, a state political action committee, argued that gun rights played a significant role in the direction Pennsylvania took as the two leading candidates were vocal about their views.

“Hillary Clinton clearly articulated her support for more gun control laws, including gun bans, both in the debates and on the stump in Pennsylvania and nationally,” Stolfer said. “Her statement about the Heller decision indicated her position on Supreme Court Justice appointments would mirror Obama thus clearly demonstrating that her election to office would leave a legacy of the gutting of the intent and spirit of the Second Amendment, irrevocably damaging our freedoms.”

Clinton infamously opined at a speaking engagement earlier this year “the Supreme Court is wrong on the Second Amendment and I am going to make that case every chance I get.”

Her comments referenced the landmark 2008 Heller v. D.C. decision, reaffirming gun ownership as an individual right and clearing a path for states to loosen gun regulations across the country.

During the debates last month, Clinton reiterated her support for universal background checks. In a trove of emails obtained by WikiLeaks and released in September, the Democratic nominee stuck to her long-held position of using executive order to close the “gun show loophole” should Congress fail to act — an opinion she’s publicly stated before, as well as her desire to repeal a 2005 law shielding gun manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits.

But it was the potential for her to tilt the scales of the Supreme Court by nominating a liberal, anti-gun justice capable of overturning Heller v. D.C. that spurred the National Rifle Association into action, dumping more than $50 million into campaigns for Trump and six Senate seats it felt were worthy of protecting.

In the six months after endorsing Trump, the association seized upon Clinton’s gun control platform with ad buys in battleground states, including Pennsylvania, imploring voters to help protect the Supreme Court and ultimately, the Second Amendment.

In a blog post Thursday, the NRA celebrated Trump’s historic upset and its get-out-the-vote operation of 38 million election mailings, 1.35 million phone calls and 170,000 house calls, “all in a targeted effort to ensure the highest impact voters showed up at the polls.”

Some 254 of the 273 congressional candidates the association endorsed this election cycle prevailed on Election Day, the NRA said.

Meanwhile, Stolfer said his PAC deployed its own sophisticated ground game, targeting voters in Pennsylvania’s notorious “T” zone — the rural and suburban counties of the state that form a T-shape around the Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“The culmination of our work was a large contingent of volunteer activists spread throughout Pennsylvania focusing especially on minimizing the vote disparity in urban areas and GOTV efforts throughout the ‘T’ part of Pennsylvania,” he said. “Pro-gun poll workers reported a massive turnout of voters. These voters readily and happily accepted our voter’s guides ‘or’, in numerous cases, held the voter’s guides up that they already had in their possession.”

Stolfer said the phenomenon trickled down to state-level races, too, where “not one pro-gun incumbent” in the Legislature lost their seat, while two “anti-gun” incumbents were defeated.

“We criss-crossed Pennsylvania at gun shows, presentations at gun clubs and held special outreach efforts in multiple locations throughout the state since June,” he said. “There was a unanimous belief that Hillary did NOT support the 2nd amendment and that she was not telling the truth and there was general anxiety expressed by many gun owners at our bi-annual gun bash and at gun stores, by customers, throughout the Commonwealth.”

Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun violence prevention group CeaseFirePA, said Wednesday the election results told her a very different story.

“Over the coming weeks and months, there will be much written about this election,” she said. “But the results from Pennsylvania and elsewhere demonstrate that support for gun violence prevention helped, rather than hurt, many candidates.”

Goodman pointed to the re-election of Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey, who’s controversial votes for expanded background checks in the wake of mass shootings in Newtown and San Bernardino earned him the endorsement of leading gun control advocate Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, donates tens of millions to pro-gun control Congressional candidates and pushes statewide gun control ballot initiatives through his arsenal of advocacy groups, including Everytown for Gun Safety, Mom’s Demand Action and Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

“I’m a strong Second Amendment supporter,” Toomey said during an interview with Reuters. “I see no contradiction between that support and insisting on background checks, so that people who’ve got no right to the Second Amendment because they’re dangerous criminals or they’re dangerously mentally ill or they’re terrorists, should be denied a firearm any way we can.”

He told Reuters the Bloomberg endorsement recognized “that what I did was a very hard thing to do politically,” a position he believes other gun owners share.

Toomey defeated Democratic challenger Katie McGinty, a former environmental official in Washington and top aide to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, by a margin of just 95,000 votes. This after a neck-and-neck campaign where McGinty tried to poke holes in Toomey’s Bloomberg endorsement by calling his commitment to expanded background checks “paper thin” and constantly touting Toomey’s A-rating from the NRA.

Likewise, Democratic candidate for Attorney General Josh Shapiro bested Republican Sen. John Rafferty, Jr. 51-49 percent. Goodman said “gun policy and connections to the gun lobby were key points of distinction between the candidates.”

While both candidates supported mandatory minimum sentencing for straw purchases, Shapiro and Rafferty clashed over the NRA-backed pre-emption law recently overturned by the state Supreme Court, which would have prevented municipalities from enacting gun ordinances stricter than state laws. New versions of the bill are currently winding their way through the state Legislature.

“I think this is a major-league difference between us,” Shapiro said in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bloomberg donated $250,000 to Shapiro’s campaign, according to the newspaper.

Goodman said the two successes can only be attributed to growing public support for stricter gun laws.

“Across the country, ballot initiatives for measures from expanding background checks, to limiting magazine capacity to keeping guns out of the hands of those in crisis succeeded,” she said. “Gun violence prevention is a winning issue.”

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