Illinois 2 Special: The Real Range of Gun Control

by Jessica Taylor February 25, 2013 · 3:01 PM EST

Tuesday’s special election in Illinois’ 2nd District has been dominated by gun control -- an issue magnified by the $2.2 million Michael Bloomberg’s political action committee has dropped into the Chicago contest to attack two candidates.

There is no question the New York City mayor’s multi-million dollar investment has had an outsized impact in the race, highlighting the past “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association of former Rep. Debbie Halvorson and state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, and boosting the PAC’s preferred candidate, former state Rep. Robin Kelly, now at the front of the pack going into the Democratic primary to succeed scandal marred former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

But while it’s very easy for a special election to become an incubator for the national issue of the day, it is less clear the issue will resonate on a national scale in 2014. Gun control has long mattered in crime ridden Chicago, and the December tragedy in Newton, Conn., has thrust the issue back into the national conversation at the perfect time for it to resonate in the election.

In the 2011 special election in New York’s then-26th District, Medicare became the rallying cry for Democrats, helping propel Democrat Kathy Hochul to Congress in the GOP-leaning district. Later that year, the New York 9 special election was fueled by President Obama’s position on Israel, and Republican Bob Turner and the GOP used it as a wedge issue with Jewish voters.

It’s important to note, too, that those issues weren’t the only reason the House seats switched parties. Weak nominees, a multi-candidate field, and scandals that caused the vacancy also hung over the votes. But in the press, one issue in each contest was credited with outsized influence, with national party committees also spending heavily to advance the narrative.

While gun control has been the dominant narrative, especially in late stages of the race, it also isn’t the only force that has helped to shake out the field to pave the way for an apparent Kelly win. Halvorson’s support in the district was always tenuous, at best. Early polls that showed her on top were based largely on name ID. The one-term congresswoman didn’t make many friends in the Democratic establishment after her ill-fated primary challenge to Jackson in 2012. Then and now, her fundraising was lethargic, and she had a very thin staff, while her opponents hired more expansive consulting teams.

Early on, several local Democrats noted that they expected one of a trio of women to emerge on top -- but the question was who. Many feared Kelly and Hutchinson would split the African American female vote -- a very reliable bloc even in low-turnout elections. With more than a dozen candidates on the Democratic slate alone, others worried Halvorson could get a slim plurality, giving the black majority seat to a white candidate. Now, it doesn’t look like either of those scenarios will happen, with Hutchinson withdrawing last week and Halvorson having suffered the most from Bloomberg’s attacks. The Independence USA PAC has been carpet bombing the district with expensive broadcast TV ads boosting Kelly, and Kelly is the only candidate with enough money to go up on cable, also with an ad touting her record on gun control.

Often, issues that allegedly drive special elections turn out to be less decisive in November. While Democrats last cycle tried to use changes to Medicare from Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget as their silver bullet to winning back the House, they were unsuccessful, even with Ryan as the GOP vice presidential nominee.

What’s more likely is that Bloomberg or other gun control groups could use the issue to affect primaries next year, especially in urban areas. But after redistricting and creative GOP gerrymandering, that’s now where the majority of safe Democratic seats have been drawn. Similarly, the NRA could impact the opposite side in safer GOP districts. The issue won’t have as much of an impact in more swing districts, with Democrats still having to appeal to independent and GOP voters, many of whom remain opposed to gun control, which they see as an infringement on their 2nd Amendment rights.

For now, Bloomberg’s group has found ripe ground to have an especially large impact in a race where candidates were hampered by time, money, and low name recognition. Another such opportunity with just the right set of circumstances may not come along again.