The state’s elections in November will test the potency of gun rights as a voting issue. Democrats are looking to take power and enact gun control legislation next year.
Aug. 8, 2019
CENTREVILLE, Va. — At door after door, house after house, Dan Helmer, a Democrat running for the Virginia House of Delegates, found voters of both parties telling him one thing as he canvassed for support Tuesday night: Do something about the mass shootings.
“I have it on the TV right now,” Reza Darvishian, a State Department security engineer, told Mr. Helmer on the porch of his home. “I’m sick of listening to all of this stuff.”
That’s not what the Republican incumbent in the race, Tim Hugo, says he is hearing from his constituents. Gun violence is of comparatively little concern to voters, Mr. Hugo said. Instead they want to talk about the same issues that have animated suburban voters for the generation he’s been in office.
“I ask people, ‘How can I help?’” Mr. Hugo said. “The answers that come back are transportation, schools, taxes and even illegal immigration.”
The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend have rebooted the national discussion over gun violence and ignited a bitter fight between Democrats and President Trump over whether his divisive rhetoric encouraged the violence. Now Virginia’s off-year elections in November loom as the first political battlefield on the issue. Republicans hold only one-vote majorities in both the House and Senate. Democrats are aiming to capture both chambers and pass new gun control legislation next year.
[Mitch McConnell has expressed willingness to consider a background check bill.]
The Virginia elections will help measure the potency of the issue with voters after a series of mass shootings that has outraged many Americans. And it will match the resources of the movement’s biggest supporter, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, against the National Rifle Association, the long-dominant Virginia-based gun rights organization that faces internal turmoil and a steady loss of influence.
The 2018 midterms marked the first time the N.R.A. was outspent by gun control groups in a national campaign.
The issue is already highly charged in Virginia, which had its own mass shooting in May, when 12 people were killed in a Virginia Beach municipal building. The massacre prompted the Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, to call a special session in July and ask lawmakers to consider a package of eight gun control proposals, including banning assault-style weapons and implementing universal background checks.
Using their razor-thin majority, Republicans ended the session after 90 minutes and referred the gun control questions to a state crime commission, which it asked to present a report on the issue a week after Election Day.
“We’re much better off in a less political atmosphere to come back after the election and consider a comprehensive solution,” said Kirk Cox, the speaker of the state House of Delegates.
Now Mr. Cox and Mr. Hugo are the top targets for Democrats and gun control proponents. Both represent suburban districts long in Republican control where voters have rejected the party in the Trump era.
“This will be the first thing on the docket,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “People are fired up. People are sick and tired of saying, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you,’ and they want action.”
The Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the political arm of Mr. Bloomberg’s gun control organization, said this week that it would invest at least $2.5 million in Virginia before Election Day — more than it spent in either of the last two legislative elections there. The group polled 14 legislative districts this week to determine how it will allocate its funds.
“Virginia is a bellwether state and we are going to be there,” said John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president. “There is no doubt this is a test. This is the next theater for what’s going to happen everywhere in 2020.”
With its odd-year elections, Virginia has a long record of serving as a leading indicator for national contests the following year. The state’s voters in 2009 were the first to reject Democrats in the Obama era, foreshadowing the rise of the Tea Party, and did the same to Republicans in 2017 following President Trump’s election. That year, Democrats swept out a generation of long-tenured suburban Republican lawmakers while coming within a coin flip in a tied race of winning control of the state’s House of Delegates for the first time since 1999.
Virginia remains a complex state demographically and culturally, with wide swaths of rural areas where Confederate flags are common and belief in gun rights sacrosanct. But the current gun control debate comes as the state has nearly completed a Republican-to-Democratic transition in statewide elections, as urban and suburban voters have swung hard away from Republicans over the last decade.
The stakes in Virginia extend beyond gun politics. Mr. Northam is eager to write a legacy beyond his connection to disputed blackface photos in his medical school yearbook that emerged in February; some Virginia Democrats believe he would jump at the chance to sign a slate of progressive legislation in a state long been known for its permissive gun laws.
While Republicans hope to lower the temperature on gun politics, Democrats are trying to keep it high. Mr. Helmer’s pitch to voters begins with his Army service in Afghanistan and Iraq and pivots directly to a call for new gun restrictions. Mr. Cox’s Democratic challenger in the suburbs south of Richmond, Sheila Bynum-Coleman, tells voters of how her teenage daughter survived being shot outside a party in 2016.
“People want to see something done now,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “That is the No. 1 thing that we are hearing out in the community, especially after what has happened this weekend, is that we want to see something done now.”
Virginia Democrats’ optimism about seizing control in Richmond lies in the broader electoral trends in suburbs here and across the country. Mitt Romney won the Centreville district by four percentage points in 2012. Four years later, Hillary Clinton carried it by 10 points. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia won it by 18 points in 2018.
In 2017, Mr. Hugo won a ninth term as a delegate, but only by 99 votes.
Mr. Helmer has built his campaign around his identity as an Army veteran and his support for the robust suite of gun control measures Mr. Northam proposed.
Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was shot and critically injured in 2011, has endorsed Mr. Helmer and appeared with him at a March fund-raiser. Ms. Giffords endorsed Ms. Bynum-Coleman after the truncated special session in July.
“In the lulls between these terrible national events, it’ll be the second or third thing people bring up to you,” Mr. Helmer said as he drove from his campaign headquarters to a Centreville neighborhood of four-and five-bedroom houses. “But increasingly, it’s moved up.”
He said that even the Trump voters he had encountered told him the time had come to enact robust gun control measures.
“Too many people that shouldn’t have guns have them and they should be controlled,” said Marie Mills, an 85-year-old retiree from Tennessee who moved to Virginia to live with her adult son.
Sophia Bohle, a 50-year-old real estate agent whose teenage son, Stratis, volunteers for Mr. Hugo, said there should be new gun restrictions at both the state and federal level.
“I think it should be a privilege to have a gun, not a right,” she said.
Both women, who described themselves as Trump-supporting independents, said they would consider voting for Mr. Helmer to reduce gun violence.
As in other states, the N.R.A. is closely aligned with Virginia’s Republican officials. During the special session, the N.R.A.’s political team worked from the speaker’s conference room down the hall from Mr. Cox’s office. Mr. Cox said the space is a public meeting room open to anyone who needs to use it.
“Kirk Cox did not talk to the N.R.A. before the special session,” Mr. Cox said, using the third person. “There are constant meetings in all of those rooms.”
Like Mr. Cox and Mr. Hugo, Chris Kopacki, the N.R.A.’s Virginia state director, contended that gun issues are low on voters’ list of priorities. He added that there was little room for compromise to be had with Democrats seeking to implement new gun restrictions. Mr. Kopacki said there are “hundreds of thousands” of N.R.A. members and supporters in the state who are prepared to organize to back Republicans in November and oppose gun control measures in Richmond.
“Compromise is common on many legislative issues, but when it comes to gun rights, Governor Northam and his allies are only interested in positions that restrict the rights of law-abiding Virginians and not in seeking real solutions to violence,” Mr. Kopacki said.
Other Republicans expressed more concern and suggested the party would be wise to demonstrate a willingness to work with Democrats to show they are doing something about gun violence.
“No Republican is going blind into this election,” said Tucker Martin, who was an aide to Virginia’s last Republican governor, Bob McDonnell. “They know exactly how challenging it is and they won’t be surprised by it.”
Mr. Hugo said he’s supportive of expanding Virginia’s so-called red-flag laws but declined to say whether the legislature should consider universal background checks. John Fredericks, who was the chairman of Mr. Trump’s Virginia campaign in 2016, on Tuesday warned Republicans of electoral calamity in November if they do not first act on gun control measures.
Big losses this November, Mr. Fredericks said on his conservative talk radio program, would allow the Democrats to not only enact a sweeping liberal agenda on gun control, health care and other issues but also give the party control of the next redistricting process, potentially flipping three congressional seats and locking Republicans out of majorities in Richmond for a decade.
“Here’s my message to Republicans: if you don’t do something, you’re going to get annihilated in the suburbs in 2019,” Mr. Fredericks said. “And that’s the end of Republicans in Virginia for a generation.”
Correction: Aug. 8, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated the vote margin in Tim Hugo's re-election race in 2017. After a recount, he won by 99 votes, not 106 votes.