In 2019, Democratic legislators gained a majority in both Virginia’s state House and Senate for the first time in decades. After polls had closed, a survey of 600 swing district voters commissioned by gun control advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety (Everytown) found that the issue that had most impacted their votes wasn’t related to the economy or even health care. It was a lawmaker’s position on guns.
Following the Virginia Beach mass shooting, Everytown spent $2.5 million on the state’s legislative races, focusing on Republican lawmakers who had resisted passing gun reform. Everytown became the largest outside spender in the election, outspending the National Rifle Association (NRA) by a four-to-one margin.
But can gun safety issues similarly mobilize voters in 2020 amid what to many may seem more pressing issues: a global pandemic, mass unemployment and calls to end systemic racism? Everytown believes so—the group, largely financed by Michael Bloomberg, is hoping to repeat their success in Virginia with $10 million focused on state legislative races alone, including seven-figure buys aimed at flipping state legislative chambers in Arizona, North Carolina, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Iowa and even Texas.
“Sometimes Congress is the curtain-raiser and sometimes it’s the finale, and that is certainly true when it comes to gun safety,” Everytown’s President John Feinblatt tells TIME in an email. “[Working] in the states is key to making sure that the majority of Americans who favor common-sense gun safety are represented by gun sense majorities.”
Of all the state legislative races, Everytown plans on spending the most in Texas. The group will be allocating at least $2.5 million to flipping the state House to what they call a “gun sense” majority, investing in digital advertising, direct mail and television ads on the issue of gun safety.
“Texas is something of a microcosm [for] the politics of guns in the rest of the country,” says James Henson, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the Texas Politics Project.
Until a few years ago, most of the organizing around gun laws in the state supported loosening restrictions, he says. But after several mass shootings—including 2017’s Sutherland Springs shooting that killed 26, 2018’s Santa Fe shooting that killed 10 and 2019’s El Paso shooting that killed 23—gun control groups have become much more active and “changed the terrain to some degree,” Henson continues.
A February survey conducted by Everytown found Texas voters supported stronger gun laws by a 5:1 margin; 78% said a candidate’s stance on guns was “very important” to their vote.
To take the Texas House, Democrats need to flip nine seats. “It’s not going to be enough to simply overwhelm Republicans by mobilizing the Democratic base,” says Mark P. Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “They’re going to have to convince a subset of voters who normally vote Republican to vote Democratic this time around.”
That’s not out of the question, Jones says, especially in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston, where the battle over the state House is primarily playing out. “It all depends on exactly how they pitch [gun control]—as responsible but not anti-Second Amendment rights,” he continues. In terms of specific gun reforms, Jones says Republican-leaning voters tend to most commonly support universal background checks and stricter restrictions on assault rifles.
An Everytown messaging survey undertaken in July also found that gun violence prevention was one of the most “persuasive” messages among voters in battleground House districts.
The Dallas and Houston suburbs—which include 80% of Everytown’s Texas target districts—have also undergone demographic changes in recent years that buoy Democrats’ hopes. Some Republican lawmakers there were only reelected by razor-thin margins in 2018, including Republican Rep. Jeff Leach, who represents House District 67 in suburban Dallas.
Leach—who received an A rating from the NRA in 2018—is now facing Democrat Lorenzo Sanchez, who’s been endorsed by Moms Demand Gun Action, Everytown’s grassroots organizing arm.
“I take the issue of gun violence seriously, and I know that we can take action that will reduce harm, while also protecting the average Texans right to own a firearm,” Sanchez tells TIME in a statement.
Sanchez says gun reform is especially important to him because the white supremacist El Paso shooter lived in House District 67. “He easily could have chosen to go to our local Walmart and opened fire on myself, my family, friends, and others within our own community,” Sanchez says.
Leach did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Henson notes polling done by his Texas Politics Project found that the changing opinion on gun safety “in these suburban districts has more to do with the changing composition than it has to do with any major change in attitudes on guns.” And an early August poll from The Economist and YouGov of U.S. adults found that only 5% of respondents said gun control was the most important issue to them; 23%, on the other hand, said jobs and the economy.
But as Mark R. Joslyn, a professor at the University of Kansas and author of The Gun Gap: The Influence of Gun Ownership on Political Behavior and Attitude, notes, gun control doesn’t have to be a voter’s number one issue for it to affect an election.
“The pandemic has exacerbated this crisis, and racial justice protests have put the connection between gun violence, police violence, and criminal justice reform into sharp focus,” Everytown’s Feinblatt says.
“Gun safety is a double-threat,” he continues. “It persuades independents, and it mobilizes vital demographics, including suburban women, communities of color, and young people.”
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