Bloomberg vs. NRA: Big spending could swing Illinois race

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 'super PAC' is spending $2.1 million to defeat a pro-gun candidate in the race to replace Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. It's part of his broader attack on NRA power.

By MARK GUARINO | The Christian Science Monitor

February 19, 2013 at 6:39 pm EST

Chicago — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is sending a message to Democratic officials nationwide with upwardly mobile ambitions: Support the National Rifle Association at your peril.

Through the "super political-action committee" he launched shortly before the November election, Mayor Bloomberg has purchased $2.1 million in political attack ads in the special vote to replace Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned in November. The primary target is Debbie Halvorson, a former member of Congress who once received an “A” rating from the NRA and opposes President Obama’s push for an assault-weapons ban.

The ad buy points how gun-rights groups are trying to use new leverage to change Washington's political calculus on gun control. For years, the Democratic Party has embraced pro-gun candidates in an effort to expand its base. But recently, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D) and her husband have sought to use the massacre in Newtown, Conn., as well as her own shooting, to reverse this trend.

Now, Bloomberg is using his own vast fortune to hit opponents where it hurts most: on the airwaves. It is a message that could resonate in Illinois' Second Congressional District, which is in Chicago, a city currently wracked by gun violence. And while there's no polling on the Democratic race, at least one prominent election watcher has said Bloomberg's ads could swing the contest.

“Gun control is Bloomberg’s longstanding cause, and part of the reason he can get involved in so many races is he’s got so much money. It’s his privilege to do it,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “And there is one big difference between Halvorson and [challenger Robin] Kelly, and it is guns.”

One ad sponsored by Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA, says of Ms. Halvorson: “When it comes to preventing gun violence, she gets an ‘F.’ ”

Halvorson accuses Bloomberg of trying to “purchase” the election. “We cannot allow Bloomberg to buy this district from New York,” she told reporters Monday.

She says she has not received an endorsement from the NRA. One of her top opponents in the Democratic primary will be Ms. Kelly, a former Illinois state representative who is running on a pledge to reduce gun violence by supporting assault-weapon and conceal-carry-permit bans and reducing the loophole for weaponry sold at gun shows. The winner of the Democratic primary on Feb. 26 is seen as being the favorite in the April 9 general election.

Citing an anonymous source in Capital Fax, a local media outlet covering Illinois politics, Halvorson says Kelly told supporters her strategy was to allow Bloomberg to launch attack ads against Halvorson. Kelly rejected the charges.

“It's ridiculous. I don't know [Bloomberg]. He doesn't know me. I have not been in touch with him. You can't even legally be in touch with them. So it's untrue, that's all I can tell you,” Kelly said.

Bloomberg’s involvement could be decisive, says Professor Sabato. The $2.1 million Independence USA ad buy dwarfs the $50,000 Halvorson has spent on her race to date, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.

But Independence USA defends its right to spend such sums. “The interest of the mayor in gun safety and gun issues do not know state lines, they happen all over the country at a tragic rate. Whatever he can do to inform the populace of the records [on gun control] of those running for office, he will do it,” says Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Independence USA.

He says that, in accord with the rules governing super PACs, his organization has had no direct contact with the Kelly campaign and calls Halvorson’s accusation “desperate words from a desperate candidate.”

Bloomberg’s involvement is seen as being his most high-profile attempt yet to show that he will be a national political player beyond the end of his tenure as New York mayor next January.

“He’s probably reconciled himself that he won’t be president, but he wants to have a national impact by picking and choosing his fights where he sees an opportunity to change the ballot on some pretty important issues,” says John McGlennon, a political scientist at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Bloomberg, a former Republican who is now an independent, says he is nonpartisan in his critiques, though he supports Mr. Obama’s push for stricter gun laws. So far, his record is good: Since the fall, his organization spent $5 million to defeat Rep. Joe Baca of California, a Democratic incumbent who Bloomberg felt was weak on gun control. He also successfully helped US Senate candidate Angus King, an independent, get elected in Maine.

That should make Democrats who have more moderate positions on guns especially worried, says Professor McGlennon. “He’s made it clear Democrats aren’t going to get a free pass on gun issues in their nomination contests.”

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