New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems determined to become the formidable adversary the National Rifle Association has never had.
The billionaire mayor is spending from his personal fortune to help defeat lawmakers who voted against gun control proposals last week and to prop up those who supported the measures.
Bloomberg’s first target is a Democratic senator facing a tough fight for re-election in 2014: Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Pryor knows he’s a marked man. Whether he’s actually sweating it is the question. He’s said it before, and he’s saying it now: He doesn’t take gun advice from the mayor of New York City. He listens to Arkansas.
“I guess the way I look at it [is] it’s just another one of the outside groups that’s going to try to come in,” he says. “I think, you know, honestly, that’s what’s wrong with politics today is all these outside groups come in and try to do that. But I can’t stop it from happening.”
And with that, Pryor hurries onto an underground train that will whisk him away from reporters back to his office at the Capitol.
Pryor was one of four Democrats who voted against a proposal to expand background checks last week, and Bloomberg, the founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is trying to make sure Pryor pays. Bloomberg plans to pour money into months of TV ads, radio ads and mailings to defeat the Arkansas senator. His group says it has spent $12 million in the months since the Newtown, Conn., school shootings on field campaigns and commercials across the country.
“This is just a toe in the water,” says John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief policy adviser. And toe in the water is right — this is a guy Forbes estimates to be worth about $27 billion. Bloomberg will also be doling out money to help re-election campaigns of lawmakers who voted for gun control — both Democrats and Republicans.
“The mayor and others are going to provide the political counterweight to the NRA,” Feinblatt says. “It has had the field to itself for decades, and that has to stop. And that time has come.”
Since 1994, when the first assault weapons ban passed, the NRA has been able to operate with almost no opposition that’s as well-funded, well-organized and intense as its own members.
Feinblatt says Pryor is just the beginning. Another Senate target is likely to be Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who is facing re-election in 2016. Her predecessor, Judd Gregg, had voted to extend the assault weapons ban, so many gun control groups see New Hampshire as the next best place to land another supporter.
Americans for Responsible Solutions — the group former Rep. Gabby Giffords formed after she was shot in the head in 2011 — has funded an ad attacking Ayotte for her vote, and another one taking shots at Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, that will run for two weeks.
The organization’s executive director, Pia Carusone, says the campaign isn’t about changing the minds of constituents — it’s about reminding them how their senators voted.
“We’re not actually looking to convince people,” she says. “We don’t need to move the needle from 90 to 99 percent. … The public is with us on this.”
It’s unclear when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will bring up gun control legislation again. In the weeks — probably months — ahead, Giffords’ group plans to keep the pressure on by urging constituents to call their lawmakers. President Obama’s political arm, Organizing for Action, is doing the same.
But Carusone says the real challenge will be to make guns important enough as an issue to sway voters’ choices in 2014 and 2016.
“Until now, we have not seen a single-issue voter movement of people that are considering gun safety policy, gun violence policy, as a No. 1 issue of how they vote,” Carusone says.
This week, gun control groups met with Vice President Biden to figure out strategies going forward. They say Biden reminded them that it took several tries over seven years before background checks finally passed with the Brady Bill in 1993.