A Candidate Who Ignored The Media And Won On Guns

Mark HerringThe campaign manager for Mark Herring, the declared winner in the Virginia Attorney General race, says they won the election because they ignored the conventional wisdom typically pushed by media pundits that supporting stronger gun laws is a political liability.

Media pundits often claim that it is electoral suicide for candidates to call for stronger gun laws, suggesting that National Rifle Association has the power to punish candidates who oppose any portion of its absolutist pro-gun agenda. After two Colorado state senators who backed stronger gun laws were unseated in a September recall election, the media hyped this narrative and suggested the Colorado recall served as a warning to politicians who would advocate for stricter gun laws. (MSNBC host Chuck Todd, for example, said the lesson of the recall elections was that “every Democrat south of the Mason-Dixon Line” should stay away from the gun issue.)

But Kevin O'Holleran, Mark Herring's campaign manager, writes in a December 1 Washington Post op-ed that they were able to win an extremely narrow victory specifically because they ignored such commentary, ran on Herring's “strong record and advocacy for sensible gun legislation,” and hammered his opponent's support for “irresponsible proposals” on the issue:

Political conventional wisdom has it that in a purple state, such as Virginia, support for gun-safety legislation is best played down. As manager of Mark Herring's campaign for attorney general, I got a lot of advice. One of the things I heard most frequently was that we should soft-pedal his strong record and advocacy for sensible gun legislation. It would hurt us outside of Northern Virginia and wasn't a voting issue within the Beltway, I was told.

Like much conventional wisdom, this was wrong -- and we not only ignored this advice but did the opposite. There were stark differences between Herring and his Republican opponent, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), on gun safety. Obenshain opposed comprehensive background checks and opposed closing the gun-show loophole. He opposed former governor Douglas Wilder's landmark “one-gun-a-month” legislation. Obenshain also made a habit of voting for such irresponsible proposals as allowing guns in bars and restaurants where alcohol is served.

In short, Obenshain has opposed every constructive proposal to help reduce gun violence.

We knew this would open an opportunity for us to draw an effective contrast; public polling showed widespread support for sensible gun-safety laws, as did our own polling. Hence, more than a year out from Election Day, dealing with gun violence was a fundamental messaging point for Herring. And when the primary was over, and Herring and Obenshain met in their first debate, he drew a sharp contrast with his opponent on guns. We would prosecute that case throughout the fall campaign.

The NRA spent $500,000 to defeat Herring -- on ads O'Holleran writes were aimed at the group's base, not the “swing voters” that were motivated by Herring's message. That failure is not unusual for the NRA, whose candidates up and down the ballot were soundly defeated in 2012. The NRA spent a similar amount against Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who was elected after denigrating the gun lobby and calling for expanding background checks on firearm purchases.