A Washington Post article on the 2015 Virginia elections relied on punditry rather than data to suggest that “advocacy of gun control in a pivotal Senate race in the Richmond area may have backfired,” costing Democrats a chance to gain control of the state Senate.
Prior to statewide Virginia elections on November 3, Democrats needed to pick up one seat to effectively obtain control of the chamber (the Senate would have been split 20 - 20 with a Democratic lieutenant governor casting tie-breaking votes). Democrats did not gain the seat, retaining the 19 - 21 party split.
A November 4 Post articled claimed that following the election “one possible mistake stands out: [Democrats'] aggressive advocacy of gun control in a pivotal Senate race in the Richmond area may have backfired by producing a pro-Republican backlash,” referring to the defeat of Democrat Dan Gecker in the 10th Senate district.
According to the Post, victorious Republican Glen Sturtevant “beat Democrat Daniel A. Gecker after GOP supporters ran ads blasting Gecker for trying to win the seat with $700,000 of outside help from pro-gun-control TV advertisements paid for by a group linked to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.”
The article quotes several elected officials and political strategists who suggested that advocacy for gun safety or pro-gun safety TV advertisements explained Gecker's loss.
Here are the actual facts on the ground in Virginia and how they relate to gun safety advocacy:
- While Gecker did not win, he outperformed expectations. According to unofficial election results issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Gecker lost with 47 percent to Sturtevant's 49 percent. Four years ago, during the last District 10 Senate race, the Democratic candidate received 43 percent of the vote and lost by more than 13 points. Gecker was running in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats. According to internal polling viewed by Media Matters, the party ID of the district was 41 percent Republican versus 36 percent Democrat. The poll, taken in July before the spending highlighting Gecker's support of stronger gun laws began, showed a generic Republican defeating a generic Democrat for the seat by a 48 percent to 39 percent margin. Gecker would ultimately lose the seat by just 2 points.
- The Post article made no mention of the race in Senate District 29 where Democrat Jeremy McPike defeated Republican Hal Parrish in a "high-stakes race." According to an October 22 Post article, Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety spent $1.5 million on the race in support of McPike. Notably there is no Post article positing that but for spending on pro-gun safety ads, Democrats would have had a net loss of one Senate seat. Just last week the Post reported that the race in the 29th district was “guns vs. tolls,” noting that McPike was being hammered by ads that associated him with a plan by McAuliffe that Republicans claim would cause a siginficant increase in toll fees on Route I-66, which passes through the 29th district. Significantly, McPike prevailed with the help of gun safety ad spending and in the face of spending that tied him to higher tolls.
- According to Senator Donald McEachin, Chair of the Virginia Democratic Senate Caucus, gun safety ads helped both Gecker and McPike. In a statement, McEachin said in part, “In both races, polls showed our candidates trailing in the weeks before Election Day. Gun safety advocates helped us to close those gaps. As a result, we won one race and came very close in the other -- despite running in a difficult political environment.”
Media often blame the issue of gun safety for losses by progressive candidates, even when there is no actual evidence to support the claim. This is due to a longstanding but fact-free conventional wisdom within the media that the gun lobby has the ability to defeat pro-gun safety candidates for office at will.
After the publication of this post, The Washington Post added language to its article that tempered the claim that the gun issue was responsible for conservative voter turnout in the 10th district. While the original article said, “Sturtevant won the District 10 seat after benefiting from huge turnout in the conservative Powhatan area that analysts attributed to the gun issue,” it now reads (emphasis added), “Sturtevant won the 10th District seat after benefiting from a huge turnout in conservative Powhatan County, which analysts attributed in part to the gun issue.”
The Post also added language to indicate that “leaders from both sides said the gun issue cut both ways because it helped energize the Democratic base in the district's liberal neighborhoods in Richmond.”
The article now has a quote from Sen. Ryan McDougle, who chairs the Senate Republican caucus, stating, “It certainly increased the intensity for some people who were pro-Second Amendment but also for some people who were pro gun control.”
Putting claims about the relationship between the gun issue and turnout in Powhatan County in clearer context, the article added language explaining that McDougle “and others also said that hotly contested local races, such as for sheriff and county supervisor, had boosted turnout in Powhatan.”
The article is still largely premised on the fact-free claim that the gun issue cost Gecker his election and thus Democrats control of the Senate.