Their fears of facing a political backlash for supporting gun regulations have evaporated after years of mass shootings, with candidates, party officials and gun-control advocates arguing that making the case for strengthening gun laws will win them more votes.
“I am heartbroken by the loss of life caused by mass shootings across Texas and the United States and determined to take on the corporate gun lobby and its enablers,” said Wendy Davis, a former Texas state senator who shot to political fame in 2013 when she filibustered an anti-abortion bill with a speech lasting more than 11 hours.
Gun control will be a strong part of her campaign message as she takes aim at an Austin-area U.S. House of Representatives seat that Republicans have held for 41 years. That is a shift from her unsuccessful 2014 run for governor when she supported the open carry of handguns in her state.
Davis is targeting one of six seats the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks it can flip. Republicans hold 23 of the state’s 36 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Along with another Texas candidate, she made the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” list, which right now includes just 12 people nationwide who will get extra funding and organizational support from the party.
Davis and other Democrats say that years of high-profile mass shootings, including the August massacre of 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, have convinced them to directly confront opponents of stronger gun laws.
One of the biggest reasons for the apparent lessening blowback on the issue is the emergence of powerful national groups calling for tougher gun regulations, particularly the Mike Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety, which has countered the National Rifle Association pro-gun lobby.
Everytown spent $2.5 million on the campaigns that led Democrats to win control of both chambers of the Virginia state legislature in November, and officials with the group said they plan to spend more in Texas, without specifying numbers.
“We see gun safety as a winning issue in Texas as the state becomes younger and more diverse and because there has been a huge amount of gun violence in the state,” said Shannon Watts, founder of the Moms Demand Action group, which is affiliated with Everytown.
Iraq War veteran Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democrat who lost a 2018 bid for Texas’ 23rd Congressional district by 926 votes and is running again this year, takes a similar approach to Davis. She is running for a seat representing an enormous stretch of the border with Mexico that includes the outskirts of El Paso, where she has met with the family members of those killed in the August shooting.
“For too long we’ve had too many folks cashing checks from the gun lobby and not worrying about doing the right thing,” Jones said in a phone interview. “For me, this is a moral courage issue.”
Longtime observers of Texas politics warn that candidates backing gun control may want to rein in expectations.
Nonpartisan U.S. political analysts forecast that the man Davis is trying to unseat, Republican U.S. Representative Chip Roy, has better-than-even odds of winning reelection. They give Jones a better chance of capturing the seat that will open when incumbent Republican Will Hurd steps down at the end of his term.
“The gun issue is a good mobilizer for Democrats at this stage,” early in the campaign, said James Henson, a University of Texas political scientist and pollster. “But that’s much trickier in the polarized environment of a general election when you try to persuade people across party lines.” Read more