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Campaigns Embrace National Security Message After Orlando Shooting

But it's too early to tell whether that narrative will last through general election

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, LuAnn Bennett's campaign expects her to talk about gun safety reform and national security in her campaign against GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
In the wake of the Orlando shooting, LuAnn Bennett's campaign expects her to talk about gun safety reform and national security in her campaign against GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Responding to the mass shooting in Orlando over the weekend, both Democrats and Republicans running for office have prioritized messages of national security.  

How long will that last? If what’s happened after previous mass shootings is any guide, not that long.  

For now, many Democratic challengers are hitting GOP incumbents for blocking a vote on a bill that would prevent suspected terrorists on the FBI Terror Watchlist from purchasing firearms.   

And even if individual candidates are not pushing that particular message, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is making that a strong focus this week.   

Talking about gun control through the lens of national security isn’t a new Democratic message. Individual candidates and the campaign committee used the same tactic late last year in the wake of the December shooting in San Bernardino, California.   

But that issue largely disappeared in the intervening six months.   

Which means it’s hard to tell whether this is a theme that will endure through the November elections.   

On that, at least, Democrats and Republicans agree.  

“It’s just too early to say,” a Democrat strategist said.  

“It’s kinda hard to tell,” a Republican strategist said.  

After the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, Democrats quickly came forward with calls for gun safety reform.  

But after the Senate failed to pass a bipartisan background check bill in the spring of 2013, gun safety wasn’t as salient an issue in the 2014 midterms as one might have thought it would be in December 2013.  

In fact, Republican Senate candidates embraced guns in 2014 general election ads , tapping into fears that Democrats would curtail Second Amendment rights.   

Democrats have a more nuanced message this week, partially because of the complex nature of the Orlando shooting.   

Some lawmakers and congressional candidates are calling for gun safety reform and highlight the need to protect the LGBT community from discrimination and violence. But the message with the most universal appeal is the one about national security.   


Democratic Challengers Make Gun Control a Security Issue


As they did last December, Democrats on Tuesday tried to force votes on a bill introduced by New York Republican Peter King that would prevent suspected terrorists on the FBI’s “no fly” list from purchasing firearms.  

Republicans again opposed the effort on Tuesday, even as some in the party indicated that they were willing to discuss the concept. And on Wednesday they touted their own legislation that they say would add extra protections for due process.  

Also on Wednesday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted that he would be meeting with the National Rifle Association to discuss the “no-fly, no-buy” legislation.   

Democratic operatives say that how much Orlando finds its way into paid messaging later this year will depend on the candidate and the district.   

Gun control rarely has been a winning issue for Democrats, but the demand for gun safety reforms generally plays better in urban districts and swing suburban districts than it does in more rural areas of the country.   

In Virginia’s 10th District, a swing seat at the presidential level that borders Washington, Democrat LuAnn Bennett’s campaign plans to target Republican Barbara Comstock using all three messages — gun safety, national security and anti-discrimination.  

But sticking to a national security message may have wider appeal, especially in more rural districts.    

In Kansas’ 3rd District, a red seat that Democrats are trying to put in play , Democrat Jay Sidie attacked GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder Tuesday for not getting behind the terrorist watch list legislation.   

“Congress should put aside the petty partisanship and work together to close this loophole, which is an important step in any comprehensive strategy to destroy ISIS and keep American’s safe,” Sidie said in a statement Tuesday.   

Democratic challengers who are pushing for GOP incumbents to vote on the no-fly list ban won’t necessarily be pushing a broad gun safety message.    

Democrats like the way a national security lens gives them an opportunity to highlight Donald Trump’s foreign policy statements and paint a contrast with presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.  

For Republicans, the campaign message from Orlando is almost universally about national security.  

“It’s kind of a good sign for members to do the exact opposite” of how Trump initially responded, one Republican strategist said.  

National security is a theme that fits naturally into Republicans’ political rhetoric about being tough on terrorism, and, the Republican strategist said, is typically of utmost concern to voters.  


Republicans Who Didn’t Say ‘LGBT’ in Their Orlando Statements


Republican Robert J. Dold, who faces a competitive re-election in a district President Barack Obama twice carried by double-digit margins, struck a different tone .   

Unlike some members of his party , Dold acknowledged that the Orlando shooting targeted the LGBT community and called for action to “prevent gun violence and put an end to bigotry of all kinds” on the House floor.   

He called on Congress to pass legislation that would prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms.  

“Keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of people who wish to do our country harm is a solution we should all be able to get behind,” he said.   

But even with candidates moving away from generic statements about the Orlando shooting to statements about specific legislation, campaigns are still a ways off from turning these talking points into TV ads.  

Whether they eventually do remains to be seen. 

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