Underdog Democrats Seize on Primary Opponents’ Gun History

A handful of challengers embrace gun control as a winning issue

Florida Rep. Al Lawson is facing criticism from a primary challenger over gun control. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Florida Rep. Al Lawson is facing criticism from a primary challenger over gun control. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 1, 2018 at 5:05am

With gun rights groups mostly tied to the Republican Party these days, some underdog Democrats have turned to the gun issue to try to gain traction in primaries.

“We believe the race will turn on guns,” a campaign official with Florida Democrat Alvin Brown said in an email Tuesday.

Brown launched a primary challenge earlier this year to freshman Rep. Al Lawson, and has since blasted him for being “at the center of the National Rifle Association’s grip” on the Florida Legislature and Congress, even though the congressman hasn’t accepted money from the NRA. Lawson did side with the NRA on some issues as a state legislator, but in the House, he’s an original co-sponsor of the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018, introduced on Feb. 26.

The shooting in Parkland, Florida, has shaped the political conversation over the past two weeks, but the long-term policy and political consequences of that discussion are yet to be seen.

Watch: Gun Control Brewing as Issue In Some Democratic Primaries

Loading the player...


Americans overwhelmingly support increased gun control measures, according to recent national polling. Depending on the district, Democratic challengers may continue to litigate gun control as a general election issue.

In Colorado, Jason Crow said in a Facebook ad that inaction on gun violence is “another perfect example of [GOP Rep.] Mike Coffman and his failed leadership.” Meanwhile, some Republicans, like Florida Rep. Brian Mast, have come out in support of banning assault-style weapons.

But the primaries come first. And some candidates and groups see gun control as a salient issue to attack “the Democratic establishment.”

The liberal group Justice Democrats on Tuesday seized on a leaked Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email — published Tuesday by HuffPost — to accuse the party of trying to run on a “watered down message.” In the hours after the Las Vegas shooting in October, a regional spokesman for the DCCC emailed campaigns advising them not to immediately politicize the incident and to instead offer “thoughts and prayers.”

In at least three races that have a Democratic front-runner or incumbent, primary candidates are capitalizing on the national dialogue about gun control to accuse their favored rivals of not being stronger proponents of gun control.


When Lawson was in the state Legislature, he supported requiring every Florida household to own a gun.

“It absolutely will work,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1993. “I grew up in the country. Every household had a weapon. You didn’t have a problem with break-ins.”

His challenger Brown, no relation to the indicted former congresswoman whom Lawson defeated in the 2016 primary, is trying to make guns a focal point in his campaign. 

Watch: Students March for Gun Control

Loading the player...

On Feb. 19 — five days after the Parkland shooting — Brown’s campaign attacked Lawson for accepting “blood money form the NRA.” His press release came with a screenshot of the Federal Elections Commission website showing a $2,500 contribution to Lawson from the NRA Political Victory Fund on Aug. 24, 2017. OpenSecrets.org also shows Lawson taking $2,500 from gun rights groups.

But that was due to a “clerical error,” according to the Lawson campaign. The team filed an amended FEC report for the third quarter of 2017 the day after Brown launched that attack.

On the original report, filed last October, the campaign had incorrectly input the nine-digit FEC identification number for the NRA Political Victory Fund for a donation that actually came from the Political Action Committee of Alabama Farmers Federation. 

“I have never taken any money from the NRA — and never would,” Lawson said in a statement. “My opponent simply wants a headline, and it is truly unfortunate he would use this national tragedy to try to gain political points. My priority has always been and will continue to be bettering our community and ensuring the safety of our children.” 

Subsequent attacks from Brown’s campaign — launched after Lawson amended his FEC report with the correct ID number for the Alabama Farmers Federation — backed off the accusation that Lawson took money from the NRA but kept up the pressure on guns.


This week, Brown’s campaign invoked the six-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, identifying Florida as the “Gunshine State.”

Al Lawson is at the center of the problem,” the email read, pointing to Lawson’s past support for “stand your ground” laws in Florida.

Brown’s campaign has also pointed to Lawson’s support for NRA-backed legislation in the Florida Legislature that would prevent governments from filing what the gun group called “frivolous” lawsuits against gun manufacturers. 

Lawson and Brown published dueling op-eds in the Tallahassee Democrat on Tuesday. Lawson said “military style weapons have no place in the hands of children” and called for raising the age to purchase a rifle and strengthening the background check process. 

Brown has a TV ad in the Tallahassee broadcast market calling Lawson “Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat.” The spot uses footage of the congressman applauding during the president’s State of the Union address in January.

It’s not yet clear how much money Brown will bring to the late August primary since he hasn’t yet had to file with the FEC. But his campaign did get an endorsement from Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II — a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Lawson ended 2017 with $101,000 in the bank. In an interview with FloridaPolitics.com soon after his challenger announced his campaign, the congressman attacked Brown’s tenure as Jacksonville mayor and suggested he’s only running because he needs a job. 

New Jersey

In New Jersey, Democrats are banking on state Sen. Jeff Van Drew flipping the open 2nd District seat. For years, the party wasn’t able to take on GOP Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, in part because of his strong ties to organized labor.

But as soon as LoBiondo announced his retirement, Van Drew secured early backing from South Jersey power brokers, and the DCCC recently added him to its Red to Blue list.

Van Drew’s not a typical Democratic standard bearer. He has a 100 percent rating from the NRA and as a state legislator, he has supported loosening some gun control measures. (He did sponsor legislation to ban bump stocks, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.) But in a district Trump carried by nearly 5 points, national Democrats are optimistic that Van Drew’s moderate record will give him the edge, and is even helping keep Republicans out of the race.

Other Democrats vying for the nomination, though, are more perturbed. Teacher Sean Thom and retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood have called attention to Van Drew’s favorable rating from the NRA in their social media posts.

Following the Parkland shooting, Van Drew was confronted at a candidate forum by a teenager who pointed to a donation he’d received from the NRA after she said he told her he “never” accepted NRA money. Van Drew accepted $1,000 from the NRA in 2008, and his chief of staff told the Inquirer he hasn’t accepted money since.

“All donations for the past almost 8 years have been returned which is much different than most candidates,” she told the Inquirer in a statement over Facebook.

Although Youngblood and Thom are making noise about the gun issue, neither has much of a war chest to put money behind that message. Youngblood ended 2017 with $11,000 — she’s loaned her campaign $23,000 — and Thom with $9,000. Van Drew ended the year with $80,000.


In Arizona’s 2nd District, former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who represented the neighboring 1st District for three terms, is considered a top candidate. Her campaign war chest is more than twice the size of the next closest Democrat in the race, and she is part of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program for promising challengers.

But Democrat Matt Heinz — the 2016 nominee — has been sharply criticizing Kirkpatrick’s previous positions on gun control following the Florida shooting.

In a Feb. 23 press release, Heinz campaign manager Brian Robinson cited a 2010 video of Kirkpatrick touting her “A” rating from the NRA.

“Ann is what everybody hates and distrusts about career politicians,” Robinson said in the release. “Make no mistake, the gun crisis is a problem of her making.”

Robinson explained in a phone interview that the campaign drew attention to Kirkpatrick’s previous positions as part of its broader argument that she does not fit the district (her previous 1st District is more Republican-leaning).

“It’s an issue of concern to voters,” Robinson said of gun control, “but even more to that it speaks to authenticity and trust.”

Gun control could particularly resonate in the 2nd District, where a gunman opened fire at a 2011 constituent event in Tucson, killing six and seriously injuring former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Kirkpatrick openly shifted her stance on gun control after that shooting.

“When it comes to guns, I changed my mind. After the shooting in Tucson, and the shooting of the schoolchildren at Sandy Hook, I had to rethink my position,” Kirkpatrick said in a statement. She touted her support in Congress for expanding background checks, banning people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms, and stopping domestic abusers from buying guns.

And she could have some help making that argument from Giffords herself, who has endorsed Kirkpatrick.

On the same day the Heinz campaign criticized Kirkpatrick, Giffords sent out a fundraising email on Kirkpatrick’s behalf, with the subject line, “I need you to support Ann.”

A problematic issue?

Giffords’ anti-gun violence group, Giffords PAC, has so far endorsed eight Democratic House challengers, including Kirkpatrick, all of whom are running in primaries with multiple candidates.

The PAC’s political director Isabelle James said it has backed candidates who are strong contenders and who talk about gun safety, and those from military or law enforcement backgrounds.

She said she did not believe the issue would be divisive or problematic in primaries.

“I don’t think that safety is a divisive issue,” James said. “I think that it’s good that we’re engaging in these robust conversations about what it’s going to take to make these communities safe.”

One Democratic strategist working in House races said some Democrats could face headwinds in primaries if they do not take a stronger position on gun control.

“In this environment, I think it is problematic for a candidate to have a more conservative position on guns for the Democratic primary,” the strategist said.

And getting pushed to the left on the issue might not be a problem for Democratic candidates in the general election, given the broad support for some gun control proposals.

“The energy is not just coming from Democrats around this. People are fed up and tired and frustrated by inaction,” the strategist said. “It’s becoming yet another proof point to the frustration that independents have with Washington.”

Watch: Trump’s Clout on Gun Control is Limited, and House GOP Won’t Help

Loading the player...