Democrats Failed To Capture Virginia’s Senate, In Part Because Of The Politics Of Gun Control

Virginia Democrats tried to capture control of the Virginia State Senate by, in part, emphasizing gun control issues. The fact that they failed is instructive.

Gun Flag

As I noted this morning, Virginia Democrats failed in a highly publicized effort to regain control of the Virginia Senate, which effectively means that Terry McAuliffe is a lame duck Governor for the remaining two years of his term and the attention of the Commonwealth’s political operatives will now shift to the Democrats and Republicans who will run to succeed him in 2017 in addition, of course, to the 2016 Presidential race. To some degree, the effort to retake the Senate was an uphill battle to begin with due to the fact that many of the State Senate’s districts are drawn in an a way that makes it hard for challengers to succeed in a General Election absent something politically unusual. This year, though, Democrats in Richmond and many outside groups attempted to create an opening that could flip even one seat into the Democratic camp by emphasizing gun control issues, especially in districts in Northern Virginia where polling indicates support for some gun control measures:

Republicans held onto the Virginia Senate in fiercely contested elections Tuesday, leaving Gov. Terry McAuliffe without legislative leverage or political momentum as he works to deliver Virginia for his friend and ally Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016.

The outcome was a blunt rebuke to McAuliffe (D), who had barnstormed the state with 24 events over the past four days and who portrayed the elections as a make-or-break moment for his progressive agenda.


Having one chamber on McAuliffe’s side could have, at least in theory, led to the sort of bipartisan deal-making that allowed then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to pull off a record tax hike in 2004. But Warner could appeal to a host of moderate Senate Republicans and a more closely divided House. McAuliffe faces a more conservative Senate Republican caucus and a House with a wide GOP majority.

For that reason, the biggest prize the elections offered was momentum — the opportunity for the winning party to claim that voters in this key presidential swing state were leaning its way one year ahead of the White House contest.

McAuliffe, once a record-smashing fundraiser for his close friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, had hoped a win would help sway purple Virginia in 2016.

National donors and outside groups on the left and right seized on the state Senate races. A gun-control group backed by former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pumped more than $2.3 million into the two most hotly contested Senate races, one in Northern Virginia, the other in the Richmond suburbs. Donating in smaller amounts were the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the National Rifle Association and the Republican State Leadership Committee.

As this pre-election article in The Washington Post notes, by the time the campaign came to crunch time the election had boiled down to Democrats and their supporters emphasizing gun control issues while Republicans concentrated on a debate to create toll lanes on a major Northern Virginia highway:

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has made a Democratic takeover of the closely divided state Senate his top priority this fall. For several months, he’s tried to convince voters that control of the chamber is the only way he’ll be able to pass his agenda, which includes expanding Medicaid and passing new gun-control legislation.

But this week, he’s been tangling on the radio with Republicans not about health care or firearms but congestion plans for one stretch of road inside the Capital Beltway.

Currently, rush-hour restrictions apply to single drivers on that busy section of Interstate 66; under the governor’s plan, single drivers could pay to join the other commuters. Republicans have seized on the issue, accusing the governor of planning a new toll road that would increase the cost of commuting. House Republicans more than doubled their original spending on TV commercials knocking the I-66 toll plan for a total ad buy of $850,000, according to Matt Moran, spokesman for Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).


In addition to tolls, which will probably help the race become one of the most expensive in state history — with about $4 million raised — the contest has attracted groups seeking tighter gun-control laws. About a quarter of that money comes from Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group launched by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to help candidates who support stricter access to guns. Everytown is spending $1.5 million backing McPike. “You can’t turn on the TV for two minutes without seeing one of those ads,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

But despite that flood, as well as the advocacy of the parents of a Roanoke television reporter slain on live television in August, Republicans say momentum is on their side.

“It feels good out there,” said Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee chairman who is considering a run for governor in 2017. “I think we’re going to expand our majority in the Senate. . . . We may even expand the majority in the House.”

There were obviously issues beyond gun control that led to the failure of Virginia Democrats to flip even one Senate seat yesterday, but the fact that they put so much time and money in that issue, and concentrated that effort on districts where it seemed as though this kind of message would have an impact. Specifically, we’re talking about the kind of middle-class suburban communities where polling shows that there is broad support for stricter gun control laws, including not just background checks but also other provisions. The fact that the effort was unable to motivate voters to get to the polls, or to vote for the Democratic candidate if they did vote, is an object lesson in the political realities of gun politics in the United States. As I’ve noted before, even where polling shows that there is strong support for at least some forms of gun control it has often proven difficult for advocates to turn that support into the kind of political action necessary to win elections. To a large degree, that is because of the fact that gun control is largely a low-priority issue for all but the most committed voters, and even then it is usually the people on the gun rights side of the argument that seem most heavily motivated to be “single issue” voters on gun issues. As I’ve said before, perhaps the best evidence of this is the fact that the uptick in support for gun control measures that occurred in the wake of the shootings in at Sandy Hook Elementary School had returned to its pre-existing levels by the one-year anniversary of the shootings. The most recent evidence of this fact before yesterday’s election results in Virginia can be found in polling that was released last month that showed increased support for “stricter’ gun control laws, without going into specifics about what that means, but also showed strong support for allowing people carry legally obtained weapons concealed as well as opposition to some of the more restrictive ideas of gun control advocates. The fact that the rather well funded for an off-year election efforts to use the issue to try to flip even a single Senate seat in Virginia failed, then, is not entirely surprising.

The results in Virginia and the lesson they seem to teach us could also have implications for the 2016 elections. In the wake of the most recent mass shooting incident in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama tried to ignite a public debate on the issue of gun control with comments that pretty much just amounted to empty rhetoric about policies that most likely wouldn’t have any reasonable chance of passing at the national level and wouldn’t have done anything to stop any of the recent shootings even if they did. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, responded by unveiling what she said would be an aggressive push for broader gun control laws if she’s elected President, including the possibly use of Executive Orders and other powers if Congress fails to act. More recently, Clinton used last week’s Democratic Presidential debate to attack her chief rival Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for a record on gun control issues that doesn’t fit easily into the Democratic Party’s current narrative and even suggested that she would consider the type of mandatory gun buyback program, essentially gun confiscation, utilized by Australia in 1996 and 2003. Inside the Democratic Party, this type of rhetoric is likely to play well, of course, but that’s not necessarily the case in the General Election. If the Clinton campaign and the Democrats choose to make this an issue then, it could have very interesting implications for states that will be crucial to the outcome of the campaign such as Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and, of course, Virginia. It could also have implications in closely contested Senate races, where the balance of control in that body will be decided. Perhaps it will turn out that Democrats are finally able to use this issue to their advantage, but recent history, going all the way back to the 1994 election, indicates that the result would more likely backfire on them.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Guns and Gun Control, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mikey says:

    I don’t recall seeing one gun-control themed ad, but man, there was one about tolls on I-66 about every five minutes. Hal Parrish was hard-over against tolls, but he still lost to the Democrat.

    But then, in my district, the delegate and state senator–both Democrats–ran unopposed, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.

  2. mannning says:

    I dearly hope that Clinton champions gun confiscation for the 2016 election effort!

  3. stonetools says:

    Huh. Somebody is worried about people changing their minds about gun safety. Both Post articles I read only briefly mentioned gun control, and emphasized transportation issues as key. And then there is this:

    Republicans and Democrats alike went into Tuesday predicting success. But mere hours after the polls opened on Election Day, the Democratic Party of Virginia struck a surprising tone: Don’t be surprised if we lose.

    The party sent out a two-page memo to reporters laying out reasons why this might not be its year. It noted that Republicans tend to vote in off-year elections such as this one, that Democrats are playing in traditionally Republican districts and that money has flowed in from outside groups.

    “The 2015 election has always been an uphill battle for Democrats; off-­off-­off-year elections are not traditionally friendly ground for a party that relies on high turnout numbers for success,” the Democrats’ communications office wrote.
    In recent years, Democrats have effectively used data to turn out voters for statewide and national races, but in the memo they acknowledged that those voters tend to stay home for local races.

    “While our unprecedented field and targeting programs have helped, all data shows that likely voters this election are still much more Republican,” the memo says.

    The story of the elections is that Democrats lost to Republicans in traditionally Republican districts in a red state in an off Presidential year election. That’s dog bites man.
    As usual, Doug is busy trolling us about his pet belief that gun control isn’t a winner. Don’t worry, Doug, nobody is coming to take away your little man card. Rest easy.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Republicans have seized on the issue, accusing the governor of planning a new toll road that would increase the cost of commuting.

    Sounds to me like Republicans lied in order to stoke fears about increased tolls and falsely framing the debate as hard-working families versus Arlington joggers. I assume more voters were concerned about (phony claims of) $17 tolls than guns.

  5. al-Ameda says:


    I dearly hope that Clinton champions gun confiscation for the 2016 election effort!

    I, for one, wonder when the president is going to actually confiscate guns?
    Probably during the 8 week period following the election and before the January 2017 inauguration, right?
    America is obsessed with guns, period.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Oooohh…Mannning is here with his usual nonsense.
    Clinton in response to an audience members question:

    “Australia is a good example, Canada is a good example, the U.K. is a good example. Why? Because each of them have had mass killings…Australia had a huge mass killing about 20, 25 years ago, Canada did as well, so did the U.K. And, in reaction, they passed much stricter gun laws…..The Australian government, as part of trying to clamp down on the availability of automatic weapons, offered a good price for buying hundreds of thousands of guns,…Then, they basically clamped down, going forward, in terms of having more of a background check approach, more of a permitting approach, but they believed, and I think the evidence supports them, that by offering to buyback those guns, they were able to curtail the supply and to set a different standard for gun purchases in the future…would be worth considering” federally, “if that could be arranged…I do not know enough detail to tell you how we would do it, or how would it work, but certainly the Australian example is worth looking at,”

    The NRA and Mannning share a strawman:

    The real goal of gun control supporters is gun confiscation.

  7. Mu says:

    The Democrats really are going one cycle to early with this. Yes, there’s a solid majority for gun control in their coastal bastions, but for the rest of the country gun control is at best an ambivalent subject and at worst something to bring down a swing state vote. If we get President Trump because Hilary makes gun control the main subject I’d be seriously miffed.

  8. DrDaveT says:


    But then, in my district, the delegate and state senator–both Democrats–ran unopposed, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.

    Sounds a lot like my district, where one of them ran unopposed and the other ran only against a Green candidate.

    You can see why Real Virginia ™ fears the spread of Northern Virginia’s exurbs so much. The culture gradient(*) is steeper here than just about anywhere else I’ve ever seen.

    (*) Meaning “change in average worldview per mile of distance traveled”

  9. grumpy realist says:

    Well, Colorado right now is having a discussion because it looks like someone actually called in about the latest shooter pre-shooting wandering around holding a gun and the police told her they couldn’t do anything because of Freedom to Carry.

    Yup, boys, get your shootouts at the OK Corral, boys, because every mass shooter is simply a good ol’ boy exercising his gun rights….up to the very point he lets off that gun.

    Which means, of course, that I should treat anyone openly carrying around a shotgun as a potential mass shooter and thus take him out first, no?

  10. Lit3Bolt says:

    @grumpy realist:

    As long as you tell them “F**K YOU!” first, and if they look at you angrily, you can justify it on grounds that you feared for your life at that point.

    Eventually at this rate Republicans will start blaming people for running into all the bullets in the air and interfering with their Right of Way.

  11. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT: Before too long they’ll have to pick up the Virginia Welcome Center on I-95 and move it down past Fredericksburg!

  12. t says:

    @DrDaveT: Yeah, once you get south of fredericksburg and west of front royal/warrrenton, you notice it immediately.

  13. Pinky says:

    Virginia politics is all about roads, and only roads. Sometimes taxes, to the extent that they affect roads. The Republicans made the campaign about tolls, which are literally road taxes. No Virginian cares about anything but roads.

    In two years, political writers will be talking about the Virginia governor’s race. They’ll say that it’s an indicator of the direction of the country. It won’t be. The political press will cover it because it’s near their houses. The election will be determined by the candidates’ transportation plans.

  14. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pinky: Sounds like Washington State, where the voters passed a bond issue for Seattle road building, expanded enforcement for exotic animal trafficking, publicly financed elections and tax cuts.

    Back to the topic: Alas, Doug is correct on this one. We simply aren’t good enough people to care about what happens to anyone not named (fill in your own name here). We don’t care how many crazy people commit suicide by cop or how many children die or how many college students die or how many mothers and fathers die. It doesn’t matter as long as we can buy guns in three days. Meanwhile, I’m in my 12 exciting week of waiting for my federal background check to clear my teaching license.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Meanwhile, I’m in my 12 exciting week of waiting for my federal background check to clear my teaching license.

    Now, now, don’t be silly, teaching is not a constitutional right…

  16. Mu says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Not sure what you’re trying to say here. Is it either
    The NRA is right, without time limit the feds will just sit on the background checks. My teachers union needs to lobby for the same clause.
    It’s perfectly ok that I don’t teach this year, the feds have to be thorough on every background check.

  17. Mikey says:

    @Mu: I think it’s to point out the inanity of requiring a multi-month federal background check to teach a classroom full of children, but only a perfunctory and often insufficient background check to purchase an arsenal capable of killing a classroom full of children.

  18. anjin-san says:


    I dearly hope that Clinton champions gun confiscation for the 2016 election effort!

    Dude, Obama confiscated all the guns years ago. Where have you been? Hillary’s agenda is mass arrests of the now defenseless population.

  19. anjin-san says:


    I dearly hope that Clinton champions gun confiscation for the 2016 election effort!

    Dude, Obama confiscated all the guns years ago. Where have you been? Hillary’s agenda is mass arrests of the now defenseless population.

  20. Rafer Janders says:


    The Democrats really are going one cycle to early with this. Yes, there’s a solid majority for gun control in their coastal bastions, but for the rest of the country

    Um, those coastal bastions are where about 80% of the country lives. The “rest of the country” is largely uninhabited.

  21. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mikey: Yeah! What you said!

  22. Mu says:

    @Rafer Janders: That is correct, Unfortunately we don’t have a proportional voting system, so winning a few states with massive majorities doesn’t help our overall political representation. You can win 55% of the popular vote and still lose.

  23. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mu: In addition, my comment is to point out a discrepancy. The society is free do decide whatever it wants on what that discrepancy shows. So far, I have had 5 criminal background checks during my career, and my state requires–because I am working as a substitute teacher (yes, we need regular teaching licenses)–that all of the districts that I have worked in must re-certify that I wasn’t engaged in any child-related criminal activity during my employment on a yearly basis.

  24. Mu says:

    I’ve repeatedly proposed to have all gun buyers go through a “deep” background check, after which they get an instantly verifiable federal gun buyers card. But that is too much like registration for the NRA and not nearly odious enough for the no-gun crowd.
    So we stay with the current stupid system.

  25. mannning says:


    Where have I been? Hiding my guns from the Feds, of course! My arsenal is fully undetectable now. You can spend all day searching my property for them, but I will guarantee you cannot find them.

    My firm belief is that Clinton would lose, lose, lose on this issue alone, not to mention her penchant for lying, and mixing personal and job-related finances. Her rating hit 60% negative for honestly this week, yet it appears that Dems are not dissuaded by it. Remarkable! I suppose it hasn’t occurred to Dems that fully a quarter of the population owns and appreciates guns.