For Longtime Republican Districts, Gun Debate not quite the Smoking Gun

Despite dominating national headlines for the past month and counting, the gun reform movement hasn’t quite made itself the be-all and end-all issue for some of New Jersey’s most contested Congressional elections this November.

Guns, evidently, can’t penetrate party organization lines.

That’s at least according to two political experts: Patrick Murray, who leads the Monmouth University Polling Institute, and Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.

All eyes are upon the races for the traditionally Republican 2nd, 7th and 11th Congressional districts, and the Democratic frontrunners have shown relatively moderate views on firearms regulation, according to Hale. In the case of state Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-1), his pro-gun positions – and primary opponent Tanzie Youngblood’s effort to make him unpalatable to progressive Democrats – drew some national media attention, but did little to impede his ability to secure the coveted organizational lines that now give him an advantage over a comparatively scrambled Republican field.

“One of the traditional ways that Democrats in conservative districts have tried to navigate the gun issue, is that they start a discussion of gun control, they’ll say something like ‘I’m a sportsman, or I understand, or I grew up around guns’,” Hale said.

Right.

“I think I probably have more experience with guns than anyone in this Congressional race right now, I qualified as an expert in the colt 45, the M16,” district 11 apparent Democratic frontrunner Mikie Sherrill told InsiderNJ.

A former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor with $822K cash on hand, Sherrill has made her gun credentials front and center, at least when it comes to the firearms debate.

Incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen, who’s served since the 1990’s, has bowed out of a potential tooth and nail fight to keep his seat, meaning the district could be among dozens across the country to flip from red to blue come the 2018 Congressional midterm elections.

“They try and make a connection to the culture of hunting, or to the culture of gun ownership, and then they pivot to saying the people who have guns are by and large responsible and reasonable,” Hale said. “They identify with, they’ll say things like ‘most gun owners recognize the importance of gun safety’, and then they’ll proceed to say ‘I wanna get rid of bump stocks. I wanna do background checks’.”

Indeed, Sherrill has proposed keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, the mentally ill and those on the terrorist watch list.

“I think this aligns, not just for Democrats, not just for Republicans, but for Americans,” Sherrill said.

Just a few miles south on the Garden State Parkway, 7th district apparent Democratic frontrunner Tom Malinowski  ($446K cash on hand to incumbent Leonard Lance’s $607K) has shown similar views to Sherrill.

“I think there is a lot of agreement among responsible gun owners, that something needs to be done to protect our kids, that it can be done consistent with the Second Amendment, and that measures like banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, and universal background checks, are reasonable and measured answers to the problems we face,” Malinowski said.

Formerly the Assistant Secretary of State under the leadership of Democrat John Kerry, Malinowski is running to unseat incumbent Leonard Lance in the longtime Republican-held district.

But their views on guns wouldn’t make any sort of difference, Hale suggested.

“Democrats are never gonna get the people who the only issue that matters to them is the Second Amendment and protecting the Second Amendment. Democrats will always lose that fight,” Hale said. “But Democrats can peel of some of those voters who want to keep the Second Amendment but are okay with restrictions.”

Both Democratic candidates have the nomination from their party in the bag, not because of their gun stances, but because they’ve garnered the support of the county Democrats, according to Murray.

“It’s already a done deal,” Murray told InsiderNJ. “In another state with a contested primary, they would be worried about not being far enough to the left for gun issues in the primary. But because this is New Jersey and we have county lines that lock in the majority of the vote in that county, these candidates have been pretty much able to escape without being tagged by the gun issue.”

Their opponents in the primaries, Peter Jacob in the 7th district and Tamara Harris in the 11th district, have been virtually locked out of any shot at the Democratic nomination, regardless of their views on guns.

“They haven’t won the county endorsement, they haven’t won the county line,” Murray said about Jacob and Harris.

A social worker by trade, Jacob ($27K COH) has presented himself as the “Bernie Sanders” of district 7, and gun issues are no exception. He’s argued that gun violence stems from economic inequality and that the solution would be higher pay, universal healthcare and more accessible educational opportunities.

“It’s embedded in racism, we’re a settler nation, we wanted to kick out Native Americans, and the way you do that is a well-regulated militia,” Jacob said, also pointing to a “culture of fetishm for guns.”

Harris ($455K COH), lacking the nomination, has used that to her advantage.

“That’s what’s resonating with people in the district, I’m not endorsed by the party, I’m not endorsed by the establishment in this primary, and I think people are looking for a different type of candidate who can actually speak to their issues but brings a very different perspective and background,” Harris said.

In at least one district, the anti-establishment candidate is convinced he can bludgeon away at his favored opponent by playing to that portion of the Democratic Primary electorate galvanized by the gun (and other) issues. Jim Keady in District 4 lost all three county organization line fights to retired Naval Officer Josh Welle, who now looks like the district choice to go up against U.S. Rep. Chris Smith in the general. But Keady – against the odds of the lines dictating the trajectory of the season, insists on an edge as that outsider in the contest more in touch with the progressive views on the streets.

“Now the real primary begins,” said Keady campaign manager Ryan Hughes following his candidate’s loss earlier this week at the Mercer County Democratic Convention, his third and final organization fail, even as Welle called – in the truest spirit of organizational establishment party politics, for unity now that the party organizations have spoken.

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