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Two Virginia elections test new clout of gun control lobby (+video)

Ahead of Tuesday's election, gun control advocates have spent big in two Virginia state Senate races, putting the NRA on the defensive. It's a growing trend. 

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    This photo provided by Will Schermerhorn via McPike For Senate and Resonance Campaigns LLC shows Jeremy McPike in Virginia. The retirement of the longest-serving state senator in Virginia history has set off an expensive battle in Prince William County to claim an open seat that could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the chamber.
    Will Schermerhorn/McPike for Senate and Resonance Campaigns LLC/AP
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In the final weeks of their Virginia state Senate campaigns, Democrats Jeremy McPike and Dan Gecker had raised about $1.5 million each – a fairly impressive sum in a state where the most costly Senate race in 2011 was $2.6 million between the two candidates. Then, two weeks before election day, those numbers doubled.

The two races are now among the most expensive in Virginia legislative history, and it is largely down to the involvement of one group and one issue: Everytown for Gun Safety pushing gun control.

With efforts to reform American gun laws at the federal level turned back by the lobbying of guns rights groups, gun control advocates are now focusing resources on state houses across the country.

A stated goal of Everytown – a group founded by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York – is to counter the political and financial influence of the National Rifle Association. Everytown has enjoyed some modest victories since 2013, and the outcome of the two Virginia Senate campaigns could signal important changes in the politics of gun control at the state level, as pro-gun control activists significantly outspend gun rights groups.

Everytown entered the races for the hotly contested Virginia Senate districts outside Washington and Richmond in late October. It produced a television ad campaign starring Andy Parker, the father of a Roanoke, Va., TV journalist fatally shot during a live broadcast in August. Everytown spent $2.2 million on the campaign, raising Mr. Gecker's haul to $2.5 million and doubling Mr. McPike's to $3 million (twice that of his Republican opponent).

If Democrats win just one of those seats, they will have enough to form a majority in the upper chamber. The political ramifications remain minimal, given the Republican supermajority in the lower House of Delegates. But wins on Tuesday for McPike and Gecker could be significant for gun control advocates in general, and Everytown specifically. 

"We're talking about sums of money that are pretty impressive, pretty gargantuan for a Virginia legislative race," says Geoffrey Skelley, media relations coordinator for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in Charlottesville.

"Having an organization that's willing to spend money on an issue that the country is fairly evenly divided on, [that is] willing to come out and equalize one of the most influential outside groups in the country in the NRA, that holds meaning," he adds. "It sort of balances out the two sides on that issue."

Everytown's successes

The NRA has spent about $110,000 on the two state Senate campaigns and $370,000 on all Virginia legislative races – less than a quarter of Everytown's outlay, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. 

Gun control groups have quietly been outspending gun rights advocates in a number of state legislative contests in recent years. Everytown contributed $4.4 million to 2014 elections, helping gun control groups outspend gun rights groups $5.1 million to $2.8 million that year, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Mont. Mr. Bloomberg helped Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) win election in 2013 despite an "F" rating from the NRA that his Republican opponent frequently mentioned.

Everytown formed last year in a merger between Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns Group and Moms Demand Action, a group founded in the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is making its presence felt in states around the country.

The group is trying to repeat a formula that proved successful in Oregon, backing two Democrats to Senate wins last year. This year, the state passed a law extending criminal background checks to private gun sales. In Nevada, Everytown helped collect enough signatures to put a measure on the 2016 ballot calling for a similar law, according to the Associated Press.

Move could backfire

But while the burgeoning gun control lobby could also suffer a landmark defeat Tuesday. Both Virginia races are “a jump ball,” and Bloomberg's involvement could backfire, says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

"The Bloomberg money may end up triggering a backlash to get gun owners very engaged, and that could hurt the Democrats' chances," he says.

Professor Farnsworth noted the 2013 Colorado recall election, in which Mayors Against Illegal Guns spent millions of dollars to counter an NRA-led effort to recall two state senators. The senators had helped pass a state law expanding background checks and limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds.

The NRA trumpeted the defeat of then-State Senate President John Morse at the time, saying the recall sent "a clear message" that he is accountable to his constituents and not "the dollars or social engineering agendas of anti-gun billionaires."

The NRA's victory in Colorado was short-lived, however, as the two pro-gun Republicans elected in the 2013 recall were ousted a year later.

Still, a loss on Tuesday might give Everytown cause to rethink its strategy.

"If they can't win after spending that huge a sum, I think that would show that outside spending isn't a panacea for everybody," says Mr. Skelley.

Nationally, the outcome of Virginia’s election could be significant. Virginia is a microcosm of America as a whole, says Nicole Hendrix, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Va., in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Virginia "reflects many of the challenges with firearms seen across the United States," she writes. "In many ways, how Virginia responds to issues related to firearms, both politically and with regard to policy, may foretell the direction of the country."

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