Gun vote backlash: Five senators who said 'no' see ratings plunge

Approval ratings have plummeted for five senators who voted against expanded background checks for gun buyers, says a PPP survey. But only one is up for reelection in 2014. Will it still matter in 2016 or 2018?

Ralph D. Freso/Reuters/File
A customer tests a Glock 20 10mm handgun at the Guns-R-Us gun shop in Phoenix, Ariz., Dec. 2012. Five senators have seen their approval ratings drop after they voted against a measure to expand background checks to gun buyers online and at gun shows, according to a new survey.

Five senators have seen their approval ratings drop after they voted against a measure to expand background checks to gun buyers online and at gun shows, according to recent surveys from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm.

But only the Democrat – Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska – is up for reelection in 2014. So the question becomes, will these poll numbers have any bite when the Republican senators return to the electoral ring in 2016 or 2018?

The answer depends, as so often is the case, on who you ask.

“This will remain a persistent political problem for them,” asserts Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and strategist, speaking on a conference call with reporters to discuss the PPP survey.

True, the polling numbers for the four Republican senators – Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Jeff Flake of Arizona – don't look good.

Senator Flake, for example, has a 19-percentage point spread between those who approve of his performance (32 percent) versus those who don’t (51 percent), making him the most unpopular senator in PPP’s polling data.

Senators Ayotte, Portman, and Murkowski saw their approval ratings decline by more than 15 percentage points, compared with previous PPP polls taken in recent months. Senator Begich saw an eight-point decline, and Senator Dean Heller (R) of Nevada held roughly steady with a three-point drop in approval.

The liberal polling firm zeroed in on Ayotte, Portman, Heller, and Flake because those senators represent states that voted for President Obama in 2012 or, in Flake’s case, have been trending more Democratic in recent years.

“For Republican senators to be successful [in their reelection bids] in those states, they have to come across as centrists,” Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, said in the call Monday with reporters. “This is a vote that could haunt them for six years down the road,” he argued, because it risks their independent-minded images, making the senators look like “Washington Republicans when Washington Republicans are about the most unpopular things you can be in politics.”

Moreover, the pollsters expect that the deep-pocketed Mayors Against Illegal Guns (bankrolled by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) and the politically savvy and emotionally resonant Americans for Responsible Solutions (led by former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, herself the victim of gun violence) will keep the issue of gun regulation and gun violence in front of the public between now and those distant elections. 

“We think there is a very good likelihood that this is an issue that will be injected into public debate and public discourse with some constancy and consistency over the coming months and coming years, if it's not resolved before then,” said Mr. Garin. “Sadly, violence is a continuing problem in our society, so the salience of the issue gets renewed periodically.”

Charlie Gerow, a veteran GOP political observer in Pennsylvania, has heard such claims before – and he’s still not buying them.

“Mayor Bloomberg’s money will help them,” acknowledges Mr. Gerow. But “there have been groups around for decades that haven’t been able to ultimately persuade people that they should constrict their constitutional freedoms,” he adds.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania got a modest bump in his approval ratings after he introduced the background-check measure with Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia. But it’s much too early to say one whether Senator Toomey, who is actually up for reelection in 2014, has hurt or helped himself, Gerow says.

“Those [polling] numbers will move many, many, many times between now and when he has to run for reelection,” he says of Toomey.

Among Toomey’s GOP base, moreover, there’s been some “slippage,” Gerow says. "There was a Second Amendment rally here at the Capitol [in Harrisburg, Pa.], and Pat Toomey was not kindly referred to.”

Garin, though, argues that the difference this time is that the public has crossed a threshold of support for expanded background checks, and that will make the issue resonate with voters longer than in the past.

That goes for traditional gun-rights strongholds – something Democratic senators serving those states should take into consideration, Garin says.

“Can voters who support Second Amendment rights understand why it’s a good idea to have background checks. and will they support candidates who make those distinctions?” Garin asks. “What we’re seeing in our polling is that voters in places like Montana and North Dakota are capable of drawing distinctions that, when in doubt, senators can actually feel quite safe treating their voters as if they are smart enough to be able to hold these two thoughts in their minds at the same time.”

Whether Democratic senators in red states are convinced of that remains to be seen. As Gerow notes, four red-state Democrats (including Senator Begich) bailed on the Manchin-Toomey measure because they, whether for reasons of conscience or politics, don’t yet believe the polls showing solid majorities of voters in their states support expanded background checks.   

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