Two Southern Democrats, Two Different Votes on Guns

Elahe Izadi

Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are two Southern red-state Democrats facing tough reelection fights in 2014 in states with strong gun cultures. But while Landrieu voted with most Democrats to expand background checks last week, Pryor voted against that same measure.  

Landrieu’s path to victory rests more on the Democratic base in Louisiana, which includes black voters and people living in New Orleans and its suburbs, turning out to vote in a non-presidential-year election.

“The people who would be really influenced by it aren’t going to vote for her anyway,” Louisiana political analyst John Maginnis said of Landrieu’s vote to expand background checks on gun buyers. “She doesn’t want to alienate her base, New Orleans, that’s where she’s from. Given the crime rate there, and the number of murders, it’d be pretty hypocritical for her to vote against that.”

But Landrieu still has to run in a state with a strong gun culture, a reality clearly not lost on her. A statement about her votes on gun legislation led with the headline, “Landrieu Votes to Strengthen Second Amendment Rights for Louisianans — Votes against assault-weapons ban, magazine-size limit.”

“I believe that we must do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals,” she said in the statement. “I'm confident that most people understand the importance of closing this loophole while preserving the rights of law-abiding individuals to own and use guns for hunting, sport, and self-protection.”

Landrieu faces a challenge from Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. He also could face a challenge, possibly from the right in the person of former Rep. Jeff Landry, a tea-party favorite. 

Any intraparty Republican division would boost Landrieu’s prospects. Landrieu also has good ties with the oil industry and business community, and Cassidy would need to run very well in the 1st Congressional  District—filled with more-moderate white suburban New Orleans voters where Landrieu has done well in the past. But Landrieu has only won by slim margins in the past—she’s never topped 52 percent of the vote. Gun control likely won’t be the hardest vote Landrieu will have to explain. Her vote in favor of President Obama’s health care bill will “probably hurt her more than anything,” Maginnis said.

Contrast Landrieu’s political challenges with Pryor’s situation in neighboring Arkansas. While both are running in solidly-Republican Southern states, the demographics of the two are different. Arkansas has a smaller black population; 32 percent of Louisiana's population is African-American, while 15 percent of Arkansans are black. And while both are rural states, Louisiana also has larger urban population centers.

“He’s going to be in for a fight, there is no disputing that,” says Arkansas Democratic strategist and Talk Business columnist Michael Cook. But the gun control vote could help him. “We are pro-gun, pro-hunting culture, and historically we’ve always been apprehensive or flat-out against any efforts to control guns. So Pryor probably voted along the lines of what most Arkansans wanted him to vote.”

National groups, such as Organizing for Action, have plans to attack senators, including Pryor, for their votes against expanding background checks.

“Pryor could be so lucky to have people attacking him on [gun control],” said Cook. “In some ways, that’s the best news for him, so he can say, ‘Look, I’m getting heat for standing up for your right to own guns.’ ”

Pryor, a low-key Democrat who broke the news of how he’d vote on gun control to Arkansas media, “has made a good point of coming home often, reaching out, attending to any kind of political fences that needed to be mended,” says Cook.

Pryor later posted on Facebook that the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks is “too broad, unworkable, and unreasonable for hunters and gun owners in our state.”

Pryor currently doesn’t have any announced Republican opposition, but party leaders have been recruiting Rep. Tom Cotton, a freshman congressman and Iraq war veteran. With his biography and strong record of fundraising, Cotton would be well-positioned to make the race highly competitive. Cotton also boasts a geographic advantage: While most Republican candidates in Arkansas hail from the northwestern part of the state, Cotton is from the traditionally more-Democratic south Arkansas, Cook said.  In 2012, he picked up a Democratic seat, which had been held by retiring Rep. Mike Ross since 2001.

National Republicans look at the gun-control vote as a prime opportunity to attack both Landrieu and Pryor, by depicting one senator as running toward President Obama while the other is running away.

In 2012, Obama lost Arkansas by nearly 24 points and Louisiana by a 17-point margin.  “His agenda is extremely unpopular in both states. Mark Pryor has seemed to recognize that” on gun control, says National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring. “Landrieu has been a bit of a different story—she has lost touch with people in her state completely.”

While Republicans are banking on the 2014 election being a referendum on the Obama administration in these conservative states, Democrats are hoping the races will be contested on the senators' records. Pryor and Landrieu both have positive approval ratings at the moment and they’ve amassed large war chests; Pryor raised $1.9 million in the first quarter of the year, while Landrieu raised $1.2 million.  (On the GOP side, Cassidy raised $525,000 in the first quarter, while Cotton brought in $526,000.)

“It’s clear both senators start off in a strong position, and Republicans have a long way to go to put together a competitive challenge,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said. “Republicans have consistently underestimated these senators.”