How gun control advocates plan to make Texas a top political priority in 2020

Gun control advocates are gearing up to make Texas their top political battleground in November.

Everytown for Gun Safety announced in February that it would spend at least $8 million this election cycle in the state, mainly focusing on U.S. House and state House races. On Monday, the Michael Bloomberg-backed group announced the first round of that spending — a $250,000 digital ad campaign targeting Republicans in five key congressional races. And on Thursday, the group is naming three staffers to help with its Texas campaign, including two veteran Democratic operatives.

The moves set up Everytown to be one of the biggest players in down-ballot races this cycle in Texas, outside of the Democratic and Republican party committees.

Texas is “clearly emerging as a top battleground state — there’s just no question about it — and it’s why we’re investing $8 million in the state this cycle,” Everytown senior political adviser Charlie Kelly said. “Between the investment and our network of 400,000 grassroots supporters, our goal is to do whatever it takes to elect gun sense candidates up and down the ballot in the state.”

Everytown is further doubling down on its commitment to Texas with the trio of hires, which were first shared with The Texas Tribune. Jenna Royal, a former Moms Demand Action volunteer from North Texas, will be Everytown’s Texas political director, and James Aldrete and Adrian Saenz will serve as special advisers on Texas and Spanish-language media. Both Aldrete and Saenz have deep experience in Texas as well as national politics, particularly with Latino outreach.

Everytown is calling its $8 million effort here “Gun Sense Majority: Texas,” describing it as one of its largest state investments yet. It includes TV and digital ads, as well as direct mail and a field program drawn from its massive grassroots arms, Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action. They will be pushing for policies that continue to register broad support in polling, starting with universal background checks.

Everytown is not the only national gun control group zeroing in on Texas this cycle. Brady PAC is set to spend over $500,000, a sum that its executive director said is growing from an initially “modest investment” in the fight for the state House majority. Democrats are nine seats down in that chamber.

“It just kind of snowballed as we lifted up the hood and saw all the opportunities that existed,” the executive director, Brian Lemek, said.

While it has not announced spending plans yet, Giffords, the group named after former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, also sees Texas as a place where it can make a difference this cycle. It is backing Democrat MJ Hegar in her run against Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, and last month it endorsed a slate of seven U.S. House candidates across the state.

Like many Democrats, the groups are encouraged by the state’s increasingly diverse electorate and the down-ballot gains that Democrats made in 2018. But they also see a state that has seen a disproportionate amount of mass shootings in recent years — and believe voters are more frustrated than ever with Republican leaders who have declined to crack down on guns each time.

Kelly likened Everytown’s focus on Texas to its efforts in 2019 in Virginia, where it spent $2.5 million to help Democrats capture both chambers of the state legislature. The breakthrough came months after Republicans in the General Assembly refused to act on gun control proposals after a shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 12 people dead.

Kelly said Everytown “made an example of” Virginia Republicans, “and we intend to do the same in Texas.”

The groups face a steeper challenge in Texas than they did in Virginia, where Republicans already had slim majorities in both chambers. In the Texas House, Democrats are nine seats away from the majority, and at least twice as many districts are in play. In U.S. House races, national Democrats are targeting seven seats while defending two.

For its debut digital ad buy, Everytown went after four endangered Republican congressmen up for reelection: Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, John Carter of Round Rock, Michael McCaul of Austin and Chip Roy of Austin. The ads also targeted Beth Van Duyne, the Republican nominee to replace retiring Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, whose seat Democrats are working to flip.

“We are clear-eyed and dispassionate when it comes to investment,” said Kelly, who spent the 2018 cycle as the executive director for House Majority PAC, the top Democratic super PAC in U.S. House contests. “We want to go where we can win and make the biggest impact.”

Republicans are scoffing at Everytown’s push in Texas, saying the group’s proposals amount to an encroachment on Second Amendment rights that will not play well in a state with rich gun tradition. Republicans are also rallying supporters with the specter of its co-founder: Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City who unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic presidential primary earlier this year.

“The last thing Texans need or want is Mike Bloomberg’s dark money group lecturing them on banning guns,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Gun control advocates argue public opinion is on their side, at least when it comes to proposals such as universal background checks and red flag laws, which allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from people whom a judge deems dangerous. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released in February, for example, 79% of the state’s voters supported background checks for all gun sales.

Lemek said Brady PAC is additionally focused on safe storage laws, calling them especially relevant during the coronavirus pandemic, when families are spending much more time at home than usual.

In interviews, Kelly and Lemek indicated their strategies were less centered on more politically charged proposals such as banning assault weapons — or mandatory buybacks of such guns, an idea popularized last year by former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. Kelly said universal background checks are a starting point for Everytown, and “our goal is obviously move forward on that front, and there are other places that we’ll go, but the key here is we have almost universal support” for universal background checks. Lemek said he understands the “apprehension” that some candidates have around outlawing assault weapons but that Brady encourages a more nuanced discussion advocating “not necessarily a ban” but for there to be “no assault weapons produced and then sold from a retail store” going forward.

That is the approach taken by, for example, Hegar, whose platform says the country must “stop the sale of assault weapons to the public.”

Universal background checks, though, are expected to reign supreme in the groups’ messaging. It was the singular policy proposal featured in the digital ads that Everytown rolled out Monday, 30-second spots that begin on a timely theme.

“COVID-19 is not the only public health crisis facing Texas families,” a narrator says.

The ads caught the attention of at least one of the GOP targets, Crenshaw, who sent out a fundraising email Tuesday titled “Now Mike Bloomberg is spreading lies about me.” He offered three points taking issue with universal background checks, arguing the ad “advocates for a policy that would infringe on the Second Amendment liberties of the American people without ever stopping the tragedies we all want to prevent.”

Disclosure: Everytown for Gun Safety and the University of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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