Gun rights have motivated portions of the Republican base in Florida for years, but the script has changed in 2018.
The National Rifle Association sued the state of Florida after Gov. Rick Scott and 67 state lawmakers with an “A” rating from the nation’s largest gun group signed a bill that bans anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing a firearm. Congress passed a bill that authorizes funding for school safety measures after the nation’s deadliest high school shooting in Parkland, but hasn’t taken up other ideas that would limit access to firearms. Republicans running in competitive congressional races across Florida say they are open to a ban on assault weapons.
Parkland and the March For Our Lives movement started by a group of Broward County high school students have thrust gun politics into the top tier of issues ahead of the 2018 elections, where Democrats are hoping to keep Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat and flip up to a half dozen congressional seats that could determine which party wins the majority in the House of Representatives.
“Even if you go back 10 years, it’s amazing how much this issue has changed,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 Florida campaign. “If you looked at the polling, people supported background checks and banning certain types of weapons, but the entire energy for voting was on the other side. A larger swath of the population is saying that if you’re not reasonable about gun safety, we’re not going to vote for you.”
Though Parkland is in overwhelmingly Democratic Broward County, congressional candidates in nearby Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties have changed their tune on guns in the last year. Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, running for reelection in a Democratic-leaning district, called on Congress to ban devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to function like automatic rifles after the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017. Treasure Coast Republican Rep. Brian Mast cited his military experience when calling for an assault weapons ban after Parkland. Miami congressional candidate Maria Elvira Salazar, a Republican, said this week that she supports background checks on guns and is open to an assault-weapons ban.
All three breezed through their respective Republican primaries even though Mast drew two challengers after announcing his stance against assault weapons, and Salazar faced a host of challengers who were more conservative on guns.
“The threat that the NRA has made for years is that if you oppose us, you will lose,” Schale said, adding that zero Republican incumbents who signed the state-level gun bill or called for more gun restrictions after Parkland lost their primaries. “If you look at folks like Brian Mast who came out for an assault weapons ban... it’s hard to imagine in the past that a GOP member of Congress could come out with that position without being completely terrified of the NRA.”
The state’s moderate Democrats in Congress are in favor of increased gun-control regulations, notably Central Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who won an Orlando-area seat in 2016 after jumping in the race after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Murphy is one of the Democratic Party’s moderates on issues like defense spending, but led an effort this year to overturn a ban on the federal government spending money to research gun violence.
National groups that are promoting gun control have largely left Mast, Curbelo and Salazar alone, choosing instead to focus on Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Sarasota Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan. Diaz-Balart is the largest recipient of NRA campaign contributions out of the state’s 27-member congressional delegation, while the groups see voters who have attained higher education levels in Buchanan’s district to be potentially motivated by gun-control issues.
And guns have already become a staple of advertising campaigns across the state. Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell highlighted her father’s death due to gun violence in Ecuador during an early ad in her race against Curbelo. Parkland parent Fred Guttenberg has cut television ads for Mary Barzee Flores, a Democrat seeking to unseat Diaz-Balart.
The National Rifle Association’s role in Florida politics appears to be shifting. The group hasn’t spent significant money on behalf of Scott’s Senate campaign, after spending over $900,000 to help Marco Rubio in 2016, and about $750,000 to unsuccessfully oust Nelson in 2012. The group maintains a large, politically active membership, and NRA donations to their political action fund increased in the months after Parkland and after the March For Our Lives movement gained national attention.
According to data released by the Florida Division of Elections, a quarter of the 450,000 new voters registered in Florida this year are between the ages of 18-24, the kind of voters targeted by March For Our Lives and other gun-control groups like Giffords, Everytown and NextGen since the Valentine’s Day shooting. It’s yet to be determined how many young voters will show up to vote in November, as the last midterm election in 2014 saw record low turnout and just one in five young people showed up to vote. In that election, Scott narrowly won a second term for governor and Democrats did not make gains in the state’s congressional delegation.
Though guns have become a top tier issue in Florida, Democrats running for reelection in other states with high gun ownership rates like Montana and West Virginia have approached the issue differently, and with Trump in office until at least 2021 the path for sweeping gun control legislation like an assault weapons ban to become law in the near future is unlikely.
But the NRA’s performance in Florida this year is an example of a shifting dynamic.
“If you think about the long-term trajectory of the issue, the fact that the NRA wasn’t able to make an example of someone stepping out of line [this year], it gives people hope who want to see further gun safety laws passed,” Schale said.