By Katie Glueck
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ anti-gun violence super PAC spent $10.6 million in the midterms and won barely won half of its contests — but the group is already preparing for 2016 and plans to get involved in the GOP presidential primaries.
The group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, faces a steep task: Gun control has hardly registered as an issue on the campaign trail, there’s strident opposition to possible restrictions from the Republican base, and the pro-gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, remains formidable.
But ARS is convinced it can change the narrative, and it points to its $250,000 investment in data and analytics in 2014 as a major advantage for next cycle. The group has already built a substantial voter file, including in the critical presidential states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Our hope is that the major parties’ nominees are good, if you will, if not perfect. … That some of the work we’ve done is helpful in paving a way for these candidates to talk about these issues,” Pia Carusone, a senior adviser to ARS, said in an exclusive post-election interview with POLITICO that detailed the group’s spending strategy and vision.
Giffords launched ARS in 2013, two years after she was shot in the head when a gunman attacked her and others in her Arizona district. The group stresses that it’s bipartisan – it supported two Republicans and 16 Democrats this cycle – and while it backs measures such as expanded background checks, it also highlights the former Democratic congresswoman’s pride in being a gun owner.
In 2014, ARS counts as wins nine of the 18 congressional and gubernatorial races in which it invested, though the extent of those investments varied widely. But of the competitive Senate races in which ARS spent significantly — North Carolina, Louisiana, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire — it won only the Granite State (Louisiana is headed to a runoff, which Democrats look likely to lose). However, its preferred candidates won extremely close gubernatorial races in Colorado and Connecticut, both states scarred by recent mass shootings.
The group also competed in several House races, winning one competitive seat in New Hampshire and backing a safe Republican in Pennsylvania. And officials counted a successful ballot measure in Washington state that enacts tougher background checks as a big win.
But in a sign of the tough landscape facing ARS, the verdict is still out in the race for Giffords’ old post in Arizona’s Second District — perhaps the group’s highest priority.
There, ARS invested $2.3 million — its biggest expenditure in any race — and ran controversial, highly emotional ads. Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, a former Giffords staffer who was also wounded in the Arizona shooting in 2011, faces a recount against Republican candidate Martha McSally.
ARS was one of a constellation of anti-gun violence groups that played in the midterms. Others included former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety,which spent about $12 million this cycle in efforts largely concentrated at the state level, including the Washington ballot initiative, according to the group.
Giffords’ outfit hired Michael Simon of HaystaqDNA to spearhead its data and modeling efforts. Simon played a central role in the vaunted analytics shop of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Simon said ARS officials indicated they didn’t just want their candidates to win — they wanted them to win as champions of tighter gun restrictions.
“If you say, ‘Yeah, you can be good on our issue, but you don’t have to talk about it in an election’ then you’ll never create an ecosystem, never create a counterweight” to groups like the NRA, he said. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent three times as much as ARS on the midterms this cycle, with its outside spending topping $30 million.
At the same time, ARS officials were keenly aware that any message perceived as anti-gun could be damaging in close contests if disseminated to the wrong voters. So it worked with groups such as HaystaqDNA and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research to identify voting blocs that might be receptive before sending out mail and airing targeted television pitches.
An internal memo shared with POLITICO highlighted how the group drilled down on the demographics.
“According to polling, a gun violence prevention message was effective with African Americans who voted in 2012 but not 2010,” read the Louisiana section. “Based on the research, we targeted African American drop-off women and African American drop-off voters residing in the New Orleans media market.”
Carusone said there’s a perception that gun restrictions are so sensitive that even many Democrats simply avoid the subject. It’s a mentality the group wants to change, she said, noting that, in specific races with the right conditions, the group’s data suggest talking about such measures can be smart politics.
“Operatives, consultants, say, ‘If you talk guns, you lose.’ … It’s people in Democratic politics, people have this belief,” she said.
Giffords herself appeared in one campaign ad on behalf of the super PAC (the group also has a 501(c)(4) arm), a spot that ran in Arizona’s 2nd District. Carusone said the former House member was intimately involved, down to rejecting a piece of mail if it didn’t resonate with her, and that she played a big role in fundraising.
Carusone acknowledged ARS cares deeply about the Arizona race, but said that regardless of the outcome there, the statewide wins in Colorado, Connecticut and Washington were the three biggest victories.
As for 2016, aside from the GOP presidential primary, the group will be heavily involved on the congressional front.
Carusone said it was too early to say whether ARS would participate in Senate primaries. But three of four Republicans who backed the Senate’s failed Manchin-Toomey bill to expand background checks will be up for reelection next cycle. Those three — Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mark Kirk of Illinois — could all draw primary challengers from the right.
The fourth Republican to back that legislation, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, was up for reelection this year and won handily. ARS backed her with $272,000.