The political arm of an anti-gun-violence group cofounded by the billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg says it will spend at least $1 million to help Democrats try to gain control of the Pennsylvania legislature in the November elections.
Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund said Wednesday it would aim to oust Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg who “have refused to take action on common-sense gun safety legislation” like strengthening background checks.
“We see Pennsylvania as one of the most important battleground states for gun safety in 2020,” Charlie Kelly, senior political adviser for Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, said in an interview Wednesday. “After yet another year without action on gun safety, I think that the Pennsylvania state House and state Senate are absolutely in play.”
Pennsylvania is already considered a crucial swing state in the presidential election, but the fight over gun laws underscores how some Democrats and progressive groups see an opportunity to expand their ambitions beyond merely defeating President Donald Trump.
The stakes in state legislative races are perhaps higher than usual this year, as the next General Assembly will be tasked with drawing new legislative and congressional maps for the next decade in decennial redistricting.
Democrats need a net gain of nine seats to take control of the House and four in the Senate.
In 2018, Democrats flipped 14 state House seats in Southeast Pennsylvania, putting the party within striking distance of a majority in the lower chamber. But Democrats lost three seats in other parts of the state, and will likely need to make gains beyond the Philadelphia suburbs to win a majority. Their odds of taking the Senate grew tougher late last year, when Democratic Sen. John Yudichak of Luzerne County announced he would become an independent and caucus with the Republicans.
Everytown’s commitment to flipping the legislature is notable in part because the group has angered progressives in recent years for backing Republicans — a record that came under fresh scrutiny during Bloomberg’s short-lived presidential campaign this year.
For example, in 2018 Everytown endorsed U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in the Bucks County-based 1st District. He was reelected even as Republicans lost scores of seats in other suburban districts. The group’s decision to back Fitzpatrick led some activists with Moms Demand Action, an affiliate, to splinter off and start a new gun safety group.
But at least in Pennsylvania legislative races, Everytown says its goal is a Democratic majority. The group says it will target at least 18 House districts and five in the Senate.
Some of the contested House seats are in the Philadelphia suburbs, including those being vacated by retiring GOP Reps. Marcy Toepel of Montgomery County, Tom Murt of Montgomery County, and Stephen Barrar of Delaware County.
“We are a nonpartisan organization. What we care about is how you vote on gun safety,” Kelly said. “We’re not targeting anyone in the legislature because they’re Republican. We’re targeting them because they failed to act on gun safety.”
Everytown says it hopes to build on its success last year in Virginia, where the group spent $2.5 million to help Democrats take control of the legislature. In April, the state enacted new laws establishing universal background checks and other measures championed by gun-control groups.
“Pennsylvania legislators should have paid attention to last year’s elections in Virginia, where lawmakers who ignored gun safety suffered a resounding defeat,” John Feinblatt, head of Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, said in a statement.
The fund is a political action committee affiliated with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, which Bloomberg cofounded in 2014 with Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action, and to which he has donated tens of millions of dollars.
It remains to be seen whether voters will consider gun violence as a major factor at a time when the country is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, mass unemployment, and a reckoning over police brutality and race relations.
Kelly said Everytown’s surveys showed Pennsylvania voters see gun safety as a “kitchen table” issue like taxes and health care. “A lot of folks see gun safety, police reform, issues of criminal justice reform as inextricably linked,” he said.
Everytown accused Republicans in Harrisburg of blocking legislation last year that would establish a process by which family members, loved ones, and law enforcement could ask a judge to temporarily prohibit people from possessing firearms if they are found to pose an “extreme risk” to themselves or others.
House Judiciary Chairman Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin) said in September that the committee would not consider the so-called red flag measure as long as he was chairman.
The legislation was introduced by Republican Rep. Todd Stephens of Montgomery County. Everytown is not targeting Stephens’ seat.
Everytown also blames the GOP for the legislature’s failure to advance a bill that would expand background checks.