Correction: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the location of the National Rifle Association headquarters.
WASHINGTON – Candidates across the country and allied outside groups are seizing on the issue of guns in advertising this election cycle, but with a twist: More spots now promote gun control than oppose it.
That messaging represents a reversal from the last midterm cycle in 2014 and even 2016, when the combined total of pro-gun-rights spots in governors, House and Senate races eclipsed those touting restrictions on guns, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Kantar Media.
The shift follows a rash of mass shootings, including the killing of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School six months ago Tuesday.
Democrats are driving the surge in advertising favoring gun control as polling shows the public generally supports stricter laws covering the sale of firearms and overwhelmingly supports expanded background checks.
It could be a gamble, given that curbing access to guns has long been considered the third rail of politics. For decades, prominent Democratic candidates, especially in battleground states, have sought to reassure voters of their support for protections under the Second Amendment for the right to bear arms.
In 2018, however, candidates and outside groups – particularly in House and governors races – are flooding the airwaves with pointed and sometimes dramatic messages.
“I’m running for governor because I’m a parent who will not stop at anything until we make our gun laws stronger and our children safe,” says Philip Levine, a candidate in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, which has drawn the largest number of spots favoring gun-control.
From Jan. 1 through Aug. 6, the total number of spots in governors, House and Senate races favoring gun control outpaced those opposed to it, representing about 59 percent of the total spots that took an explicit position in the gun debate. That's up from 31 percent in 2016 and 11 percent in 2014.
Overall in those races, there were about 82,000 pro-gun-control spots, mostly by Democrats, and about 57,500 anti-gun-control spots, mostly by Republicans, this year so far. Another batch of more than 19,000 “miscellaneous” spots by both parties this year mentioned or showed a gun without taking a position.
The pro-gun-control spots this year had 81 sponsors, compared to 72 for anti-gun-control spots – also a reversal from the two previous cycles when anti-gun-control spots had a higher number of sponsors than pro-gun-control spots.
Spots considered "pro-gun-control" may call for increased restrictions on guns or opposition to the National Rifle Association while "anti-gun-control" ads may express support for the Second Amendment, the NRA or the freedom to bear arms, according to Kantar, which tracked the spot count or the number of times ads have aired.
For instance, GOP Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who has run the most anti-gun-control spots, made waves during his primary with an ad showing him pointing a shotgun toward a teenager named “Jake” who wanted to date his daughter. He announced his approval when he discovered Jake met Kemp’s qualifications: “Respect” and “a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.”
Democrats have long tried to counter such messaging and attacks from the National Rifle Association by showing an affinity for hunters and expressing support for Second Amendment rights. In 2004, for example, John Kerry, appearing in camouflage, took his presidential campaign to a duck blind. And President Obama, in an appeal to the heartland in 2008, supported a Supreme Court decision overturning a ban on guns in Washington, D.C. That came after he angered Midwestern voters by saying at a fundraiser that they get bitter and "cling to guns or religion."
Something "flipped," at least for some politicians, after former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., lost her seat in 2016 following her vote against an expansion of background checks, said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president for social policy and politics at the center-left think tank, Third Way. That same cycle, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., won his election after touting his work on the background check bill as a strategy to mobilize suburban women.