Election Day is coming up on Tuesday, and it will go a long way toward determining the future of guns in America. But some races will provide much more insight than others.
While the general public’s attention has turned away from guns as a top issue, it is far more important in a number of key races across the country. Those races will tell us what there is to know about how gun politics are playing and how they may play out during the 2024 presidential election and beyond.
The easiest indicators to read will be with the two state-level ballot initiatives focused on gun policy. They are, of course, the ultimate poll of voters on where they stand on guns—no need to consult an Oracle to interpret what an outcome means.
In Iowa, there is an initiative to add the “right to keep and bear arms” to the state constitution and instruct judges to use strict scrutiny when reviewing gun laws. It has polled well and appears likely to pass.
In Oregon, Measure 114 would ban the sale of magazines that hold more than ten rounds and institute a permit to purchase system alongside training requirements and a fee. The polling on that measure has been closer. The latest poll shows that more voters oppose the initiative than support it.
As far as races between candidates go, the most prominent ones that have put guns front and center have all been for governor. It will also be fairly easy to read the tea leaves from how these elections turn out, given how much contrast there is between the Democrats and Republicans in these races.
In Texas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke is working to unseat incumbent Republican Greg Abbott. O’Rourke is best known for his call to confiscate AR-15s and AK-47s, which he has stuck with despite some flip-flopping. Abbott, on the other hand, just signed permitless gun-carry into law. O’Rourke has kept guns front and center in the race, especially in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, but has faded significantly in polls as of late.
In Georgia, the story is much the same. Democrat Stacey Abrams is taking on incumbent Republican Brian Kemp in a rematch. She has heavily criticized Kemp’s decision to sign permitless gun-carry into law as well. And she too has struggled to close the polling gap between her and Kemp.
In New York, there may be a surprise upset brewing. Republican challenger Lee Zeldin is trying to unseat Democrat Kathy Hochul. The latter has attempted to elevate gun control as a key issue in an effort to forestall her slide in the polls. Zeldin has focused chiefly on crime and economic issues but has also critiqued Hochul for passing a bill in response to the Supreme Court striking down the state’s previous gun-carry regime that multiple federal judges have already struck down. The latest poll shows him pulling ahead just days before the election.
Gun Group Endorsements
How many of the candidates endorsed by the NRA and Everytown win will tell us which side had a better night. Although, it probably won’t give as much insight as you might expect at first glance. That’s because the increasing polarization of the gun issue has led to the gun groups’ endorsements becoming increasingly polarized.
So, the way things go for the NRA and Everytown will likely closely mirror the way things go for Republicans and Democrats generally. The main difference is that the gun groups can, and do, avoid endorsing candidates in races they don’t believe they’re likely to win.
What will be more revealing is how candidates perform in the races each side is focusing their spending on. Many of those are the same races. Both sides have spent significantly on key Senate races in Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. But there are a few key House and state legislature races that the gun-control groups have spent in, though not all of those will tell us something about gun politics.
Control of Congress
The last thing to watch for is who ultimately wins control of Congress. Polarization plays an obvious role here as well. Republicans are generally pro-gun, and Democrats are generally pro-gun-control. So, the way they perform will tell us something about the appeal of each position.
But there’s a more sophisticated read of the outcome as well. Republicans in Congress, especially in the Senate, gambled that passing the bipartisan gun bill over the summer would do enough to placate suburban voters in the wake of Uvalde to keep it off the top of their minds. Democrats went the other way and passed an AR-15 ban through the House in hopes of making guns a top campaign issue.
The polling indicates Republicans have gotten the better of those bets. But the election is, of course, the poll that has the final say.
But the raw outcome isn’t all that matters. Perception plays a huge role in all of this as well.
It’s one thing for incumbents such as Brian Kemp, Kathy Hochul, or Greg Abbott to beat their challengers. That’s what they’re expected to do. But if they lose in a surprise upset or win in a surprising landslide, it will have a big impact on whether their strategy on guns is viewed as a stunning success or a shocking failure.
As the results pour in for these key races, consider not just who won and lost but also by how much and how the results compare to the expectations.