Will Florida’s school shooting hurt New York Republicans?

Demonstrators in front of White House protest inaction on gun control, following deadly shooting in a Florida high school.
Demonstrators in front of White House protest inaction on gun control, following deadly shooting in a Florida high school.
Demonstrators in front of White House protest inaction on gun control, following deadly shooting in a Florida high school.

Will Florida’s school shooting hurt New York Republicans?

Gun control may influence New York’s competitive congressional races.
February 26, 2018

This month’s high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has sparked a political debate about gun control that has reverberated in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promotion of stricter gun laws led to National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre attacking them by name at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The issue seems to have Republicans such as President Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on the defensive, as high school students have made headlines with their pleas for limiting access to semi-automatic weapons, including the AR-15 used in the recent attack. But will this actually matter in the midterm elections that are still more than eight months away?

At least one New York Republican, Rep. Claudia Tenney, has already spurred controversy in the wake of the shooting, claiming in a radio interview that “so many” mass murders “end up being Democrats.” Tenney’s district is considered a toss-up by the Cook Political Report and she has a strong Democratic opponent in Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, who immediately condemned her remarks.

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant, predicts the fallout from the shooting will be an issue for Republicans in potentially vulnerable seats such as Tenney's. The biggest potential impact, Gyory predicted, is if the shooting motivates young voters to turn out for an off year with no presidential election. Surges in young voter turnout has helped Democrats in the past, and polling data has shown that a majority of millennials hold a more unfavorable view of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party and also want stricter gun laws.

Gyory said the circumstances of the Florida shooting make it uniquely able to motivate these voters in ways others may not have. “There is a chemical reaction going on among younger voters who have been in high school recently, turning 18, who are still in college, who’ve gone through these code red drills, who it’s been a part of their life,” Gyory said.

Besides Tenney, Reps. Lee Zeldin, Dan Donovan and John Faso are also Republican incumbents whose support for gun rights may be a liability in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. Their districts are rated as “likely Republican,” “leans Republican” and “toss-up,” respectively. Lawrence Levy, the executive director of Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, said each of these districts will require a delicate balance between appealing to the conservative base and to the generally more moderate suburban populations, but sometimes there will be no way to avoid offending one constituency or another.

“No candidate can get away without taking a strong stance one way or another behind some proposal or package that may be out of their comfort zone,” Levy said.

Levy cited Faso as an example of someone who would really need to get behind some kind of reform to appease the suburban part of his district. The Hudson Valley congressman describes himself as an “avid” supporter of the Second Amendment on his website, where he also proudly touts his “A” rating from the NRA. He voted for the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would allow licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons into states where it is not currently allowed. Levy said that sticking to hardline positions like Faso has could hurt him in November.

In a tweet after the Florida shooting, Faso offered his prayers and said the country "must understand how to recognize warning signs and better protect our communities," which prompted criticism from several of his challengers on the left, who said his response was inadequate. 

Donovan, who represents Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn, is not nearly as supportive of gun rights. He has broken ranks with Republicans on gun issues, voting against the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act and co-sponsoring legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases. Although Donovan will likely still need to reckon with the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, as he already has constituents calling for action and faces a potentially strong challenge from Democratic congressional candidate Max Rose.

Compared to Donovan's more urban district, Zeldin’s Suffolk County seat may be more supportive of gun rights. Mike Dawidziak, a political consultant who has worked on many Republican campaigns, called Zeldin’s district a “true” swing district, but added that it has a lot of gun owners and leans right on gun issues despite being in the suburbs. However, Dawidziak said his advice to Zeldin and anyone else facing potentially competitive races is not to be an “extremist” one way or the other on guns.

“If you’re running in a district which is gerrymandered for an extreme conservative, well fine, be an extremist,” Dawidziak said. “But if you’re in a moderate swing district, the one thing you don’t want to be looked upon, on either side, is to be looked upon as an extremist. So how they tackle the guns rights issues and question could be very, very critical to the election results.”

Levy said that the idea of being an extremist “on either side” could also potentially pose problems for Democrats trying to maintain control of upstate and more rural districts that may oppose stricter gun laws. He did not think this will be an issue for Reps. Tom Suozzi or Sean Patrick Maloney, whose districts the Cook Political Report rated as “likely Democratic.” But Levy mentioned Rep. Brian Higgins as one Democrat who might confront conservative backlash that could hurt his re-election to his Western New York seat.

Dawidziak said one cannot underestimate the role of money in elections and on policy positions. Zeldin, Tenney and Faso have all received monetary support from the NRA, which could impact the positions they decide to take during their campaigns.

The fact that the shooter survived and will stand trial could also keep guns at the forefront of public consciousness, Dawidziak added. “I do think this might be the one that keeps it alive,” he said.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.