(Bloomberg) -- From New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the Denver suburbs, a new crop of Democratic congressional candidates is campaigning on what’s been a difficult topic for the party, especially in rural and conservative areas: gun control.
But these aren’t the stereotypical Democrats portrayed by gun-rights supporters as elitists who haven’t held a firearm. They’re U.S. military veterans who say new steps must be taken to prevent weapons of war from being used in domestic mass shootings.
Recruiting veterans is a key part of Democrats’ strategy to gain House seats in this year’s elections, and there are at least 25 running in primaries. Most have been advocating new controls on guns, or beefed-up background checks, since the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Florida, often citing their own experience with firearms.
"The weapons of war, the assault weapons our teams used in Iraq, have no place on the streets of the United States,” said Democrat Maura Sullivan, a Marine Corps veteran running for the House in a New Hampshire district that has elected representatives from both parties in recent years. “We spent months in training before we were ever issued a weapon and live ammunition.”
Democrats are trying to take control of the House in November’s midterm elections, when all 435 seats in the chamber are on the ballot. They need to gain a net total of 24 seats to win the majority, which would allow them to block President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda. The party’s odds of gaining a majority in the Senate, where the GOP holds a one-vote majority, are steeper because Democrats hold most of the seats up for election this year.
Democrats are hoping the veterans help blunt traditional GOP attacks on the party’s candidates as anti-military, anti-gun and weak on crime. Most veterans in the House, 61 of 80, are Republicans and Democrats want to change that. It’s not clear yet whether focusing on guns will help the veterans win, especially in parts of the country where hunting is popular.
Nationally, surveys show a majority of voters want new gun control measures after 17 people were killed at the shooting in Parkland, Florida. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found that 61 percent support a nationwide ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles like the one used in the Florida massacre, and 63 percent back eliminating the sale of high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
There’s no sign of a consensus in Congress on proposals to prevent future attacks after Trump’s administration backed away from his initial call for "comprehensive” gun control. The Democratic veterans take a range of positions from supporting a ban on military-style weapons to stricter background checks.
The gun debate is playing out loudly in a close special election contest in a House district that includes suburbs of Pittsburgh.
Democrat Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran and former prosecutor, has struggled to find a stance on guns in a pro-Trump district. Lamb, who released an ad in January featuring him shooting an AR-15, has shifted his views in the weeks following the Florida shooting.
‘No Loopholes, Period’
During a Feb. 19 debate, Lamb said that he supports fixing gaps in the background check system for buying guns. He went further this month, saying he wants to expand the background check requirement to virtually all sales, including those at gun shows that are currently exempted.
"I support universal background checks," Lamb said. "No loopholes, period."
The Republican in the race, Rick Saccone, and his supporters, are seeking to brand Lamb as a threat to gun ownership.
Saccone, an Air Force veteran, said at a recent debate, "The left’s first response is always to disarm law-abiding citizens" after mass shootings.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super-political action committee, has described Lamb as pro-gun rights in advertisements mailed to Democrats, and as anti-gun rights in ads to Republican-leaning voters.
‘Thoughts and Prayers’
In another race, in the Denver suburbs, Army veteran and Democratic congressional candidate Jason Crow produced one of the first political ads calling for new gun laws after the Florida shooting. He says in the ad that the weapons he used in Iraq and Afghanistan are “tearing our communities apart.”
Crow is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Representative Mike Coffman. Crow is calling for an assault weapons ban, limits on how much ammunition a magazine can hold, and stricter background checks. He also faulted Coffman for taking donations from gun-rights supporters and failing to act.
“All he does is tweet about his thoughts and prayers and he does nothing,” Crow said in the ad.
Tyler Sandberg, Coffman’s campaign manager, said the ad is a "cheap political stunt" that exploited a tragedy to produce a campaign commercial.
Gun violence hits particularly close to home in Crow’s district, which includes Aurora, where a gunman killed 12 people in a 2012 movie theater shooting. Columbine High School, the site of a 1999 shooting, is just a mile outside the district.
"As somebody who grew up a hunter and became an Army ranger, I know something about firearms,” Crow said. “But we have a larger gun violence problem in this country, and as a parent we should not be afraid of sending our kids to school and that’s the environment we now live in."
Other Democrats running in Republican-controlled districts have emphasized their ability to reach out to voters on both sides of the debate.
Amy McGrath, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marines running to challenge Republican Representative Andy Barr in a rural and suburban district in Lexington, Kentucky, wants to expand background checks and ban bump stocks that allow more rapid firing, but says she’s not ready to support an assault weapons ban. McGrath said the major obstacle Democrats have to overcome is the perception that they want to go beyond reasonable gun control measures.
“It’s a matter of having somebody with the credibility, that doesn’t polarize people right off the bat,” McGrath said. “The big thing that Democrats have to get over is, we’re not out to take the guns away from people. But let’s have some reasonable measures."
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of the House GOP, said, “We’re glad Democrats have followed our lead and decided to find more veterans to run for office.” But he said, “Primary battles playing out between Democratic House candidates have forced them to adopt extremely liberal policy positions that are out of step with the mainstream."
Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, which operates Bloomberg News, serves as a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s advisory board and is a donor to the group. Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.