Mayor Bloomberg's Gun Control Ads Put Democratic Party in a Bind

The targeting of Democratic Senator Mark Pryor (Ark.) by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg over his "no" vote on the gun control bill presents a conundrum for Democrats similar to what the Republicans have experienced with the Tea Party: is it better to punish defectors at the risk of losing seats, or control the government?

Four Democratic senators voted against the gun control bill last month: Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), and Mark Pryor (Ark.). (Majority Leader Harry Reid supported the bill but voted against it as a procedural matter so he can bring it to the floor again in the future.)

Of the four defectors, Begich and Heitkamp are not up for re-election until 2016 and Baucus is retiring. This leaves Pryor, up for re-election next year, in the hot seat. If pro-gun control advocates wish to send a message to pro-gun rights Democrats, Pryor is the obvious choice.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, founded by Bloomberg, is running ads against Pryor based upon his vote on the gun control bill.

"Tell Mark Pryor to take another look at background checks, because we're tired of being disappointed," says the woman in the ad who suffered the loss of a friend due to gun violence.

The ad has an associated website called On the website, supporters can sign a petition, addressed to Pryor, where they can express their disappointment in his vote.

The problem with this approach, for some Democrats, is that 2014 is already looking like a tight race to maintain control of the Senate. According to recent ratings by University of Virginia political scientists Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Democrats will be defending 13 vulnerable seats, including Pryor's, and Republicans will be defending only two vulnerable seats. Given the Democrats' current 55-45 majority, Pryor's race could conceivably make the difference between holding or losing the Senate.

Political scientists sometimes refer to this as the "pragmatist versus purist" dilemma. The pragmatists would argue that holding Pryor accountable for his vote makes no sense if it means losing the Senate in the process because gun control legislation would not even be introduced in a Republican-controlled Senate. The purists might counter that it is more important to send a message to prevent recalcitrant Democrats from bucking the party in the future.

The pragmatist versus purist dilemma is not unique to Democrats. Republicans have recently dealt with it in relation to the Tea Party.

Tea Party supporters are purists. The movement has defeated several old guard Republicans in primaries. As a result, other Republicans have become more ideologically aligned with the Tea Party. The more old guard, or pragmatic Republicans can point out that, in some cases, the Tea Party has helped replace a more electable Republican with a less electable Tea Party Republican, thus aiding the Democrats. Tea Party Republicans, or the purists, may counter that the price was worth it to get the party to fall in line with its agenda.

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