WASHINGTON – Rep. Mike Michaud is a Democrat who voted for President Obama’s controversial health care law, supports legalizing same-sex marriage and is a dyed-in-the-wool labor union member.
When it comes to gun control, however, Michaud has an A-minus rating from the National Rifle Association.
Likewise, Maine Sen. Susan Collins is a moderate Republican known for crossing party lines and Sen. Angus King is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Yet both are unlikely to support the more far-reaching aspects of the gun control package pending before Congress.
Few political issues skew party labels as reliably as gun control. And Maine’s congressional delegation in many ways epitomizes the challenge facing Obama and gun control advocates as they woo lawmakers with rural constituencies to support the first major federal gun laws in decades.
“It’s been a significant challenge, there’s no doubt,” said Robert Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control” and chairman of the political science program at the State University of New York at Cortland. Like Maine and many other states, Spitzer’s New York has a distinct urban-rural divide that leads to split delegations.
“My feeling from the very beginning after Newtown was it was going to be a tough haul for advocates for stronger laws because that’s just how this issue is,” Spitzer said.
The Senate is expected to take its first votes on various gun control proposals as early as this week, nearly four months after 20 first-graders and six elementary school staffers were shot to death in Newtown, Conn.
Gun control advocates need to pick up support from both Democrats and Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance legislation in the 100-seat Senate, so both King and Collins are regarded as potential swing votes.
The bill under consideration in the Senate will propose near-universal background checks on gun purchases — including the type of private sales common in Maine — and matching grants to schools to increase security and training. Collins is a primary co-sponsor of the school safety legislation.
Collins was also the lead Republican on proposals to stiffen penalties for gun traffickers and “straw purchasers” who buy a gun for someone who cannot legally purchase one. But both the background checks and the gun trafficking bills have come under scrutiny from the NRA and some lawmakers in recent weeks.
Some of the most ambitious proposals are unlikely to pass the Senate — let alone the Republican-controlled House. A ban on the type of assault rifle used by the Newtown shooter, for instance, appears headed nowhere after King and several Democrats from gun-heavy states said they could not back it.
“Every time a weapon is (prohibited), the manufacturer makes slight changes to get around the ban,” said Marge Kilkelly, a King adviser working with him on gun issues. “We have looked at this in so many different ways and we wanted to make sure it was enforceable.”
Collins and King have also voiced support for requiring background checks on private, person-to-person firearm sales as well as at gun shows. But both want to see exemptions for transactions between family members. Collins and other Republicans have also questioned who would keep records of the background checks, while raising concerns about creating a de facto “national registry” of gun owners — a concern dismissed by bill backers, who insist federal law already prohibits a registry.
“She has expressed concerns about the record-keeping provisions in the bill as proposed by Sen. (Chuck) Schumer,” said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. “She has said she would support language to strengthen background checks, but she does believe that transfers among family members should be exempted unless there is reason to believe that the family member is prohibited from owning a firearm.”
Senators from across the country who, like those in Maine, represent rural states with large numbers of gun owners or hunters will be making similar political calculations in the coming weeks as they try to balance competing interests on guns. King’s staff said the roughly 6,000 people who have contacted his office on guns since the Newtown shootings have been about equally divided on the bills.
Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine, said the only member of Maine’s delegation who “really has it easy” on the gun control issue is Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s more liberal southern district.
“Her district is such where it’s very easy for her to be fully on board with everything President Obama is proposing and, in fact, she could even go beyond what the president has proposed,” Brewer said.
By contrast, Michaud represents a large, rural and more conservative district filled with gun owners. Michaud is also weighing a run for governor in 2014.
“He really has to walk a very fine line here between what he does with regard to his party and what he does to represent his constituents,” Brewer said. “And when you get in this kind of situation, you find that, almost always, members of Congress side with their constituencies.”
Brewer said Collins’ gun control votes could come up in her re-election campaign in 2014, although to what extent is unclear. And while Spitzer — the SUNY professor and author — said he believes the NRA’s influence is not as great as its reputation, he said the organization can make noise in political campaigns.
“Politicians would rather not have any more headaches than they have to have,” he said.
Both of Maine’s senators have been targeted by groups on either side of the debate.
The NRA took out ads in Maine newspapers earlier this year, urging readers to tell Collins and King to reject Obama’s gun control proposals. The NRA most recently gave Collins a grade of C- and has not donated to her campaign since 2002. As a freshman senator, King has not served long enough to receive an NRA rating, but the association ran ads against him during the Senate campaign.
The organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns has been airing television ads in Maine in support of the gun control measures. The multimillion-dollar campaign targeting senators in key swing states is financed by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has emerged as the counterpoint to the NRA post-Newtown.
The organization’s news releases announcing the initial ad buys in Maine mentioned only Collins. But in a clear sign that the group also wants to put pressure on King, Mayors Against Illegal Guns delivered more than 6,000 petition signatures to King’s Portland office Friday, urging him to support universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and a gun trafficking law.
The petitions were delivered by Judi and Wayne Richardson, whose 25-year-old daughter, Darien Richardson, was shot by an intruder in her Portland apartment in January 2010. She died several months later from medical complications linked to the injury.
The gun was later linked to another Portland murder. But when police attempted to trace it, the trail dead-ended at a private sale in which the seller did not conduct a background check.
The Richardsons, of South Portland, traveled to Washington, D.C., in February to lobby Congress on the background check expansion and Judi Richardson will share her family’s story with members of a Maine legislative committee Monday, during hearings on state gun control proposals.
“It’s not just us that have this personal emotional connection” to the issue, Judi Richardson said Friday to explain why they delivered the petitions to King’s office. “A lot of people feel this way.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
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