April 14, 2013

Washington Notebook: The political calculus of gun control

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Last week, the two competing heavyweights in the debate over gun control – the National Rifle Association and Mayors Against Illegal Guns – announced that they will both “score,” or grade, members of the Senate on upcoming votes.

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The U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The Associated Press

Both groups also have huge financial reserves that can be deployed during campaigns. But will the grades Maine’s members receive really matter with constituents back home?

It’s tough to say.

Sen. Susan Collins has a C+ rating from the NRA, which puts her tied for the lowest score among Senate Republicans. Yet she sailed to re-election in 2008 and enjoyed a 66 percent approval rating among Maine Republicans – and 60 percent among Democrats – in a recent poll.

On Saturday, Collins threw her support behind a bipartisan compromise on requiring background checks for more private sales. On Saturday night, Maine Sen. Angus King said he too will vote to support the compromise, which was reached last week.

For King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, the upcoming votes will be his first to earn a grade from the NRA. But the NRA opposed him during the fall campaign while New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – the big financial backer of Mayors Against Illegal Guns – pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state to help elect the fellow independent.

Many Mainers are probably more likely to put stock in the views of a homegrown group such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine than the NRA. A Portland Press Herald poll released earlier this year found that the majority of Mainers reported having guns in their households.

Both King and Collins insisted they are basing their decision on feedback from Mainers.

“I have extensive campaigns being run by out-of-state groups on both sides trying to influence my decision and I just want to assure the people of Maine that they are the ones I am listening to,” Collins, who is up for re-election in 2014, told reporters outside of the Senate chamber.

It’s anyone’s guess how big an issue guns will be at the polls in Maine in 2014, when Collins and both U.S. House seats will be on the ballot. As for right now, two recent surveys – one of which was conducted for Mayors Against Illegal Guns – showed support for expanded background checks on gun purchases polling at 85 percent and 90 percent in Maine, which is consistent with national polls.

The majority of Mainers also support a ban on assault weapons, which neither Collins nor King supports, as currently written.

LATE FOR DINNER

Both Collins and King met last week with family members of those killed during the December mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

Because of her meeting with the family members, Collins said she arrived 45 minutes late for a "goodwill" dinner at the White House with President Obama and other Senate Republicans.

A reportedly "furious" Collins explained the circumstances to a Politico reporter after she objected to the way the newspaper portrayed her office's initial response to the family members' request for a meeting. (The article focused on how the family members have become a powerful voice on Capitol Hill.)

"I told them I had a dinner with the president but that I was deliberately being late," Collins told Politico. "And I said to the president when I made my profuse apologies, that the reason I was late is I was meeting with the Newtown families. He said: 'I understand. You made the right call. Don't worry about it."'

(Continued on page 2)

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