A national anti-gun-violence group is spending $700,000 to sway a state Senate race in suburban Richmond, a move with far-reaching implications for Virginia's political culture.
Everytown for Gun Safety, founded and originally funded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced Wednesday it would spend the money on a television ad aimed at helping to elect Democratic Senate nominee Dan Gecker.
Old Dominion political observers say that kind of money on a race with no national profile could be a game changer in Virginia's political culture.
The 30-second ad, titled "Condolences,” began running locally on Thursday. It features Andy Parker, father of slain Roanoke television journalist Alison Parker. Speaking directly to the camera, Parker says: “I know we can’t stop all gun violence, but we can save lives if our leaders take action.”
The ad's narrator continues with an attack on the Republican candidate for the 10th state Senate district seat, Richmond School Board member Glen Sturtevant.
“Closing background-check loopholes would help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people," the narration says. "But that won’t happen with Glen Sturtevant in the Senate. The gun lobby gives Sturtevant an A. They’re funding his candidacy. He’ll make Virginia families less safe.”
Sturtevant's campaign has received support from the National Rifle Association. According to the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project, the NRA has made more than $55,000 in independent expenditures on Sturtevant's behalf through the end of the Sept. 30 reporting period.
John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of "More Guns, Less Crime," told AMI Newswire that proposals such as more rigorous background checks act as a tax on gun purchasers.
"Other states have expanded background checks, and it has added costs to the lawful transfer and sale of firearms," Lott said. "In the District of Columbia, it's added up to $200 to the price of firearms. This is a real tax. It may not affect most people, but for the poor and minorities who often suffer the most from crime, it may stop them from being able to buy a firearm entirely to protect themselves."
The scope of the ad buy, and its timing, has raised eyebrows on both sides of the political aisle.
University of Richmond political science professor Dan Palazzolo told AMI Newswire: "The story in this case is the size of the buy and the narrow focus, which is unprecedented, rather than the action itself."
Palazzolo also took note of the significance of "the single-issue focus on gun control."
"If Gecker wins," Palazzolo said, "Bloomberg can claim that gun control has won."
If that occurs, Palazzolo expects a much bigger change in Virginia politics.
"We may be seeing a shift in gun-control politics in Virginia, which may have attracted Bloomberg to this race," he said. "Unlike previous Democratic governors, Gov. McAuliffe has strongly supported gun control. Depending on the outcome of the race, guns may become a more prominent issue in state politics."
Senior Republican strategist Shaun Kenney told AMI Newswire the ad buy was a waste of resources.
"This money would be much better spent on get-out-the-vote efforts in the district," Kenney said. "TV ads look good from New York City - they are sexy. But they don't make much difference in a ground game that's already saturated."
Election lawyer and Democratic strategist Paul Goldman told AMI Newswire the size of the buy is unprecedented. "There is nothing remotely comparable to it in a state Senate race. The size of the buy is beyond anything ever done in politics in this part of Virginia."
Goldman questioned why the group decided to get involved in this particular race at this time. "Guns weren't an issue in this race. Neither candidate was seen as outside the bounds on the issue."
This is not the first time Michael Bloomberg has taken an interest in a Virginia Senate race.
In 2007, the then-mayor endorsed Republican Jeannemarie Devolites Davis in her re-election bid. Bloomberg appeared with Davis on CNN, where he touted her support of gun-control measures that he said would deter violence in America's major cities.
Davis lost to Democrat Chap Petersen, whom Davis accused of veering to the right on gun issues to win support for his failed bid for lieutenant governor in 2005.
The larger stake in this race is control of the Virginia Senate, where Republicans currently have a 21-to-19 margin over Democrats.
Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe has made a point of retaking the Senate, in part to advance his own legislative agenda but also to prepare the ground for the 2016 presidential race. McAuliffe has endorsed and is a member of the state leadership team of former secretary of state and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
A week ago, McAuliffe issued an executive order calling for increased enforcement of Virginia's existing gun laws, as well as banning private citizens from carrying weapons in executive office buildings. Joining McAuliffe at the signing ceremony was Andy Parker, who is featured in the Gecker ads.
Everytown for Gun Safety did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. In its announcement the group said the anti-Sturtevant ad purchase amis to capitalize on gun control as a retail political issue.
The statement read in part, "Everytown’s electoral activity in Virginia this cycle follows previous decisive victories in 2014 that proved that guns is a winning issue at the ballot box, including the passage of I-594, Washington State’s background check ballot initiative, and the victory of more than 80 percent of Everytown’s endorsed candidates."