When President Barack Obama returns to this hometown of Chicago on Friday, pushing his proposals to reduce gun violence, he will do so against the backdrop of a special congressional election that has become ground zero for the national gun control debate — and one whose outcome will signal just how much politics have shifted in the post-Newtown era.
The race to fill Jesse Jackson Jr.'s seat in the Illinois 2nd Congressional District has already been defined by gun control, both because of Chicago's spiking violence rates — marked most recently by the murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at Obama's inauguration a week before she was shot — and because one of the top Democratic candidates has found herself on defense for her past alliance with the NRA.
Independence USA, the Super PAC funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg known for its gun control advocacy, began running attack ads against candidate Debbie Halvorson last month, and it will begin targeting another candidate, Toi Hutchinson, for her past NRA "A" rating. The ad also advertises for Bloomberg's favored pro-gun control candidate, Robin Kelly.
In December, Bloomberg spent $3.3 million in ads and mailings to defeat NRA ally former Rep. Joe Baca and prop up Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) in a California congressional race.
Hutchinson, Halvorson, and Kelly are the top three democratic candidates in a special election to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). More than a dozen candidates are battling for the democratic slot, which will be decided in a primary on Feb. 26.
"You take the national conversation on guns and you magnify it quite a bit by being near Chicago, which has been plagued by gun violence for so long," Chicago-area political consultant Sean Tenner said. "Then you've got urban and suburban constituents: It's natural it would be the big issue."
Halvorson has accused Bloomberg of "buying an election" with his attack ads.
"This is not about buying elections, this is about educating voters on an issue of crucial importance," Stefan Friedman, spokesman for Independence USA said.
Bloomberg has been outspoken in supporting politicians who favor restricting gun access. Friedman said he expects the PAC will continue to invest in campaigns that deal with gun control issues.
"We are taking this one race at a time," he said. "The mayor has been clear that he's going to have a voice on these issues. I can't predict the future or who's going to run where, but clearly the issue has been elevated to an issue of national importance."
Campaign managers for the two targeted candidates say attack ads — from Independence as well as PACs Credo and Progressive Kick — will not move their candidates' stances on gun control — with one campaign saying the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, had changed their candidates' views already.
The special election, scheduled for April 9, 2013, will be the first federal election since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
Hutchinson has been clear that her gun views have changed, said Hutchinson's campaign manager Vladimir Gutman.
"Our strategy has always been to talk about Toi's record and the fact that she's moderated her opinion on gun control," Gutman said. "We're going to continue to let people know that's the case."
Hutchinson has changed her views on gun control since the shootings at Sandy Hook, when she disagreed with the NRA's stance to arm teachers in schools.
That moment, not attack ads, moved Hutchinson's stance on gun control to the left, Gutman said.
Joshua Grossman, executive director of Progressive Kick, said it's that very policy shift that needs to be highlighted to voters.
"I think it's fascinating a test of how quick and fast a politician can lie to people," Grossman said. "Because Halvorson is sort of honest in her views, but Hutchinson has just done an intense job of covering her tracks. With no sense of shame, she's flipped her views and is acting like the previous Toi Hutchinson doesn't exist."
For Halvorson, the ads are sensational and out of touch. One of her campaign managers, Sean Howard, said the campaign will continue to run on its top issue: job creation.
"There is a growing concern that this is way over the top and these outsiders are coming in to purchase an election," Howard said.
Halvorson, Hutchinson, and former Cook County Administrator Robin Kelly are the top three Democratic candidates, with an internal poll from the Kelly campaign showing Kelly in the lead (both Hutchinson and Halvorson's campaigns dismissed the poll).