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White House, Democrats See Electoral Gold In Gun Fight

Obama knows his "plan" for legislation isn't going anywhere and will just enrage Republicans. That may be the point, Democrats say.

Posted on January 16, 2013, at 2:34 p.m. ET

An American AR-15 assault rifle in a studio environment

An American AR-15 assault rifle in a studio environment

WASHINGTON — In a highly anticipated press conference Wednesday, President Barack Obama laid out a sweeping agenda to overhaul the nation's gun laws — one that almost certainly won't make it through Congress, at least not in its entirety.

And that may be the point.

Congressional Democrats and the White House are betting that attitudes about guns have shifted sufficiently across the country that it if House Republicans kill the president's legislative efforts to curb gun violence, it will create electoral opportunities for Democrats in moderate districts.

"I'd hate to be [Rep.] Peter King on this issue," a veteran Democratic operative said of the moderate New York Republican, who will likely have to answer for his colleagues' gun control opposition during the next election.

New York and New Jersey Republicans, particularly those in Long Island, around New York City and the Jersey coast could be particularly vulnerable. Their party is already facing strong blowback in the area for House Republicans dragging their feet — and ultimately voting against — Hurricane Sandy relief funding.

Suburban areas in Pennsylvania and California could also be fertile ground for electoral gains based on gun control, Democrats said.

"Those guys have never done anything to differentiate themselves from the Republican Party," a DCCC source said Wednesday. "I'm not super concerned about our guys," the source added, noting that Democrats like West Virginia Democrat Rep. Nick Rahall over the years have successfully managed to hold the main body of the Democratic Party at arm's length.

"Are there some Democrats who are going to have to be independent to continue to win? Sure, no doubt about it. But it's a small number, and they have for years distanced themselves from the party," a Democratic operative added.

If the strategy works, it would mark the first time that the politics of gun control broke for Democrats, who have long lived in fear of the powerful and well-financed gun lobby pouring money into their opponents' coffers.

Still, it's a high risk gamble for Democrats, who've had their moderate and southern ranks decimated over issues like gun control, climate change and Obama's health care reforms.

But there still any number of moderates, like Rahall in the House or his fellow West Virginian Sen. Joe Manchin who will chafe under a prolonged fight over guns and it will almost assuredly make House and Senate races in places like Ohio, Arkansas and Montana more challenging for Democrats.

"Obama's end-run around Congress isn't even sitting well without a lot of members of his own party, so if that is his midterm strategy he's going to have a tough sell even in many Democratic districts," said Tim Miller, Deputy Communications Director for the Republican National Committee.

And so far, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not taken up the issue of gun control with the same vigor as the White House. The group, which is in charge of helping Democratic candidates get elected, posted an online petition calling on House Republicans to "move immediately to pass sensible reforms, including banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines."

But Republicans haven't seen an onslaught from the committee as of yet, in part, the DCCC source said, because "it's gotten buried in the avalanche on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling."

Congressional Democrats also complain that the White House has failed to create a dialogue with them as they approach the issue, though operatives have occasionally been in touch.

"It's talking, but its not like 'hey do you guys want to do this issue' talking. Not that they've done that in the past though," one operative said.