DES MOINES — A Democratic presidential field that has struggled to precisely define its general election indictment of Donald Trump appears to have finally found it.
In the wake of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas — the latter of which was tied to a suspect whose anti-immigrant sentiments led to the killing of 22 people — candidates are road-testing a withering argument that draws a direct line between gun violence and the president’s racist rhetoric.
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“We are living with a toxic brew of two different things, each of which is claiming lives and each of which represents a national security emergency in this country,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said at a forum on gun violence here on Saturday. “One of them is the ready availability of guns and the way they can fall into the wrong hands. The other is the rise of hate. And when they come into contact with each other, it is deadly.”
The previous day, Julián Castro, the former Obama Cabinet secretary and former mayor of San Antonio, made an equally explicit connection before arriving at the Iowa State Fair: “Disarm Hate: Combating White Nationalism and Gun Violence,” he titled the gun control proposal he released to coincide with the weekend of campaigning.
As they converged this past weekend in Iowa — a state with a robust gun culture and an affinity for the Republican president — the stinging case for gun control laid out by White House hopefuls had little in common with past appeals for additional regulation and much to do with the implication of Trump’s role in stoking violent white nationalism.
Some have gone beyond implying — former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, among other candidates, describe Trump a white supremacist. Sen. Cory Booker, appearing at the Wing Ding party dinner in Clear Lake, lamented a week in which “Americans were slaughtered,” saying that amid the primary’s discussion of “the issues that drive us … the values that are underneath those issues is what we need to hit on again and again and again.”
The pre-general election offensive against Trump serves as a departure from the primary’s infighting in recent weeks, as Democrats seize a collective opportunity to weaken the president. But as the candidates careened through sweating crowds at the state fair and rallied supporters on its sidelines, they suggested this merged line of criticism — on guns and racism — would resonate long after initial public interest in any one shooting fades.
Before the Wing Ding fundraiser, eight candidates and representatives of nearly every campaign gathered for a moment of silence organized by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s staff in the state, many hugging one another and saying, “I love you, we will win.”
“The climate, if we take advantage of it, is better than it’s ever been before,” Iowa state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad said after the moment of silence in Clear Lake. “If we don’t take advantage of it, then we miss. And that means our children’s grandbabies will be holding rallies like this.”
The traditional response to mass shootings in the United States would not suggest a wide opening for Democrats in that effort — a familiar procession of grief followed quickly by condemnation and legislative scrapping before most massacres fade from view.
But Democrats this year, more so than during the last presidential election, have been buoyed on gun control by gains in statehouses last year, by an internal weakening of the NRA and by a groundswell of youth activism following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.
“To me, the tipping point was first of all Parkland, and you could see those results in the midterm, where those kids didn’t just march, they actually voted,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar told reporters here. “And then now, with these horrendous massacres in Dayton and El Paso.”
Sanders told gun control activists in Des Moines that they had “for the first time put the NRA on the defensive, and that is no small thing.”
Several Democrats are promising to take executive action on gun control if Congress does not pass stricter gun laws. Sen. Kamala Harris told POLITICO that while “history has shown us that these tragedies do not inspire Congress to have the courage to act … I also know that action can be taken. And I plan on taking it.”
“There’s a whole generation that is now voting, voted last time, will vote in 2020, will caucus … who have had to live through this,” said Matt Sinovic, executive director of the progressive group Progress Iowa.
Even if public attention recedes following the most recent shootings, he said, the remaining level of concern will be “certainly more than it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 2 year ago … I think the new normal is at a higher level than it has been in the past.”
Yet while the Democratic presidential candidates were mobbed at the state fair and cheered in Clear Lake, both Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, and New Hampshire, the first primary state, present a significant test to Democrats on guns.
In Iowa, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 9 percentage points in 2016, the Republican-controlled legislature this year passed a resolution seeking to add pro-gun language to the state constitution.
Some Democrats in early primary states worry about the risks of pushing the subject too hard.
“There’s a pretty heavy gun culture out here in Iowa, even among Democrats,” said Tom Courtney, a former Iowa state senator and now co-chairman of the Des Moines County Democrats.
He said it’s “good politics to be talking about the instantaneous background checks and all that.” However, he feared a movement within the Democratic Party to push even further left after the Texas and Iowa shootings, including with a discussion of mandatory buy-back programs, could be harmful to the eventual nominee.
In Iowa, he said, “That’s crazy talk.”
In New Hampshire last week, a protester brandished a shotgun at an event where gun control advocates were urging Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to sign three gun-control bills. Sununu vetoed the bills on Friday, citing his state’s “long and proud tradition … of responsible gun ownership and individual freedom.”
Democrats advancing gun measures in that state still raise the cautionary tale of former Rep. Dick Swett when discussing gun control.
Swett, who lost his congressional seat after voting to ban assault weapons in 1994, said last week that Democrats should continue to push for background checks and an assault weapons ban. But he said the Democratic presidential candidates so far “are shallow in their approach, just thinking that they’re going to fix this with a Band-Aid of an assault weapons ban and background checks is not going to do it.”
“I think that politicians today on both sides of the aisle are using terms that differentiate and divide us far more and in a much more destructive way than what they could and should be saying about getting everybody to work together,” he said.
Trump has maintained that he is not racist, saying Democrats “call anybody a racist when they run out of cards.” And he appears to recognize an opportunity to blunt the Democrats’ advance on gun control, saying Friday that he wants to see action on “meaningful background checks.”
But Trump previously vowed to veto a background check measure passed by the House this year, and Democrats remain skeptical he will act.
“When his lips are moving, we’re not hearing the truth,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters on Saturday. “You cannot trust this man.”
Natasha Korecki and Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.