The mass shooting at Parkland High School in Broward County, Florida, has inspired a surge of activism among the school’s students and others across the country in pushing for gun control measures. Despite this momentum and popular support in favor of legislation that would regulate gun purchases, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is openly endorsing and financially backing several Blue Dog Conservative Democrats in congressional races across the country with ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other industries that primarily back Republicans.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), an NRA ally with the highest rating the organization gives to politicians who vote in line with its interest — an “A” — has voted with Trump more than 64 percent of the time, though his district’s political demographics lean nine points in favor of Democrats, according to the Cook Political Report — meaning Republicans aren’t very competitive in the district. Hillary Clinton won Cuellar’s district by 19 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Though VICE recently rated Cuellar as the top Democrat in Congress who warrants a progressive primary challenger, he is running unopposed in the primary and general election. Cuellar’s lack of opposition in his district has enabled him to support Republicans’ agenda, while asserting himself into Democratic Party leadership. DCCC Chair Ben Ray Lujan serves as co-chair of the DCCC Latino Council with Cuellar, who also serves as co-chair of the Blue Dog PAC and co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition in Congress. Lujan told Bloomberg in July 2017 that Blue Dogs have “been incredible partners” in developing the party strategy for the 2018 midterm elections. Nine of the DCCC-backed candidates so far this election cycle have also been endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC.
The DCCC has embraced Cuellar’s support and Blue Dog-based strategies for the midterm elections, despite his open embrace of the NRA and other nefarious industries. So far this election cycle, Cuellar’s largest campaign donor is the private prison company GEO Group, which is expected to earn more than $600 million in a decade through government contracts for private immigration detention centers, and faced lawsuits for forced labor in their prisons. Given that Cuellar’s congressional district extends to the US-Mexico border, these donations are problematic in undermining progressive efforts to abolish the private prison industry that has perpetuated mass incarceration for profit. During the Obama administration, Cuellar joined Republicans on immigration and border policies, drawing criticism from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Rep. Cuellar has made several large contributions to the DCCC — in addition to his congressional dues that Democratic members of Congress are expected to fundraise for the DCCC. His campaign made a $150,000 contribution to the DCCC in 2017, and over the past few years, has been one of the most prolific fundraisers for the DCCC. Politico reported in July 2017 that “Blue Dog and DCCC staffers now meet on a weekly basis, and leaders of the centrist coalition say the campaign arm is working hand in hand with them on recruitment.” The DCCC did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.
The influence of the Blue Dogs in DCCC recruitment is evident in the candidates endorsed by the DCCC, many of whom are facing progressive challengers in primaries. As part of the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program to help support Democrats in districts currently held by Republicans, the Democratic Party is manufacturing primary nominees who have long records in support from the NRA. In New Jersey, the DCCC, the Blue Dog Caucus and several county Democratic Party chairs are rallying behind Jeff Van Drew to run in the 2nd congressional district. Van Drew has a “100 percent” rating from the NRA during his tenure as a State Senator.
The DCCC is backing several other candidates with NRA and gun lobby ties. In the New York State Assembly, Anthony Brindisi, a congressional candidate in the 22nd district, joined Republicans to oppose the 2013 gun control legislation, New York’s SAFE Act, and received a “100 percent” rating from the NRA in 2017. In Virginia, candidate Elaine Luria voted for the NRA “A”-rated Republican incumbent Scott Taylor in her district twice — in the 2016 Republican primary and the general election. Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s special election in the 18th district, has dodged taking a stance in favor of gun control, instead emphasizing mental health. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is running for Arizona’s 2nd congressional district after a failed Senate bid in 2016, received an “A” rating from the NRA in 2012 and previously praised the organization, though she has shifted on the issue since. She now supports an assault weapons ban that she previously opposed, and has publicly criticized the NRA.
The NRA’s most recent federally-backed legislation was a House vote in December 2017 to allow non-residents of a state the ability to conceal-carry guns in states that permit it. Six Democrats voted in favor of the bill with Republicans: Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Georgia), Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon), Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin). In the 2016 election cycle, Cuellar, Bishop, Peterson and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minnesota) were the only House Democrats to receive donations from the NRA.
In media appearances, Cuellar has consistently reaffirmed his NRA-friendly positions on guns. He appeared on Fox News in October 2017 to affirm that Democrats should not “politicize” the Las Vegas mass shooting by calling for gun control, a Republican talking point. The next month, Cuellar told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that, “If somebody wants to kill somebody, they will find a way,” when asked about gun control as a solution to mass shootings in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting in his own district. Representative Cuellar’s office did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment on his gun control stances or involvement with the DCCC.
In addition to these Democrats, Rep. Darren Soto (D-Florida), first elected to Congress in 2016, has a long record of support from the NRA in the Florida State Legislature, receiving several “A” ratings, and voting in 2015 to strengthen the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law.
The NRA’s support for Democrats has waned over recent years as the party has trended more in favor of gun control measures — to the point where even past NRA allies like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) are finding themselves opposing the organization that formerly provided them financial backing. But the DCCC and Democratic Party’s open support for more candidates with NRA leanings suggests the party’s leadership is favoring a trend further to the right, in opposition to progressives pushing the party to the left.