Why Gabby Giffords Just Endorsed 2 Republicans in New Jersey

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The political action committee co-founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona who was shot and seriously wounded in 2011, has made 144 state and federal endorsements in the 2018 election cycle, backing candidates it believes will push for more gun control.

Three of those endorsements went to Republican candidates, two of whom are from New Jersey.

On Friday, the group, Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, endorsed Representatives Leonard Lance and Chris Smith, a move that surprised Democrats and gave a boost to Mr. Lance, who is locked in a tight battle for his seat despite being from a district that has not elected a Democrat since 1978. (The third Republican endorsed by the group is Representative Brian Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania.)

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated Mr. Lance’s seat as a tossup. Mr. Smith’s seat is the only Republican seat in New Jersey considered safe, according to the Cook Political Report.

How did the Giffords group decide on the endorsements?

The group began talking to Mr. Lance and Mr. Smith about endorsements in February, based on bills the congressmen had introduced and votes they made breaking from their Republican colleagues on gun control, particularly their “no” votes on the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. The group listed six bills that Mr. Lance co-sponsored advancing gun control, including banning “bump stocks.” None of those bills became law, however.

Before this year, both men had positive ratings from the National Rifle Association. Mr. Lance campaigned on the N.R.A.’s support in 2012, touting his “100 percent N.R.A. voting record in Congress” and his opposition to “renewing the federal assault weapons ban.”

But his recent votes against the concealed carry bill and a bill that would require a judge to rule before a veteran could be denied the right to own a gun were enough to sway the Giffords group to offer its endorsement.

“A Republican trading his N.R.A. ‘A’ rating in for a different endorsement is a really powerful sign of the times,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of the Giffords group.

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Representative Leonard LanceCreditBill Clark/CQ Roll Call, via Associated Press

Mr. Lance said that his recent votes weren’t indicative of a shifting position on gun rights.

“I’m a strong believer in the Second Amendment,” said Mr. Lance. “And those who believe in the Second Amendment, by and large, overwhelmingly favor common sense laws in this regard, and I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive.”

Should we expect more gun control groups to endorse the congressmen?

Probably not.

Other major gun control groups, like Moms Demand Action, have announced their support of Mr. Lance’s Democratic opponent, Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state.

While the Giffords group pointed to “no” votes made by Mr. Smith and Mr. Lance, actually bringing new gun legislation to the House floor for a vote would require changing the House leadership.

Mr. Malinowski said that was an argument for supporting Democrats. “It’s so mystifying to a lot of people who followed the debate on gun legislation so closely,” said Mr. Malinowski, criticizing the endorsement of his opponent. “You need Republican support in the Senate, there’s no question about that, but in the House, what you need first and foremost is the leadership that will bring legislation to the floor.”

The Giffords group said that highlighting Republican efforts to support gun control demonstrated its bipartisan bona fides.

“We recognized that we can’t pretend that Republicans are not part of this solution,” said Mr. Ambler. “When Republicans stand up and say ‘That’s it, we’ve got to do something about gun violence, I’m opposed to the N.R.A.,’ then we’ve got to put on our gun violence prevention hats, not our Democrat hats.”

What has the Giffords group accomplished this year?

Ms. Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, among the most vocal and well-known proponents of gun control, have been active in the 2018 midterm elections.

On Monday, the Giffords group announced that Mr. Kelly would make a six-stop national tour in partnership with VoteVets, a liberal political action committee that supports veterans running for office.

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Representative Chris SmithCreditJulio Cortez/Associated Press

According to the Federal Election Commission, the Giffords group had raised nearly $13 million as of this June, when it had nearly $6 million cash on hand.

The group has also donated more than $177,000 directly to federal candidates, including $2,000 to Mr. Lance and $1,000 to Mr. Smith. It has already spent more than $800,000 on digital ads, with plans to launch television campaigns around the country.

The group has also partnered with other national groups to launch the Our Lives, Our Vote initiative, which aims to register 50,000 new high schoolers to vote in this year’s elections.

What do the endorsements mean? Will they matter in either race?

Gun control is certainly an issue many New Jersey voters support.

Even before Gov. Philip D. Murphy took office in January, New Jersey boasted some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. A Rutgers University poll in December found 59 percent of state residents supported strengthening gun control laws, and Mr. Murphy signed six gun control laws earlier this year. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican, saw some donors flee after he voted in favor of the concealed carry law.

So the risk of Republican backlash against Mr. Lance or Mr. Smith for taking tougher positions on gun control is small in New Jersey.

At the same time, Mr. Malinowski and Josh Welle, the Democrat who hopes to unseat Mr. Smith, also support gun control. So the Giffords group endorsements are limited in their potency to sway independents.

While the endorsements came with donations made directly to Mr. Smith and Mr. Lance, there are no current plans for Ms. Giffords or Mr. Kelly to campaign for either candidate.

Mr. Welle said voters were well aware that a House controlled by Democrats was more likely to advance gun control bills than a Republican-controlled House.

“It’s a priority of not just moms and dads of central Jersey,” he said, “but it has been the rallying cry of students in high school and young people because they’re so disillusioned by career politicians who cannot step up and lead and make them feel safer in their day-to-day lives.”

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