In the Democratic primary Tuesday in Illinois's Second Congressional District, gun-control advocates are learning just how far their pocketbooks can take them while the National Rifle Association observes from the sidelines on how to best adapt as the war over firearms intensifies.
The crowded special election on the South Side of Chicago, for the seat formerly held by Jesse Jackson Jr., has been transformed into a training ground for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA, which is expected to give out more than $2.1 million to bolster former Illinois state Rep. Robin Kelly, a proponent of stricter gun legislation and an assault weapons ban. The NRA has stayed out of the race even though former Democratic Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who has an "A" rating from the group, is leading the race, according to a local poll.
"Bloomberg is trying to manufacture a story line and use it as a means of saying his agenda is alive and well," says NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "We are involved in thousands of races in a given election year and we will continue to do so. We make endorsement in some races and we don't make them in others. We don't have infinite funds, unlike Bloomberg who has millions and millions of dollars to manufacture a story line."
Bloomberg's PAC says it is countering what it believes has long been one of the most powerful spending machines in political campaigns.
"The NRA has had pretty much an open field for decades as far as influence and spending," says Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Independence USA. "In the last six months, the mayor and the PAC have invested resources in races where you have candidates with distinct stances on the issues."
And while Friedman says Bloomberg's group is still plotting its strategy, Bloomberg will continue to support candidates he feels will help reduce gun violence.
"I don't know how the congressional field shapes up, but the mayor will be looking at them all very closely," Friedman says.
Gun rights, violence prevention and talk of high-capacity magazines have dominated the election with Halvorson being attacked on the airwaves. She has fought back. "We cannot allow Bloomberg to buy this district from New York," Halvorson said at a press conference last week.
Sean Howard, Halvorson's communications director, says making this race about guns has frustrated voters who have been more concerned about job creation.
"Those ads were over the top and many felt the ads were insensitive," Howard says. "They ran this gun issue into the ground and it is a sour issue for voters today. It has backfired."
While the NRA has not jumped into the Second District race, the Illinois State Rifle Association did send out mailers on Halvorson's behalf. "We will see how well it works. We are not too big. This is a David versus Goliath contest over here," says Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.
Halvorson might have an "A" NRA rating, but she has tried to distance herself from the group saying on her campaign website that she supports universal background checks and stricter penalties for people who buy guns on behalf of others who are legally prohibited from doing so themselves.