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Gun debate is changing the Democratic Party

It's unclear if the tragic shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School -- as well as the subsequent ones across the country -- will lead to passage of gun-control legislation in Congress. But they might have had this immediate result: transforming the politics and focus inside the Democratic Party, at least in solid-blue districts and states.

Look no farther than Tuesday's upcoming Democratic special congressional primary in Illinois to fill Jesse Jackson Jr.'s vacant seat in the Chicago area, where Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly has become the front-runner, thanks in large part to the issue of guns.

"Robin Kelly has spent her career fighting to get deadly weapons off our streets," goes one of her TV ads. "In Congress, Kelly will keep taking on the NRA, fighting to ban assault weapons and outlaw high-capacity ammunition clips."

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A super PAC funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Independence USA, has spent more than $2 million in the race to both endorse Kelly and knock two of her opponents with strong gun-rights records, including former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson (the only white candidate running in this multi-candidate field).

"In the race to replace Jesse Jackson, watch out for Debbie Halvorson. When she was in Congress before, Halvorson got an 'A' from the NRA," argued an Independence USA TV ad, adding: "Debbie Halvorson -- when it comes to preventing gun violence, she gets an 'F.'"

Another ad by the group goes, "In the race for Congress, the big issue -- fighting gun violence. Debbie Halvorson and Toi Hutchison both earned an 'A' from the NRA. They can't be trusted."

(Hutchison has since dropped out of the race and has endorsed Kelly, providing more evidence that Kelly is the candidate to beat on Feb. 26.)

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While this is just one race occurring in a city that has been plagued by gun violence, next week’s special primary highlights three important points:

1. The National Rifle Association has become anathema to many Democratic voters. That’s especially true in the wake of the organization’s combative public relations campaign after the Newtown shootings, which included the NRA invoking President Barack Obama’s daughters in an advertisement attacking the president. According to last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 20 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of the NRA, versus 57 percent who had an unfavorable view. (That’s compared with 64 percent of Republicans and even 49 percent of independents who hold a favorable view of the organization.) In past Democratic primaries, an NRA endorsement was either a badge of honor or something that at least wasn't viewed as a major liability. That may not be true anymore, at least in congressional districts like this one in Illinois.

2. Bloomberg’s organizations have become a countervailing force. Mark Glaze, the executive director for another Bloomberg organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, argues that one of the biggest reasons why gun-control laws have been weakened over the past decade is because “the NRA has been the only game in town.” But as the Illinois race has proved, Bloomberg’s groups are willing to spend millions in races on behalf of candidates supporting gun control. (Interestingly, the NRA has not spent money in this particular Democratic primary.) As one Democratic strategist tells First Read, “Candidates no longer have to fear the NRA mobilizing disproportionate force against them. They just need some backup.”

3. But does this apply outside of urban areas? That could be the biggest question moving forward after Tuesday’s race. While the NRA is unpopular with Democrats and while Bloomberg’s group have displayed their muscle, does that also hold true in places like West Virginia (where Democrats will be competing to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller) or even in Iowa (which has open Senate and House seats in 2014)? “West Virginia and Illinois will always be different,” Glaze says, noting that states like West Virginia have “more hunting, more guns, and less crime.” He adds, “That creates a different political dynamic.” Indeed, the NRA is running newspaper ads in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina -- where Democratic senators are running for re-election next year -- opposing the Obama administration’s gun-control proposals.