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Why Robin Kelly's big win in Chicago matters

We talked briefly last week about a fascinating congressional special election in Chicago -- the race to fill the vacancy left by former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D) -- which has taken on unexpected national implications. That it's the first congressional race since the 2012 election, and the first since the massacre in Newtown, lent it additional weight.

And as it turns out, it's also been the first race in recent memory in which support from the National Rifle Association proved to be a real problem for certain candidates. By some measures, the issue drove the election, and catapulted Democrat Robin Kelly to victory.

The outcome of the contest, which had been unexpectedly cast into the center of the national gun debate, was welcome news for Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York and a staunch gun-control advocate. He poured more than $2.2 million into attacking Ms. Kelly's chief opponent, Debbie Halvorson, this month. [...]

The advertising campaign, a huge amount for a single House race, set up Ms. Halvorson's defeat on Tuesday as a shot across the bow to other Democrats supporting gun rights, a sign of what could await future candidates who do not align with Mr. Bloomberg's quest to change firearm laws across the country.

In the end, it wasn't even close -- despite an enormous field of candidates, Kelly won the primary with over 50% of the vote, and is the overwhelming favorite to win the general election on April 9.

Stepping back, the larger question is whether this is a sign of things to come.

To be sure, this is a heavily Democratic district, and messages that resonated in Illinois' 2nd district may not be equally as effective elsewhere. But that doesn't negate the fact that this was the first race in recent memory in which a major party's candidates felt the need to distance themselves from the NRA. The far-right lobbying group's "A" ratings for some of the candidates practically became "a scarlet letter," forcing some Democrats who'd previously bragged about NRA support to scramble in the other direction.

Even in reliably "blue" districts, that just hasn't happened in recent years. Democrats, at nearly every level, had been led to believe that supporting gun control was a recipe for electoral failure, so they reflexively avoided the issue. This race set out to challenge those assumptions, and the results were unambiguous.

Indeed, Kelly was only too pleased to tout her "F" rating from the organization, which in turn led to support from Bloomberg and progressive groups like the CREDO super PAC. It helped separate her from the pack and positioned her to become a member of Congress in April.

Don't be surprised if we see this dynamic unfold again in other districts in the not too distant future.