This time of year in Virginia, it’s usually candidates who are clogging your mailbox, bugging you for money and your vote.
In politics, turnabout is fair play.
A summertime annoyance is tumbling through the letter slots of prospects for the House of Delegates and state Senate: questionnaires from pressure groups.
Those squeezing candidates for information — which can and will be used against them — are organizations with the most to gain or lose in this year’s hard-fought elections.
First among them: Gun-rights groups that in Virginia depend on an inside game — read: continued Republican control of the General Assembly — to thwart firearms restrictions for which growing numbers of voters in both parties clamor; more so in response to mass shootings such as those in El Paso, Dayton and Virginia Beach.
One of those groups is the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Its questionnaire — the VCDL calls it a “candidate survey” — seems as much about intimidation as it is about information.
Jim Snyder, the group’s vice president, all but says that in the “Dear-candidate” cover letter that accompanies the questionnaire:
“If you choose not to return the survey, you will not be considered for an endorsement by the VCDL-PAC and your failure to return the survey may be interpreted by our members, supporters and other gun owners throughout the commonwealth as indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”
The boldface, capital letters and italics are Snyder’s.
Whether circulated by a gun-rights group or any organization defined by an absolutist stance on a hot-button issue, these questionnaires measure a candidate’s purity.
Anything short of it can be an invitation for that group to get in a candidate’s face, usually by steering cash and technical support to his or her opponent.
Put another way, these surveys can be a trap.
The VCDL’s dues-paying membership is less than a tenth of that of the Virginia arm of the besieged National Rifle Association — 7,200, compared with more than 100,000. What the VCDL lacks in size, it makes up in spunk. It’s the VCDL that made ubiquitous those blaze orange-and-black stickers that shout “Guns Save Lives.”
Over six pages, in what is arguably a manifesto of the VCDL’s core beliefs, 16 questions are put to legislative candidates.
Among them: Would they make it even easier to carry a concealed weapon? How about allowing Virginians to carry concealed handguns in K-12 schools and colleges? Would they support a prohibition on localities barring guns in their buildings?
Are they for or against universal background checks? What about banning military-style rifles, high-capacity magazines and suppressors, often called silencers? Are they in favor of red-flag laws that would allow cops with a court order to strip firearms from someone deemed dangerous?
It is the narrative that accompanies the questions that speaks to VCDL values.
On preventing public colleges from “penalizing” students, faculty, staff and guests with conceal-carry permits from bringing their pistols on campus, the organization — with a reference to a 2007 massacre — posits, “As the tragedy at Virginia Tech proved, the ‘I’m-unarmed, please-don’t-hurt-me’ approach is not an effective means of self-defense, especially faced with a violent criminal determined to kill.”
On universal background checks, on which President Donald Trump retreated under pressure from the NRA, the VCDL says they would ultimately require “universal gun registration.”
The upshot: “the Right to Keep and Bear Arms would be the only right enumerated in the U.S. Constitution that would require permission from the government to exercise that right.”
Candidates are being asked whether they will capitulate on gun rights.
No one is more sensitive to this than Republican legislators, seen by some in their conservative coalition as having already caved on Medicaid, new road taxes and making it harder to lock up people, many of them minorities, for low-dollar crimes.
Pro-gun voters are a reliable component of the GOP base. While they are more abundant in the countryside than the suburbs, their loyalty is being tested by straying Republicans in Democrat-leaning metropolitan areas, where anger over gun violence is spiking.
This requires an awkward, if not incredulous, balancing act by Republicans.
By shutting down last month after 90 minutes a special legislative session to act on post-Virginia Beach gun restrictions, but pushing many of those proposals to an anti-crime panel that held two days of high-profile hearings this week, Republicans are attempting to project an image of deliberative concern.
They hope that inoculates them for the fall elections, preserving their slender majorities and, by extension, Virginia’s gun-friendly laws.
But this requires winning back territory Republicans lost in 2017.
At least one candidate, Mary Margaret Kastelberg, running for an open House seat in blue-trending Henrico County, hopes to do that by trying — pre-emptively — to change the subject.
One of her latest mailers is distinguished by what it doesn’t mention: the Republican Party, Kirk Cox, the NRA-chummy House speaker — and guns.