CHICAGO (AP) — The newly-elected Democratic nominee to replace disgraced former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. vowed to become a leader in the fight for federal gun control and directly challenged the National Rifle Association in her victory speech.
But it remains to be seen if Robin Kelly’s primary win Tuesday night in the Chicago-area district, aided by a $2 million ad campaign funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC, would fuel the national debate.
Kelly, a former state representative, emerged early as a voice for gun control in the truncated primary season after Jackson resigned in November. She gained huge momentum as Bloomberg’s super PAC poured money into anti-gun television ads in her favor that blasted one of her Democratic opponents, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, for receiving a previous high rating from the NRA. Kelly supports an assault weapons ban, while Halvorson does not.
“We were on the right side of the issue and our message resonated,” Kelly told The Associated Press shortly after her win.
Kelly promised in her victory speech later Tuesday night to fight “until gun violence is no longer a nightly feature on the evening news” and directly addressed the NRA, saying “their days of holding our country hostage are coming to an end.”
Bloomberg called Kelly’s win an important victory for “common sense leadership” on gun violence, saying in a statement that voters nationwide are demanding change from their leaders.
But other Democratic front runners accused Bloomberg of buying a race and interfering in the heavily urban district that also includes some Chicago suburbs and rural areas.
“It shows, unfortunately, you can’t go up against that big money. …That’s the problem with super PACs,” Halvorson, who unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in a primary last year, told the AP. “There is nothing I could have done differently.”
Kelly’s win all but assures she will sail through the April 9 general election and head to Washington, because the Chicago-area district is overwhelmingly Democratic. The Republican contest, featuring four lesser-known candidates, was too close to call as of Tuesday night, though no Republican has won the district in 50 years.
The race was the district’s first wide-open primary since 1995, when Jackson was first elected to Congress in a special election. He resigned in November after a months-long medical leave for treatment of bipolar disorder and other issues, then pleaded guilty this month to misspending $750,000 in campaign money on lavish personal items.
Even with his legal saga playing out in the courts, talk of guns dominated the primary race, which featured 14 Democrats. The election came after Chicago saw its deadliest January in more than a decade, including the death of a high-profile honors student who was fatally shot just days after she performed at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Political experts and fellow candidates said the super PAC money made all the difference, particularly in an election with a short primary and low voter turnout.
“The money bought Kelly a tremendous among of attention,” said Laura Washington, a political analyst in Chicago. “She tapped into a real hard nerve out there in the community. People are really concerned about gun control and violence. She was smart to focus like a laser on that issue.”
Bloomberg’s entrance into the race became controversial, at least with the candidates and some voters.
The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent has long taken a vocal stance against guns. He launched his super PAC weeks before the November election and spent more than $12 million to back seven candidates nationwide, including for newly elected Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, a California Democrat who ousted an incumbent during a race where guns were an issue.
On Tuesday, Kelly told supporters that she would work with Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to get gun legislation through Congress.
However, gun rights advocates dismissed the notion that Kelly’s election and Bloomberg’s attention would fuel the debate on gun control.
“This is an aberration,” said Illinois State Rifle Association spokesman Richard Pearson. “This shows what you can do with $2 million in an off season race. He bought the election is the way.”
Another Democratic front runner, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, also took issue with the ads, saying people were “extremely upset” that someone from New York was trying to tell people in Illinois how to vote.
“That’s what money gets you,” he told the AP after conceding late Tuesday. “We earned every vote.”
Roughly 14 percent of registered voters came to the polls, an estimate Chicago officials said was the lowest turnout in decades. Adding to the problem was a blast of wintry weather Tuesday that snarled traffic, cancelled hundreds of flights and could have kept some voters home.
But those who did make it out indicated that guns, ethics and economic woes were on their minds.
Mary Jo Higgins of Steger, a south Chicago suburb, said she voted for Halvorson because the former congresswoman was “the only Democrat who believes in the Second Amendment.”
But Country Club Hills minister Rosemary Gage said she voted for Kelly because she was “standing with (Obama) and trying to get rid of guns.”
“It’s really bad in Chicago and across the country,” Gage said. “Too many children have died.”