WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's push for tougher gun measures and expanded background checks has placed several moderate Senate Democrats facing re-election next year in a bind, forcing them to take sides on a deeply personal issue for rural voters.
The choice: Either they stick with Obama and gun control advocates — and give an opening to campaign challengers and the National Rifle Association to assail them — or they stand with conservative and moderate gun owners back home worried about a possible infringement on their rights.
Five Senate Democrats — Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — are seeking another term in states carried by Republican Mitt Romney last fall. For the next few weeks, at least, the spotlight will be on how they maneuver as the Senate debates gun-control legislation pushed by Democrats in response to the deadly Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting.
Two other GOP-leaning states with large numbers of gun owners — West Virginia and South Dakota — will have open seats following Democratic retirements. Republicans have placed many of these states at the top of their priority lists as they try to gain six seats to win back the Senate majority.
Debate begins next week on Senate legislation that would require nearly all gun buyers to submit to background checks, toughen federal laws banning illicit firearms sales and provide more money for school safety measures. The background checks are viewed by gun control advocates as the best step to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from accessing weapons. The NRA has opposed the expansion of background checks, saying it could lead to federal registries of gun owners. It has sought better enforcement of existing laws, which it contends is too easy for criminals to circumvent.
"There's a fear in these states that this is going to go further and farther than anyone has suggested," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. But he said efforts to curb gun violence were aided by the emotional toll of the Sandy Hook shootings, in which 20 children and six adult educators were killed. "Newtown changed everything," he said.
Thus, these Senate Democrats are weighing the possibility of angry voters next year against pressure from fellow Democrats. So far, they're divided.
Baucus, the only Democrat with the NRA's top rating, said he will vote against the bill as it currently stands. He pointed to the 18,000 phone calls his office has received about it — he said only 2,000 of those callers favored it.
"I represent Montana — that's my first loyalty," Baucus said. "They're my employers. That's why I'm here."
Baucus knows the perils of a debate over firearms. He supported a 1994 crime bill sought by President Bill Clinton that included an assault weapons ban and survived a vigorous challenge from Republicans two years later.
Two other Democrats have already raised their objections.
Begich and Pryor voted Thursday with Republicans in an unsuccessful bid to block debate on Democrats' gun control legislation.
Begich said the current bill has "serious problems with it" and he wanted Democrats to consider his proposal with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to improve how the federal background check system prevents weapons from getting to people with certain mental health problems.
"My first priority is Alaska. It's not complicated for me," Begich said. "It doesn't matter if it's election year or non-election year. I've done 4 1/2 years of pro-gun votes here." Asked whether Obama's push on gun violence was complicating matters for him at home, Begich said with a laugh: "The president makes my life difficult on many fronts."
Pryor said the bill in its current form was "too broad and unworkable."
Hagan is taking a different position. She said in a statement she planned to support what's become known as the Manchin-Toomey measure for its sponsors, noting it would "explicitly" ban the federal government from creating a registry.
"As a mother there is nothing more important to me than protecting our kids. I am looking at each proposal to ensure it is common sense, will be effective and will not infringe on Second Amendment rights," she said.
Landrieu has yet to indicate what she might support in a final bill. She said following Thursday's vote that the Second Amendment right to own firearms "is not to be taken away" but that the nation was "plagued by gun violence." Making no commitments, she said it was "worthy of a debate to see if we can find a common-sense solution."
Debate begins next week on a measure forged by Manchin and Republican Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania that would expand background checks less broadly than the overall legislation. The proposal would subject buyers in commercial settings like gun shows and the Internet to the checks but exempt transactions such as sales between friends and relatives.
The Senate also is likely to hold votes on proposals to ban military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, two measures that were excluded from the bill and are expected to be defeated. With so many votes ahead, and the potential for a number of procedural votes, any Democrat runs the risk of having one of their votes misconstrued in future TV ads.
All are bracing for negative ads — and pressure from those they anger.
Gun control advocates holding rallies across the country have the deep pockets of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has pumped $12 million in TV advertising pressuring support for the measures. And an offshoot of Obama's campaign, Organizing for Action, planned to hold rallies in 14 states on Saturday to push for the measures.
On the flip side, the NRA is certain to spend a chunk of money assailing anyone who backs the measure. Republicans, meanwhile, say the issue could serve as a strong motivating factor in rural states next year.
"The discussion is devastating to Democrats — that's why they stopped talking about it for a long time," said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Associated Press writer Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont., and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report. Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas