Over the air and on the ground, Hillary Clinton is closing her Connecticut primary campaign with an emphasis on gun control, an issue of special resonance here and one on which she appears closer to the Democratic base than her rival for the presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders.
Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the principal killed in the massacre of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook elementary school, is to campaign Thursday with Clinton in Hartford and is featured in television ads that go on the air Wednesday in Connecticut and Rhode Island, two of the five states with primaries next week.
“Hillary Clinton is the only candidate who has what it takes to take on the gun lobby. No one is fighting harder to reform our gun laws than Hillary,” Smegielski says in one ad. “She reminds me of my mother. She isn’t scared of anything. And that’s how I know she is the person who can actually make a difference.”
Her mother was Dawn Hochsprung, 47, the principal killed in December 2012 as she confronted a gunman after he shattered a window with gunfire to bypass the locked front door of the school in Newtown. Five other educators, all women, and 20 students were killed with an AR-15 in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
Clinton is to campaign Thursday at a YMCA facility in the North End of Hartford, meeting with relatives of victims of gun violence. Smegielski, who joined Clinton after her New York primary victory Tuesday and was singled out by the candidate, is scheduled to attend.
The issue clearly has an emotional resonance in Connecticut, but a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found gun policy trailing the economy, income equality, health care and other issues as pivotal to the preference of likely Democratic primary voters.
Smegielski is only one of the many surrogates who have used gun control to distinguish Clinton from Sanders, who has been supportive of gun rights as a senator from rural Vermont.
Sandy Phillips, the mother of a teenaged girl killed in the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, recently accused Sanders on social media of lacking compassion for gun victims. Smegielski highlighted the complaint on Twitter.
Kirsten Gillibrand, who succeeded Clinton as a U.S. senator from New York, told Politico in a podcast interview posted two days ago that Sanders lacks the sensitivity to understand how gun violence devastates families.
Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, was to campaign in Hartford later Wednesday at a North End event also focusing on gun violence. Last week, the campaign was quick to praise a Connecticut judge who declined to dismiss a suit brought by Sandy Hook families against the maker of the AR-15 used in the attack.
“Unfortunately, PLCAA – the sweeping immunity law that protects gun manufacturers and dealers – still remains a major obstacle for these families and others seeking to hold these gun companies accountable,” Clinton said. “That is why, as president, I would lead the charge to repeal this law. Nothing can make these families whole again after losing their children and loved ones in Sandy Hook, but they deserve a president who will fight for them, and I am committed to doing just that.”
Sanders, whose campaign has electrified younger voters with a message of economic equality, has been on the defensive at times over his vote in 2005 for the federal law granting immunity to gun manufacturers for deaths caused by their firearms.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who both have endorsed Clinton, have repeatedly used gun control as talking points to appeal to the Democratic base on her behalf. Both were at Sandy Hook on the day of the shooting.
Sanders, whose campaign has a web page outlining his views on firearms and gun control, has tried to find a middle ground, something elusive on many issues in primary campaigns.
“Folks who do not like guns [are] fine,” Sanders says. “But we have millions of people who are gun owners in this country — 99.9 percent of those people obey the law. I want to see real, serious debate and action on guns, but it is not going to take place if we simply have extreme positions on both sides. I think I can bring us to the middle.”
Sanders has voted for federal legislation banning assault weapons and magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. He also supports a federal standard for background checks on gun purchasers. Other than instant background checks, however, he sees gun regulations primarily as a state issue.
His most recent grade from the NRA was a D-minus. Since the NRA began grading politicians in 1992, his marks have ranged from a C-minus to an F.
His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Clinton’s new ads or her gun-control strategy.
Sanders trails Clinton among likely Democratic primary voters in Connecticut, 51 percent to 42 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday. His biggest strength is among voters aged 34 and younger, who favor him, 73 percent to 26 percent.
The poll found gun policy was the “most important issue in deciding who to support” for only three percent of likely voters, the same as taxes, terrorism and immigration and trailing climate change and education.