There was nothing subtle about the TV commercial in 2010: As Gov. Ted Strickland held a hunting rifle, an announcer said as a member of the U.S. House in 1994, Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich “voted to take away our gun rights — a major reason the National Rifle Association gave Strickland an A-plus rating.
Fast forward to today and the same Ted Strickland, who is in a contested U.S. Senate Democratic primary race next spring against Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, has become an advocate of the type of gun restrictions he once opposed.
Voters don’t always reward such flip-flops. Many thought Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony J. Celebrezze hurt himself in 1990 when he jettisoned his lifelong opposition to abortion rights and lost the election to Republican George V. Voinovich.
And even as Strickland’s aides insist he became an advocate of new gun restrictions in the wake of the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults in 2012 at a Connecticut elementary school, analysts suggest the former governor realizes that opposition to gun restrictions could hurt him among Democratic primary voters who tend to back tougher gun laws.
The winner of the primary race between Sittenfeld and Strickland will face Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who almost certainly will have the backing of gun-rights organizations. (Portman too had a reversal when he announced his support for same-sex marriage after one of his sons came out as gay.)
The gun issue has intensified in the wake of mass shootings in Colorado Springs last month when three people were murdered at a Planned Parenthood facility, and this month in San Bernardino where two Islamic State sympathizers killed 14 people.
“People’s opinions really do change over time,” said John Green, director of the Ray Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “But the political problem is when a candidate is strongly committed to a particular point of view, advertises about it, and then changes their mind in the run-up to a campaign. This raises a lot of suspicions in the minds of voters.”
To Sittenfeld, Strickland’s reversal smacks of “an election-year conversion. No one can erase or run from his record and his record on guns is long and it’s crystal clear,” he said.
Strickland’s staff declined requests to make the former governor available for an interview. But David Bergstein, a Strickland spokesman, said, “Ted’s views about gun violence and gun safety have been deeply influenced as a result of the multiple horrific incidents of gun violence that our country has suffered, and particularly after the Sandy Hook tragedy.”
“Just like many Americans, after Sandy Hook he called for a reassessment of laws in order to help keep Ohioans and all Americans safer,” Bergstein said.
Bergstein said Strickland would have supported a bill sponsored in 2013 by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would have expanded criminal background checks to people buying guns at gun shows or on the Internet. The bill failed to pass the Senate.
Bergstein said Strickland wants to ban those on the terrorist No-Fly List from buying guns, adding that the former governor “believes that stopping the epidemic of gun violence is too important for any politician to try and play games with, and his most important priority will always be to keep Ohioans safe.”
When asked to produce any statement Strickland made prior to this year about changing his views on gun control, the Strickland campaign cited articles from the Associated Press and Wooster Record from December of 2012 when he called for commission to consider the nation’s gun laws.
“This country is facing a culture of violence that is intolerable and cannot just simply be accepted as a way of life,” Strickland was quoted as saying in the Record. “I think the NRA, I think the entertainment industry, I think the political class, all need to sit down, and we need to avoid the extremes.” He added: “There needs to be a recognition that we cannot continue to lose thousands and thousands of innocent people to gun violence.”
Dale Butland, a Sittenfeld spokesman, said Strickland’s comments from 2012 are “why people don’t trust career politicians. Three years ago – after 20 first-graders were slaughtered by a lunatic with an assault rifle—the best Ted Strickland could do was call for a government commission to study the problem.”
“Not one word about changing his mind on background checks,” Butland said. “Not one word about reversing his position on assault weapons. And not one word about these or any other gun-related issues after all the other mass shootings that have occurred since Sandy Hook.”
But State Rep. David Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and a Strickland supporter, said Strickland has changed his position just as many other Americans have in the wake of the mass tragedies that have occurred.
“The whole country is moving in a more thoughtful direction on the gun issue,” said the Columbus Democrat. “I don’t think Ted Strickland is different than the vast majority of people in this country, who recognize the Second Amendment but also realize with any kind of freedom there also needs to be some restrictions that apply to them.”
During his years in the U.S. House and as governor, there was nothing lukewarm about Strickland’s support of gun rights. As a House member from Lucasville in 1994, he voted against a ban on the production and sale of 19 semi-automatic assault weapons, calling it a “misdirected effort aimed at law-abiding citizens.”
By contrast, Gov. John Kasich, then a U.S. Representative from Westerville, supported the ban. Strickland’s 2010 commercial highlighted that vote and said Kasich wants to “take away your gun rights.” (Kasich no longer supports an assault weapons ban.)
In 1993, Strickland joined 68 other House Democrats in voting against the Brady Bill, which required a waiting period before anyone could buy a handgun as well as creation of an instant criminal background check before people could buy any kind of gun.
Strickland’s new position angered some of his past supporters.
“We endorsed him for governor in 2010,” said Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “But since then he has kind of really fallen off into all sorts of nonsense on this issue.”
“I can’t imagine that somebody who knows what he knows (on gun laws) can take the positions he is,” Irvine said. “He is absolutely wrong and he should know he’s wrong.”