Why These Four Democrats Voted Against Background Checks

The bipartisan Senate proposal to to expand background checks failed 54 – 46 Wednesday, with four Democrats siding with 41 Republicans to oppose the piece of gun control legislation.

All four of the Democrats — Max Baucus, Mark Begich, Heidi Heitkamp, and Mark Pryor — come from conservative states. Three of the four have touch re-election campaigns ahead of them. Had the four senators stood with the rest of their party, the bill would have passed.

“Montana,” Baucus said in explanation for his vote.

Montana is the fourth largest state in size, but just the 44th in population size. This leaves the state with a predominantly rural population, and rural communities see little need for gun control. Nevertheless, Montana’s other Democratic senator, Jon Tester, still voted in favor of the bill. Unlike Baucus, Tester is not up for re-election until 2018.

Senator Begich of Arkansas offered poor timing as his excuse.

“It’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment,” Begich said. “Because human emotions then drive the decision. Everyone’s all worked up. That’s not enough.”

Begich is a first-term senator up for re-election in Alaska. He had also voted against allowing the bill to enter debate in the first place.

Mark Pryor of Arkansas is also facing re-election. He expressed his opposition before the vote.

“I oppose the Manchin-Toomey amendment,” Pryor said. “Instead, I will support the Grassley amendment that enforces the laws we already have on the books. As I’ve said before, I believe we need to deal with the real issues behind gun violence, and that includes mental health and school safety. The Grassley amendment accomplishes this while protecting the rights of law-abiding Arkansans.”

Heitkamp of North Dakota is not up for re-election, but she barely won last November. Her state is deeply conservative, and she won by fewer than 3,000 votes.

“This conversation should be about what is in people’s minds, not about what is in their hands,” Heitkamp said before the vote. “I commend Senators Manchin and Toomey for working so hard to bring a serious bill to the floor. However, in its current form I do not see a path for my support. I’ve thought long and hard about this, I’ve taken the tough meetings, and I’ve heard overwhelmingly from the people of North Dakota; and at the end of the day my duty is to listen to and represent the people of North Dakota.”

Both Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican, maintained ‘A’ ratings from the NRA. On Wednesday night, the NRA threatened to lower the ratings of any politician who voted in favor of the legislation. The organization releases these ratings during election season, giving them significant power to sway politics among both Republicans and Democrats in moderately conservative states.

Four Republicans crossed the aisle to vote in favor of background checks — Pat Toomey, Mark Kirk, Susan Collins, and John McCain — but their support was not enough to make up for the Democratic defectors.

Even if the bill had passed the Senate, gun control legislation faces a much steeper challenge in the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a sizable majority.