Stymied at the federal level, gun control proponents had hoped to force their issue to the states in Tuesday’s elections — but voters in Virginia dealt them a major setback as millions of dollars in advertising failed to shift control of the state Senate.
Everytown for Gun Safety, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, poured about $2.4 million into elections for state House and Senate seats, and said it helped hold one contested Senate seat for Democrats.
But Republican Glen Sturtevant fended off $500,000 in Bloomberg-backed ads against him, winning an open seat over Democrat Dan Gecker in a must-win race in the Richmond area. Mr. Sturtevant’s victory meant the GOP will retain its 21-19 edge in the Senate.
The GOP was eager to play up the election results as a victory over the out-of-state group’s spending spree.
“Our victory is all the more impressive in that it was achieved despite the record-breaking millions of dollars spent by Governor [Terry] McAuliffe, his allies and out-of-state, single-issue PACs,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican.
Gun control advocates have tried to gain traction since the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, with mixed results. Congress has stalemated over new gun controls, leaving the advocates to push for changes state by state.
Several states quickly passed stiff new restrictions on gun sales, but efforts foundered in other states.
Virginia gun control advocates thought they had a chance after a live-on-air attack by a gunman killed a reporter and cameraman from a Roanoke-based television station.
Andy Parker, father of slain reporter Alison Parker, starred in television ads from Mr. Bloomberg’s group, and Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, backed up Mr. Parker after he posted threatening messages to a state senator’s Facebook page.
But the ads failed to swing control of the legislature, which remains in Republicans’ hands. Even if it had shifted, it’s unclear that gun control would have advanced because several Democrats in the legislature also tout their support for gun rights.
The election losses have dented Mr. McAuliffe, a close ally of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who likewise has made a major new push for gun control as a campaign issue.
A memo issued Wednesday by the Republican Party of Virginia said the results proved that the “liberal, national McAuliffe/Bloomberg/Clinton agenda” doesn’t win.
Everytown, the gun control group, did claim some success when Democrat Jeremy McPike beat Republican Hal Parrish in a hotly contested race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Charles J. Colgan in the 29th Senate District covering parts of Prince William County.
The National Rifle Association’s headquarters is situated just miles from that district, leading Everytown to spotlight a win on the NRA’s “home turf.”
“We shined a light on Hal Parrish’s unpopular gun positions, and that moved a race that began within the margin of error because of the strength of this issue,” said Everytown President John Feinblatt.
Everytown had launched a $1.5 million ad buy against Mr. Parrish, and Mr. McPike also outspent Mr. Parrish by a 2-to-1 margin on TV ads through Nov. 2, according to The Center for Public Integrity.
Mr. McPike also had about 40 years of Mr. Colgan’s incumbency working for him in a district where President Obama captured 63 percent of the vote in 2012.
After their defeat, Democratic gun control supporters vowed to keep fighting, and Mr. Gecker predicted that the majority eventually would come around.
“I believe deeply that the issues we ran on will in time reflect the majority of voters in this area — especially [on] health care, equal access to education and even finding ways to end gun violence,” Mr. Gecker said.