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Bloomberg-backed gun safety group endorsing Democrats in 14 North Texas statehouse races

Everytown for Gun Safety is ramping up efforts to help Democrats capture the Texas House. The group, which has financial backing from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, is parent group of Moms Demand Action Texas, shown holding a Dallas rally in February 2018. (Tom Fox/Staff Photographer/TNS)

A national gun advocacy group’s strategy to flip the state House in 2020 relies heavily on races in North Texas.

Everytown for Gun Safety, which has financial backing from Michael Bloomberg and has pledged to pump $8 million into Texas’ state and federal races this cycle, endorsed 26 Democratic state House candidates Thursday. More than half of them are competing for seats in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The group also announced plans on Thursday to invest $3.5 million in digital advertising for Texas House and congressional races. Everytown did not name the specific contests.

The move comes almost a year after mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

Everytown said its decision to focus on North Texas is based on polling that shows gun violence prevention is one of the most “persuasive attacks” on GOP representatives in competitive districts.

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The group is backing four incumbents — Carrollton Rep. Julie Johnson, Irving Rep. Terry Meza, Dallas Rep. Victoria Neave and Richardson Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos — and 10 other North Texas Democratic candidates vying for an open seat or trying to oust a Republican.

“In addition to the huge political shifts that have been occurring in areas like Tarrant County, we see candidates in the DFW area running very strong campaigns and we hope that we can help them keep up that momentum over the next few months,” said Everytown’s Texas political director Jenna Royal.

Democrats are vying to take control of the 150-member Texas House for the first time in nearly two decades, and need nine seats to do it. Republicans, however, are taking the challenges seriously, as are their donors, and raising millions of dollars ahead of November.

It remains to be seen whether gun issues will be top of mind for voters in a year when the coronavirus has left thousands dead, millions more unemployed and students waiting to learn when they can return to school.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said guns could be a driving issue in competitive districts because the issue resonates with voters Democrats are targeting.

“This is a wedge issue for the exact voters who Democrats hope to peel off from Republican winning coalitions of the past, specifically Latinos, college-educated voters and suburban women,” he said. “Texas Republicans cannot win in the districts where the vote is close if they can’t keep those votes.”

A Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll in April found 87% of Texas voters support expanded background checks for gun purchasers and 71% favor so-called “red flag” laws that allow police to take guns from people a judge deems dangerous.

Still, in wake of a series of mass shootings across the state, Republicans in control of the Legislature have made it easier for Texans to carry weapons in schools and houses of worship.

As the pandemic began, lines formed outside gun stores in North Texas. Republican state leaders determined the businesses were essential and could stay open during stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The 2020 election features two pro-gun candidates affected by gunmen opening fire on churches.

Jack Wilson, the deacon who stopped an attack at a church in White Settlement last year, recently won a Republican primary runoff for Hood County commissioner.

In February, Wilson criticized Bloomberg, who was then a presidential candidate, saying the outcome of the church attack would have been far worse if parishioners had not been carrying firearms.

Frank Pomeroy, the pastor at a Sutherland Springs church that was the site of a mass shooting in 2017, is running for state Senate as a Republican against longtime incumbent Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Since announcing plans to spend big in Texas this winter, Everytown for Gun Safety has shifted its strategy. The organization added more incumbent Democrats to its roster for support — most of them in the Dallas area, including Meza, Johnson and Neave.

“We’re adding more defensive districts because we’re looking ahead — if we can secure a gun sense majority in the Texas House, we want to make sure these candidates are still in the room,” Royal said.

With the pandemic hindering plans to get out the vote with in-person efforts, Royal said the team is emphasizing phone banks and virtual events.

The other candidates the group is endorsing include Democrats Lorenzo Sanchez and Sharon Hirsch. They are competing against Republicans in Collin County who held onto their seats in 2018 with tight margins.

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© 2020 The Dallas Morning News