WASHINGTON — Former congresswoman Gabby Giffords' political action committees will play an active role in House and Senate races next year in a push to "change the map" in Congress after lawmakers failed to pass any significant gun control or mental health legislation, Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, said Monday.
Their team has not identified the congressional races, but they are sifting through about two dozen competitive House contests and about a half-dozen Senate races and are likely to winnow the list, Kelly said.
"It doesn't have to be a sea change," said Kelly, a retired astronaut. "We just have to start getting members of Congress to think about their next election differently and know that there is an organization that will support them if there's a lot of money being spent against them on this issue."
Kelly's comments came as the nation prepares to mark the one-year anniversary Saturday of the massacre that killed 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Kelly and Giffords, who was gravely injured in a shooting in 2011 in Tucson, launched Americans for Responsible Solutions in January to fight for tougher gun laws.
The group's super PAC arm raised $6.5 million during its first six months and spent $600,000 on mailings, online ads and other political activity to back the successful campaign of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in last month's race for Virginia governor. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, but cannot donate directly to candidates or coordinate their activity with the politicians they support.
In a separate move, Giffords last month launched the Rights and Responsibilities PAC, which can give to candidates' campaigns. She is transferring nearly $300,000 in money left over from her campaign account to the new effort and plans to donate first to several senators — Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. — who voted for a measure that would have required background checks on all commercial sales of guns. It failed to pass Congress this year.
Congressional inaction on major measures to overhaul the nation's gun laws "is a testament to the influence that the gun lobby has," Kelly said. "They've done a very good job of building a lot of influence over a 30-year period in Washington, and that can't be rolled back overnight."
Erich Pratt, communication director of Gun Owners of America, said his group also is gearing up for 2014 and looking closely at competitive Senate contests in states such as Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina. All three seats are up in next year's election and are held by Democrats.
Pratt's group was among the gun rights organizations that recently helped engineer the recall of two state senators in Colorado who voted for some of the nation's strictest gun control laws. Giffords' group spent about $400,000 in TV ads in the Colorado election. Other gun rights advocates, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, invested heavily.
"The other side is going to have a tough go of it if Colorado is any indication," Pratt said.
Giffords and Kelly have become the nation's most visible advocates for reducing gun violence. Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, resigned her seat in Congress last year to focus on her medical recovery.
Nearly three years after the shooting, she continues with speech therapy and some physical and occupational therapy and is doing well, Kelly said. "She takes it very seriously, just like everything she's ever done in her life," he said.
Sunday, when a visitor stopped by the couple's Tucson home and asked to say hello to Gabby, Kelly at first hesitated. "I thought she was taking a nap," he said. "She was on the treadmill.
"She's getting better and working hard."
Though he said he "would never say never," Kelly downplayed the prospects of any future in elective office for either of them.
"You see so many congressmen and senators work really, really hard and very long hours, and a lot of the time, they aren't able to accomplish anything," he said. "It's a frustrating job."
"I come from a world that's very black and white. You work hard. You learn the systems. You practice on a simulator. You got very good at what you did, and then you went out and did it. And if you mess up, you could die," he said. "Congress isn't like that."
Kelly, who commanded two space shuttle missions, just became director of flight crew operations for a Tucson-based company that aims to take people to the edge of space via balloon.