Chris Jacobs Drops Re-Election Bid After Bucking His Party on Guns
In the wake of deadly mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, Representative Chris Jacobs of New York, a congressman serving his first full term in the House, stunned fellow Republicans by embracing a federal assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines.
Speaking from his suburban Buffalo district a week ago, about 10 miles from the grocery store where 10 Black residents were slaughtered, Mr. Jacobs framed his risky break from bedrock Republican orthodoxy as bigger than politics: “I can’t in good conscience sit back and say I didn’t try to do something,” he said.
It took only seven days for political forces to catch up with him.
On Friday, facing intense backlash from party leaders, a potential primary from the state party chairman and a forceful dressing down from Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Jacobs announced that he would abandon his re-election campaign.
“We have a problem in our country in terms of both our major parties. If you stray from a party position, you are annihilated,” Mr. Jacobs said. “For the Republicans, it became pretty apparent to me over the last week that that issue is gun control. Any gun control.”
Citing the thousands of gun permits he had issued as Erie County clerk, Mr. Jacobs emphasized that he was a supporter of the Second Amendment, and said he wanted to avoid the brutal intraparty fight that would have been inevitable had he stayed in the race.
But he warned Republicans that their “absolute position” on guns would hurt the party in the long run and urged more senior lawmakers to step forward.
“Look, if you’re not going to take a stand on something like this, I don’t know what you’re going to take a stand on,” Mr. Jacobs added, citing the pain of families in Buffalo, Uvalde and elsewhere.
The episode, which played out as President Biden pleaded with lawmakers in Washington to pass a raft of new laws to address gun violence, may be a portent for proponents of gun control, who had welcomed Mr. Jacobs’s evolution on the issue as a sign that the nation’s latest mass tragedies might break a decades-old logjam in Washington.
It also serves as a crisp encapsulation of just how little deviation on gun policy Republican Party officials and activists are willing to tolerate from their lawmakers, despite broad support for gun safety measures by Americans.
Mr. Jacobs’s decision to go against his party on gun control drew an immediate and vitriolic response: Local gun rights groups posted his cellphone number on the internet, and local and state party leaders began pulling their support, one by one.
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Just last week, Mr. Jacobs, who is the scion of one of Buffalo’s richest families and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in 2020, had been an easy favorite to win re-election, even after a court-appointed mapmaker redrew his Western New York district to include some of the state’s reddest rural counties, areas he does not currently represent.
Now, his choice to not seek re-election has set off a scramble among Republicans in Western New York to fill his seat, including Carl Paladino, the Buffalo developer and the party’s nominee for governor in 2010, who said Friday that he would run. Mr. Paladino, who has had to apologize for making insensitive and racist remarks, immediately gained the endorsement of Representative Elise Stefanik, the powerful Republican congresswoman from New York’s North Country.
Party leaders and allies who spoke to Mr. Jacobs in recent days said he clearly understood the political ramifications of his decision to support powerful gun control measures — but he nonetheless refused to back away from it.
Mr. Jacobs, 55, announced his support for a federal ban on assault weapons last week without having first consulted many of his political advisers, according to a person familiar with his decision who was not authorized to discuss it.
After making his remarks, he conducted a poll that suggested he might have still had a path to re-election, though not an easy one.
“His heart is in a good place, but he’s wrong in his thinking as far as we are concerned,” Ralph C. Lorigo, the longtime chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, said before Friday’s announcement. “This quick jump that all of the sudden it’s the gun that kills people as opposed to the person is certainly not 100 percent true.”
Mr. Lorigo said he had vouched for Mr. Jacobs earlier this year when other conservatives doubted him. But this past Monday, he demanded the congressman come to his office and made clear he would encourage a primary challenge.
“He understood that this was potentially political suicide,” Mr. Lorigo said.
Even before he made his decision not to run again, several Republicans were already lining up to face off against Mr. Jacobs, angered at both his comments and the way in which he had surprised fellow members of his party, including some who had already endorsed him.
In addition to Mr. Paladino, other potential Republican challengers included Mike Sigler, a Tompkins County legislator; Marc Cenedella, a conservative businessman; and State Senator George Borrello.
“We deserved the courtesy of a heads up,” said Mr. Borrello, a second-term Republican from Irving, N.Y., south of Buffalo.
Mr. Borrello added that Mr. Jacobs’s actions were particularly galling considering the congressman had “actively and aggressively” sought out the support of pro-gun groups like the N.R.A. and the 1791 Society.
“And those people rightfully feel betrayed,” he said.
The most formidable threat to Mr. Jacobs, though, may have come from Nicholas A. Langworthy, a longtime Erie County Republican leader who currently serves as the chairman of the state Republican Party.
Mr. Langworthy, who has yet to formally announce whether he will seek the seat, had been a supporter of Mr. Jacobs, helping him secure former President Donald J. Trump’s endorsement, but he began circulating petitions to get on the ballot himself in recent days and told associates that he would consider challenging Mr. Jacobs.
Mr. Langworthy declined to comment on Friday.
Gun control advocates and Democrats denounced the reaction to the congressman’s remarks, saying it showed the intolerance of Republicans’ hard-line approach to gun rights.
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“It’s deeply disappointing that the extremists in his party have pushed Congressman Jacobs out for simply saying enough is enough,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun control group Moms Demand Action.
Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat who serves as the Erie County executive, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that Republicans’ attacks on Mr. Jacobs were “an example of everything that is wrong with the modern GOP.”
The intraparty fight over Mr. Jacobs’s seat played out against a stark national backdrop on guns.
Republicans in Washington have largely locked arms against new gun control measures since the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, where 19 children and two teachers were killed at an elementary school.
Even the handful of Republican senators who have been willing to engage in policy discussions on the topic have limited their negotiations with Democrats to modest steps like strengthening the background check process for gun purchases.
Mr. Jacobs proposed going much further toward positions his party has rejected for more than a decade now. He defended those positions on Friday, saying he would vote for bills Democrats plan to advance in the House that would raise the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon and limit the capacity of magazines.
He added that his support for the Second Amendment “does not mean that I cannot say what is happening here is ridiculous.”
A former state senator who has two small children, Mr. Jacobs was first elected to Congress in a special election in 2020 to fill the seat of Chris Collins, a hard-right Republican who resigned after pleading guilty to federal insider trading charges. That election was won with the help of Mr. Trump and his oldest son, who recorded robocalls for Mr. Jacobs.
He also had deep pockets and connections in Western New York: His family are the owners of Delaware North, a major gaming, entertainment and hospitality company based in Buffalo.
Mr. Jacobs did vote with the majority of his party on Jan. 6, 2021, to overturn Mr. Biden’s election victory in key states. But he later joined Democrats and nearly three dozen House Republicans to vote in support of an independent commission to study the riot that unfolded at the Capitol that day.
Still, Mr. Jacobs was criticized by some fellow Republicans as being too moderate for the district, which included swaths of deep-red rural countryside where the Second Amendment is considered sacrosanct and where “2A voters” are a critical bloc for any candidate. Mr. Jacobs had sought to dispel those concerns, branding himself as a someone who “stood up for gun owners” and would “to defend our right to carry.”
On Friday, Mr. Jacobs seemed passionate about continuing to work on gun control before and after leaving office, saying that he felt his decision was “the right thing to do” and that he wanted to help rebuild trust between people on both sides of the issue.
“We see this every time there’s a tragedy that the rhetoric goes both ways and people go retreat into their camps,” he said. “It happens over and over and over again. I want to be part of trying to change that cycle.”