TOLEDO, Ohio (CN) - Against the backdrop of a darkened high school auditorium, a local news anchor asked a question that hinted at the pitfalls for Ohio politicians facing calls for stricter gun controls after last month’s school massacre in Parkland, Florida.
The moment came about a third of the way through the first official debate Wednesday night for the four Democrats running for governor of Ohio. The four candidates were standing behind podiums each marked with one letter, spelling out O-H-I-O, in a cavernous auditorium in Bowsher High School in Toledo, a hardscrabble city in northwest Ohio.
By that point, former state attorney general and frontrunner Rich Cordray, former presidential candidate and ex-Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich, retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O'Neil and relative newcomer and state senator Joe Schiavoni had touched on the issues of sexual harassment, the opioid epidemic, and fracking.
Then, Viviana Hurtado, a journalist with Toledo’s CBS affiliate WTOL-11, said gun control measures and a "backlash" against the National Rifle Association had swelled since the Florida shooting, before spinning her question in another direction.
"Locally the NRA is not a lobby, but members who volunteer with Boy Scout troops," Hurtado said to O'Neill. "They are our neighbors. How will you reassure these Ohioans your position goes after the problem and not law-abiding citizens?"
The question implied that in the mind of Ohioan gun owners, any restrictions might erode their Second Amendment rights. But it also pointed to the balancing act that past Democratic candidates have pulled off in a state where concealed-carry laws allow Ohioans to take firearms into bars, restaurants and even university campuses.
Ohio Democrats also have a complicated relationship with the gun lobby, keeping one eye on gun owners who have pressured them to uphold gun rights.
This year feels different. It represents a year where Democrats are hoping to ride a wave of discontent with the rightward shift the country has taken with the election of President Donald Trump and turn several GOP statehouses blue.
Meanwhile, the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students dead and another 16 injured has thrust gun control legislation into the national spotlight and could be a galvanizing issue for voters in this year's election.
The debate Wednesday was a harried event, with gun control barely getting a look in, save for Hurtado’s question. Debate moderator Jerry Anderson whiplashed candidates into explaining policy positions on the opioid epidemic, legal marijuana, for-profit schools, right-to-work battles, and fracking in a matter of seconds.
Still, for Cordray's opponents in the May 8 primary to choose the Democratic nominee for governor, it was a welcome opportunity to take the sheen off the frontrunner, the former Ohio attorney general and head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, by emphasizing his ties to special interests groups.
"You've got an 'A' rating from the NRA," O'Neill said as he tried to knock Cordray off his perch.
Cordray has been a vocal Second Amendment advocate. During the campaign, video emerged of Cordray speaking at a pro-gun rally in Columbus in 2010. As the state’s attorney general, he was one of the few Democrats to boast an "A" rating from the NRA and his office went to court to prevent cities from enacting their gun reforms.