Gun Lobby Turns Back on Senate Democratic Allies

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U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) speaks during a hearing before the Subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Relations, and the District of Columbia of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee November 6, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing was focused on 'One Year Later: Examining the Ongoing Recovery from Hurricane Sandy.'

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democratic Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska split with their party last year to help Republicans stop a bill strengthening background checks for gun purchases.

They’ve gotten no help in return from the nation’s largest gun lobby.

With both lawmakers facing tough re-election fights, the National Rifle Association has spent $2.6 million supporting Pryor’s opponent and isn’t endorsing Begich, whose opposition to the gun bill came months after 20 schoolchildren were shot dead.

The spending underlines a broader shift by the NRA to step up support for Republicans at the expense of Democrats, in contrast to the past where it would back Democratic allies.

The NRA “took a lot of heat” from conservatives for helping some Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections “to the obvious detriment of Republicans,” said David Kopel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Denver and a gun-rights advocate who writes for the association. Plus, now there are simply fewer pro-gun Democrats, he said.

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, declined to comment for this story.

Boosting Republicans

The NRA, which began airing ads in high-profile Senate races last month, has been spending more aggressively to help Republicans since 2010, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.

While the group has overwhelmingly backed Republicans since the 1980s, in 2010 it helped pro-gun House Democrats such as Ike Skelton of Missouri, Allen Boyd of Florida and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota -- all of whom lost.

This election, it has spent $17 million through Oct. 13, almost all to benefit Republicans. That’s more than eight times what it shelled out in the 2006 congressional races.

The April 2013 vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate to halt the background checks measure stung many gun-control advocates following the shooting deaths of 26 children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut. Polls also showed that 90 percent of the public backed expanding background checks.

The vote -- in which five Democrats joined with Republicans -- continued a two-decade losing streak for promoters of gun control.

Next month’s election is the first since the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which prompted President Barack Obama to make stemming gun violence one of the first priorities of his second term.

Sending Message

“Our job is to send a message that you can support these things and not lose your election because of what the gun lobby would spend against you,” Mark Kelly of Americans for Responsible Solutions said in an interview.

The political action committee that wants tougher gun regulations is backing Susan Collins’s Senate re-election campaign, after the Maine Republican supported the background check bill.

For its part, the NRA isn’t going after Collins, a review of ads by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group shows.

Collins was one of four Republicans who voted for the legislation in the face of pressure from the gun lobby. In a statement today, her campaign spokesman, Lance Dutson, said Collins thinks her vote was “in the best interest of Maine and the nation” and preserves the Second Amendment rights of Americans.

‘False Choice’

Kelly helped form Americans for Responsible Solutions along with his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, a former congresswoman who was wounded by a gunman in January 2011, to curb firearms violence.

Yet with many of this election cycle’s biggest battlegrounds in Republican-leaning states where gun regulation is unpopular, it’s a fight that will have to wait until 2016.

Among those states is Arkansas, where Republican Representative Tom Cotton is getting NRA support for his challenge to incumbent Pryor.

“The clear message to Democrats is if you’re trying to decide between doing the right thing and making some sort of political decision to satisfy the NRA, it’s a false choice,” said Arkadi Gerney, a senior vice president at the Democratic-aligned Center for American Progress in Washington. “Just do the right thing, because this group is going to come after you no matter what.”

As for the NRA’s decision not to oppose Collins, he said, “The clear message is: If you cross the NRA and you’re a Republican, there’ll be no consequences.”

Loyal Ally

Kopel, the NRA supporter, said in Pryor’s case, the group probably sees a more loyal ally in Republican Cotton, while Begich and his challenger, Dan Sullivan, are both highly rated by the group, which explains why it’s remaining neutral.

Max Croes, a spokesman for Begich, said the senator “is a strong defender of Second Amendment rights.” He added, “In Alaska, gun ownership means hunting to put food on the table, self-defense and recreation.”

Pryor didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story.

Americans for Responsible Solutions has spent $3.6 million this election, 72 percent of it against Republicans. Independence USA PAC, aligned with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and principal owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, hadn’t focused on the most competitive Senate races as of Oct. 13, investing $3 million in a handful of other campaigns.

$50 Million

Bloomberg announced in April that he planned to spend at least $50 million this year to reduce gun violence through a new group called Everytown for Gun Safety. The money is being spent on educational and advocacy efforts and independent expenditures. Bloomberg has become a target of the NRA and has been cited in on-air and digital ads in states such as Colorado.

The NRA has focused its ad spending in the past several weeks in the key competitive states of Colorado, Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina and Arkansas, according to a recent CMAG report.

In some states, such as North Carolina, the estimated ad spending is comparable to that of the Chamber of Commerce. Many of the spots look similar, warning that “our Second Amendment rights are under attack by the Obama administration.”

“That’s why we need leaders like Tom Cotton in the U.S. Senate to fight back for us,” a recent spot in Arkansas says. “In the Senate, Cotton will stand up to President Obama’s extreme gun control agenda.”

Opposing Reid

This isn’t the first election in which the NRA has abandoned its legislative allies.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had been among the NRA’s top supporters, including his 2009 fight against legislation to reinstate an assault-weapons ban. In 2010, when the Democrat faced one of his toughest re-election campaigns, the NRA didn’t endorse him.

Gun-rights groups say they’re reluctant to support members of Obama’s party.

“We have no doubt that if Pryor and Begich were re-elected they would be horrible,” said Mike Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, a rival group to the NRA based in Springfield, Virginia.

Among other issues, Hammond faulted Begich and Pryor for voting to confirm Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the justices have taken positions that would weaken gun rights.

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