Why the NRA is rallying behind endangered Democrats

Historically, the NRA has overwhelmingly supported Republicans. But Democrats began backing many pro-gun House candidates in 2006, and now the NRA is coming to their defense.

LM Otero/AP/file
The NRA endorsed Rep. Chet Edwards (D) of Texas this week. Here, Edwards listens to a potential voter at the VFW post in West, Texas, on Aug. 25.

The National Rifle Association – one of the top all-time donors to Republican candidates – is backing some of the most embattled House Democrats in Election 2010.

The endorsements this week come at a critical point in a campaign cycle expected to be bruising for Democrats, especially moderates elected in 2006 and 2008.

These moderates are evidence of how Democrats successfully moved into Republican territory during the past two election cycles, in large part by putting forward candidates who favor gun rights. Now, the NRA is rallying to the cause of many these imperiled Democratic, pro-gun moderates, suggesting that the organization's political donations are less partisan than pragmatic.

In some cases, pro-gun Democrats were given the nod over pro-gun Republicans. For example, Rep. Tom Perriello (D) of Virginia was favored over state Sen. Robert Hurt (R), his GOP challenger in a race that is dead even.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, declined comment on the NRA endorsements.

Since 1989, NRA financial support has gone overwhelmingly to Republicans, who have picked up 85 percent of campaign contributions from the gun industry in the last 20 years. But contributions are shifting. Campaign contributions from gun rights groups to Democratic congressional candidates jumped from 12 percent in the 2008 campaign cycle to 20 percent for this year's election.

Support from well-funded gun-rights groups was a key factor in the Republican conquest of the House in 1994, and Democrats ever since have tempered their attacks on the gun industry. When the Obama administration proposed reviving the assault weapons ban in March 2009, 65 House Democrats signed a letter opposing it.

More recently, House Democrats exempted the NRA from reporting requirements in the House version of campaign finance overhaul – a move that so alarmed liberals in the House caucus that other groups, such as the Sierra Club and AARP, were also given exemptions. The bill was not taken up in the Senate.

Democrats have now been competing for red state voters at least since 2006," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "When that’s the strategy, they have tried to at least take the gun issue off the table, because they can’t win in these areas unless they do.”

Other House Democrats endorsed by the NRA are all on short list of best prospects for Republicans to take back the House. They include:

Veteran House chairmen Reps. John Dingell (D) of Michigan and Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri were also publicly endorsed by the NRA this week.

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