Will NRA Endorsement Help Incumbent Democrats?

While Democrats face stiff political headwinds this election season, they've received support from one group not often associated with Democratic candidates: the National Rifle Association. The pro-gun group has endorsed 58 Democrats running for the House, as well as some Senate and Gubernatorial candidates. For Democrats in conservative rural districts, the NRA's support could be crucial.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

While many Democrats are struggling in their campaigns this year, some are getting help from a seemingly unlikely source: The National Rifle Association. The NRA has endorsed some 58 incumbent Democrats running for re-election to Congress this year, as well as some who are running for open seats. The group still gives most of its support and its dollars to Republicans, but its endorsements are giving some conservative Democrats a boost, and, they hope, a way to motivate their supporters.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin is a Democrat in a tight race for the U.S. Senate, in a conservative state where hunting is a way of life. So the imagery in his TV ad, which shows him carrying a rifle, chambering a round and then firing at a target, fits right in with the message he's trying to send voters.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Governor JOE MANCHIN (West Virginia, Democratic Senatorial Candidate): As your senator, I'll protect our Second Amendment rights. That's why the NRA endorsed me. I'll take on Washington and this administration to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets. And I'll take dead aim at the Cap and Trade Bill.

NAYLOR: Manchin is among the dozens of Democrats the NRA has endorsed this cycle. Most are running for re-election to the House from districts that tend to be rural and conservative, including 17-term incumbent Ike Skelton from Missouri.

Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri): I have an A-rating with the NRA. And as a result of that, they endorsed my re-election. And they made it very, very clear in their endorsement news release that they wanted me to come back. That's part of Missouri's rural values. I think I represent mid-America very, very well.

NAYLOR: Skelton is also running a TV ad touting his NRA endorsement as a call to arms, if you will.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: Ike Skelton knows what the Second Amendment means to rural Missouri. That's why the NRA endorses Ike and asks all Missouri gun owners, hunters, and NRA members to vote for Ike Skelton for Congress.

NAYLOR: It's not clear how much the NRA's endorsement will mean for Skelton or other Democrats on Election Day. John Bruce is skeptical. Bruce is a political science professor at the University of Mississippi, who has written about guns and politics.

Professor JOHN BRUCE (Political Science, University of Mississippi): The current is running so anti-incumbent and so anti-Democratic, I'm not sure it's much of a buffer, in the sense that you're not going to take an angry conservative, who wants to vote Republican, and make them vote for an incumbent Democrat because the NRA said that was their candidate.

NAYLOR: The NRA's political action arm has given almost $185,000 to Democratic candidates this cycle, about 28 percent of its total contributions. That's a bigger percentage than in the last election cycle, but still less than half of the cash it's given to Republican candidates.

The Republican running against Skelton in Missouri's 4th District is Vicky Hartzler. Like Skelton, Hartzler received an A-grade from the NRA, but not its endorsement.

Ms. VICKY HARTZLER (Missouri, Republican Congressional Candidate): They have an incumbent-friendly policy. So we're just, once again, going to go to the people in this district, and let them know of my support of gun ownership and gun rights. And I think that's what's going to make the difference.

NAYLOR: The NRA declined to provide a spokesman to comment on this story, despite repeated requests.

The University of Mississippi's Bruce says what's interesting about the NRA's endorsements this year is they reflect the fact that gun control has not been much of an issue in this Congress.

Prof. BRUCE: The backstory in this is, the long history of the NRA endorsing Republicans was possible only because the Democratic Party consistently advanced a pro-gun-control agenda in some form. The Democrats have largely taken that issue off the table. And so you have incumbent Democrats who are not being forced to cast pro-control votes.

NAYLOR: One key race where the NRA has not endorsed anyone is Nevada's Senate contest, between Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Republican Sharron Angle. Reid is been reliably pro-gun, but voted in favor of President Obama's two Supreme Court nominees. However, the group pointedly did not endorse Angle, despite giving her an A-rating. The NRA reportedly fears that if she were to defeat Reid, he could be replaced as leader by a more liberal pro-gun-control Democrat.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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