When Rep. Scott Murphy hit the campaign trail Monday, he made sure to drop by a meeting of the Columbia County Sportsmen’s Federation.
There, the upstate New York Democrat, who neither owns a gun nor hunts, touted a recent endorsement by the National Rifle Association to bolster his contention that he is an enthusiastic fan of Second Amendment rights.
The backing from the influential gun-rights organization gave the first-term Congressman an opening with a constituency that is suspicious of Democrats, who are often viewed as too liberal on the issue.
This year in particular, when many Democrats such as Murphy are in competitive races, the NRA’s stamp of approval provides them with an opportunity to show their independence from unpopular party leaders.
“When a Democrat gets the endorsement of the NRA, it gets more noticed. The expectation is that they normally endorse Republicans,” said Steven Greenberg, a pollster at Siena Research Institute outside Albany.
This campaign cycle, the NRA has endorsed 61 Democratic and 197 Republican House candidates, as well as 23 GOP and two Democratic Senate candidates.
While the number of Democrats that the NRA is supporting is roughly the same as in 2008, the endorsements this cycle have stirred up opposition. Some conservatives say the group should not give ammunition to candidates who could prevent Republicans from seizing control of Congress and who may ultimately keep Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in charge.
The NRA endorsements have gone out to some of the most vulnerable Democrats, many of them from rural and conservative districts. In New York alone, the NRA has backed three such Democrats from the less populous upstate region where hunting and guns are part of the culture. In addition to Murphy, the NRA backed Rep. Michael Arcuri, whose district covers 11 counties in the central part of the state, and Rep. Bill Owens, whose northern district includes part of Adirondack Park. Murphy’s district snakes up the Hudson River Valley, encircling but not including Albany.
Elsewhere in the country, the NRA has thrown its support behind conservative Democrats such as Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.) and Bobby Bright (Ala.) as well as moderate Reps. Nick Rahall (W.Va.) and Ron Kind (Wis.). It has endorsed Senate Democratic contenders Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who is running for Senate in Indiana.
NRA officials say their endorsements are based on Members’ legislative records and responses to a lengthy questionnaire. The group has a policy of endorsing incumbents if they meet the group’s standards under the premise that lawmakers who support their agenda should be rewarded.
In response to criticism from Republicans that the NRA is backing some candidates who have supported liberal legislation such as health care reform, the gun-rights group stresses that those issues are outside of its purview.
“We understand the frustration in this unprecedented election cycle,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said. “It is important for people to be mindful that we are a single-issue organization. We are bipartisan.”
The spokesman added that the NRA expects to spend $15 million to $20 million on political activities this cycle. Through this week, he said, the group will have shelled out $6 million. While there has been speculation that the NRA is considering borrowing millions of dollars to underwrite its political activities, Arulanandam said the group had not yet taken out any loans.
The NRA’s recent political activity ranges from a $295,000 television buy to help Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck (R) to $155 for a booth on behalf of Nan Hayworth, the Republican challenger to Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.).
The NRA’s political action committee has also given out $757,000 this cycle to candidates, leadership PACs and party committees. Of that, it has doled out $616,000 to federal candidates, with almost 70 percent going to Republicans. However, the percentage going to Democrats has risen from 14 percent in the 2006 season to about 30 percent this cycle. Murphy received $1,000 from the NRA PAC in December.
Democrats say the NRA endorsements not only aggravate Republicans but also generate considerable coverage in local media. The backing also underscores what party officials say is the considerable leeway they give their candidates to break from the party line.
“Our Members are independent voices that represent the values of their districts,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.
But Republicans and some gun-rights advocates dismiss the notion that the NRA endorsement will give Democrats much of a boost, particularly when GOP opponents have solid Second Amendment credentials.
For example, in Murphy’s upstate New York race, his opponent, Chris Gibson, quickly rushed out his own statement in response to the NRA endorsement of the incumbent. Gibson’s statement noted that he, too, had received a top rating from the gun-rights group. The Republican challenger also included a statement from a supporter and local NRA instructor Bill Mansfield, who complained that “the NRA rules are set up so they are incumbent friendly. The system is unfortunately not without flaws.”
In a phone interview, Mansfield said he doubted Murphy would win much support from gun owners, saying he did not receive any applause after his appearance at the Columbia County Sportsmen’s Federation forum earlier this week.
Mansfield added that while gun-rights advocates do pay attention to the NRA endorsements, “that rating is not an ironclad guarantee” of their support or that “we’ll disregard a candidate who would vote for Nancy Pelosi.”
A Murphy spokesman did not return a request for comment. In the endorsement letter, the NRA’s director of federal affairs, Charles Cunningham, cited several reasons for the group’s support of Murphy. The letter said Murphy had co-sponsored legislation that would reform the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and signed the “pro-gun congressional amicus brief arguing that the Second Amendment guarantees a fundamental right that protects all Americans” in McDonald v. Chicago.
A spokesman for Gibson, Daniel Odescalchi, said his boss had a “strong following among sportsmen and Second Amendment rights activists.”
But he said guns will probably not be the deciding factor this election year. “I think the real issues in this race are economic issues,” he said.