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.”
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.