By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 10:49 PM
Not a lot of things have gone the Democrats' way this year, but dozens of their House candidates are getting a late boost from an unusual source: the National Rifle Association.
So far this year, the NRA has endorsed 58 incumbent House Democrats, including more than a dozen in seats that both parties view as critical to winning a majority.
The endorsements aren't the result of a sudden love for a party with which the NRA is often at odds. Rather, the powerful group adheres to what it calls "an incumbent-friendly" policy, which holds that if two candidates are equally supportive of gun rights, the incumbent gets the nod.
The policy has been in place for some time, and the NRA has always backed a number of Democrats, but the group's choices have become especially contentious this year because control of Congress is at stake and because so many gun-supporting Democrats were elected over the past four years.
The policy is frustrating Republicans who think the group is hurting its own cause and the party's chances next month.
In South Dakota, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) got the NRA's endorsement even though her opponent, Kristi Noem (R), has made her fondness for hunting a prominent part of her campaign.
Noem's campaign manager, Joshua Shields, said that regardless of Herseth Sandlin's record on gun issues, she would still support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), "one of the most anti-gun speakers Congress has ever had."
"We made that argument to the NRA," Shields said. "Obviously it didn't work."
The thumbs-up from the NRA has given Democrats who represent conservative districts, such as Herseth Sandlin, an opportunity to fight back against repeated attacks that they're tied to their party's liberal leaders in Washington. With an NRA endorsement in hand, candidates are able to assert that they are willing to choose their constituents over their leaders when warranted.
At a gathering of volunteers for Robert Hurt's (R) campaign in Charlottesville last week, a concerned supporter asked the candidate why the NRA nod went to his opponent, freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.).
Hurt said he was unhappy with the group's decision and attempted to explain the NRA policy, before also trying to link his opponent to Pelosi. "There is no more anti-Second Amendment vote than a vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker," Hurt said.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that as a nonpartisan organization, his group does not take party affiliation into account. In most cases, he noted, the seat will be held by a gun-rights supporter regardless of whether the Democrat or Republican wins. "We are, frankly, in a very good and enviable position," Arulanandam said.
Among the most vulnerable Democrats who have won NRA backing are Reps. Betsy Markey (Col.), Harry Teague (N.M.), Chet Edwards (Tex.), Allen Boyd (Fla.), Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), Debbie Halvorson (Ill.), Paul E. Kanjorski (Pa.) and John Boccieri (Ohio).
The NRA has endorsed three of the four potentially vulnerable Democrats in Virginia, backing Reps. Rick Boucher and Glenn Nye as well as Perriello. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, who represents Fairfax and Prince William counties, received an F rating from the group.
In Maryland, the NRA has endorsed freshman Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr., who will be one of the most vulnerable Democrats in November.
Although the NRA's agenda usually aligns with the GOP, having clout with Democrats has also been useful. In early 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. suggested the Obama administration might try to reinstitute a ban on the sale of assault weapons. Backed by the NRA, several dozen House Democrats sent Holder a letter opposing such a move, and the idea never resurfaced.
"If it hadn't been for those 60 House Democrats . . . things would have turned out very differently," Arulanandam said.
But some Republicans in Washington privately grumble that the NRA is taking a short-sighted approach toward a crucial election.
"I think most [Republicans] would agree that [the NRA has] made friends with a lot of Democrats who will be former members of Congress next year, and most would agree they've been ill-advised," said a national GOP strategist who requested anonymity for fear of retribution for criticizing the influential group.
The strategist also questioned whether the gun issue would be decisive in a year dominated by debates over the economy, jobs and health care.
Still, in conservative districts with a large proportion of gun owners, Democrats believe the NRA's seal of approval gives them something to brag about.
When Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) got the NRA nod last week, his campaign suggested it was a "crushing blow" to Republican Bob Gibbs's bid.
"Guns are an important part of our culture here in rural Ohio, and I'll never back down from my fight to ensure that Ohioans' constitutionally provided Second Amendment rights are never taken away," Space said in a release.
The NRA's record is different in the Senate, where very few moderate Democrats are running for reelection and the group has not endorsed a single one of the party's incumbents.
The group's most notable move was to choose not to issue an endorsement in Nevada, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid - who the group has backed in the past - got a B rating and Republican challenger Sharron Angle got an A.
When the NRA announced in August that it would not endorse Reid, the group noted that it had "strongly opposed" the nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Reid backed both nominees.
But the group did not endorse Angle either, and the NRA has said it fears the possibility that if Reid loses, he could be replaced as majority leader by a more liberal lawmaker: Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
The NRA has endorsed a handful of Democratic governors, including such embattled incumbents as Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Iowa Gov. Chet Culver.
Overall, the NRA has endorsed many more House Republican incumbents than Democrats, and the cash has followed. The group's political action committee has doled out $350,000 this election cycle to Republicans and $170,000 to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But their ties to Democrats have also paid legislative dividends.
A bill to grant the District a full-fledged voting House member was shelved in April after gun-rights supporters vowed to attach an NRA-backed amendment that would have weakened the city's gun-control laws. Democratic leaders feared the amendment would pass not just because Republicans supported it but because a significant chunk of Democrats, led by Rep. Travis Childers (Miss.), did as well.
Childers, who faces a tough reelection race against Republican Alan Nunnelee, got an A-plus rating from the NRA in June, plus an endorsement.