Virginia Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who is running for attorney general, received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association Thursday, a rare show of support from the gun-rights organization for a Democrat seeking statewide office.
The group cited Deeds's sponsorship of a state constitutional amendment in 2000 that guaranteed the right to hunt and fish in Virginia, as well as his opposition to the state's one-handgun-a-month law. The group has expressed concern in the past that Deeds's opponent, Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach) opposed the constitutional amendment and supported the 1993 gun control measure.
"During your 14 years as both a delegate and senator in the Virginia General Assembly, you have proven to be an advocate for law-abiding firearm owners, sportsmen, and hunters," Randy Kozuch, director of state and local affairs for the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, wrote in a letter to Deeds released by the group.
In a state where about a quarter of the electorate comes from rural areas, receiving the NRA endorsement is a political coup. The group has 90,000 members in Virginia, many of them in the state's Shenandoah, southwest and Southside regions, and some in suburban areas as well. Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, west of Charlottesville, represents a hunting area in the foothills of the Shenandoah and Allegheny mountains.
The NRA has endorsed nine Republicans and one Democrat in Virginia's statewide elections since 1989, according to the organization.
Political observers said that because McDonnell is considered a conservative on the death penalty and abortion, Deeds's endorsement helps him court a key swing vote in a state where Second Amendment rights are highly valued.
"It's rare for the NRA to step out for a Democrat running against a conservative Republican," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He said the NRA, like many interest groups, is probably trying to diversify its endorsements so as not to be seen favoring one party too readily.
"They want to endorse some Democrats because you never can tell when the minority party is going to take over Congress or the state legislature or the governorship," Sabato said. "They want to have a voice like any other interest group."
A spokesman for the organization played down Deeds's party affiliation, saying that no matter the political stripe, the group looks for allies on issues important to sportsmen and hunters.
"The NRA looks for the best candidate to represent our members and our interests," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "In this particular case we think the better candidate happens to be a Democrat."
"This is a reflection of my record in the General Assembly," Deeds said in a statement. "I've always supported the Second Amendment and as attorney general I will continue to do so."
Republicans leapt to McDonnell's defense, rebutting the NRA's stance and citing McDonnell's longtime support for gun owners. They pointed out that McDonnell has received an A-minus rating from the NRA four years in a row. His last grade from the NRA was a B-plus.
"It's very disappointing," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). Referring to the NRA, he said: "No group wants to be seen as an automatic lock for any of the major political parties. . . . I think that's what's going on."
The news of the NRA endorsement came as McDonnell picked up a pair of endorsements of his own, from the state's Fraternal Order of Police -- a group of about 8,000 -- and the Virginia Police Benevolent Association. He said Thursday that these were significant examples of support from Virginia law enforcement.
"These are the most important endorsements that a candidate can have," McDonnell said. "I think they show that I've received the support from the law and order community."