One of the ways that the National Rifle Association exerts influence over elected officials is by giving them letter-grade ratings on gun issues. It’s a shorthand for gun-rights voters in the way that the D or R next to a politician’s name is a shorthand for voters in general. If a candidate has an A grade, it’s a stamp of approval from the nation’s preeminent gun advocacy organization. An F grade is no less a badge of honor: Democrats given the NRA’s lowest rating often trumpet that fact when making campaign pitches to their base.
(Technically the grades aren’t from the NRA, but from the NRA’s Political Victory Fund, a PAC associated with the organization.)
There are a lot of factors that go into these grades, including that they can be used to twist arms of Republican politicians. Someone running in a strongly conservative area isn’t likely to be satisfied with an A-minus grade. Generally, though, the grades reflect the organization’s assessment of the politician’s loyalty to the NRA platform. Ranging from A-plus (the best score in the eyes of the NRA) through Aq (a score of A based solely on the NRA’s questionnaire and not a candidate’s voting record) down through D-minus and F, nearly every sitting member of Congress has been evaluated by the NRA-PVF.
But those ratings are often hard to find. Past years’ ratings are recorded on a section of the NRA-PVF’s site requiring a membership for access. On Thursday, The Washington Post was able to review the most recent letter grades for members of the U.S. Senate and compiled this breakdown of how all 100 of them scored.
Most members of the Democratic caucus have F grades, as you might expect. But nine of the 49 Democratic and independent senators have grades above F, including four — Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) — who have grades of A-minus or higher. Those senators represent four states that consistently vote Republican, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they’d have better NRA scores than their peers. All four were in the Senate when it considered compromise legislation on expanding background checks after the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, but only Heitkamp opposed the effort. (Manchin was a co-sponsor.)
The other five Democrats are interesting. Each represents a state won by Barack Obama in 2012, including both senators from New Mexico. Pennsylvania is a particularly weird case: Its Republican senator has a lower grade (evaluated in 2016) than its Democratic one (evaluated in 2012). That’s probably a function of Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) having been a co-sponsor of the 2013 background-check compromise.
Only two other Republicans have grades below an A: Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Both supported the Toomey-Manchin bill. But neither paid a political price for that support. Each was reelected after that vote.
Note the disparity here. Four Democrats have A-minus grades or higher; only three Republicans (of 51) are below that mark. Only two blue-state Republicans — Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) — have A ratings.
Whatever the cause (and it probably isn’t solely campaign contributions), the NRA has an institutional advantage in the Senate over its Democratic opponents. That helped kill reforms in 2013, and it’s a big reason why nothing else of significance has moved forward since.