A lot of gun owners are conservatives, and a lot of conservatives are gun owners — but the interests of the two don’t always line up perfectly. On Friday, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action endorsed Republican senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Senate candidate John Boozman of Arkansas, gubernatorial candidates Bill Brady of Illinois and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Rep. John Kline of Minnesota. They also endorsed an endangered Democratic House member in Ohio, Zack Space, and a somewhat less endangered Democrat, Tim Walz of Minnesota.
Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, talked to National Review Online about the group’s approach to endorsements and how the organization ended up backing some figures who are not so popular with grassroots conservatives.
JIM GERAGHTY: For gun owners, the past two years in Congress haven’t been that bad, with almost no bad legislation passed and even a couple of pieces of pro-gun legislation signed into law by President Obama. But more broadly for conservatives, this Congress has been a long national nightmare of health care, runaway spending and debt, etc. Is it more of a challenge for the NRA to approach endorsements with a single-issue perspective when for so many full-spectrum conservatives, it’s been awful?
CHRIS COX: One of the primary reasons that the National Rifle Association and gun owners continue to have success at the federal, state, and local levels is because we’re a single-issue organization. We have our longtime election slogan of “Vote Freedom First,” which obviously means we’re hopeful that our members and gun owners put Second Amendment issues at the forefront when they make those decisions. Those decisions have allowed us to build a bipartisan majority now that has proven to be not only beneficial but, I would argue, invaluable to protecting and promoting the Second Amendment.
The political reality is that we have President Obama, who had at one point 60 Democratic votes in the Senate and a 39-vote margin in the House. If it weren’t for our pro-gun Democrats, we would be having a very different conversation. To not only have no bad legislation pass, we’ve gained ground despite those very real and very challenging numbers, [which] probably makes us one of the few right-of-center groups to have victories during this period.
JIM GERAGHTY: Take us through what went into the decision to not endorse in the Nevada Senate race.
CHRIS COX: We are a non-partisan organization, and we don’t base any grade or any endorsement on a party affiliation. That’s how we have continued to succeed, by solely considering how a candidate stands on the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms. We send out candidate questionnaires to every candidate, and we look at public statements and the things they say in debates. We focus solely on the right to keep and bear arms, because that’s our issue. Now, there are a lot of other issues that voters have to address, particularly in a year like this; they’re looking at fiscal issues, they’re looking at the health-care issue.
We encourage our members to put it in the forefront of their decision-making, and that’s proven to be a very effective, a very fair, and credible way for NRA to be positioned to help the rights of our members.
Sometimes it can get a little more difficult from a political standpoint because we have a very incumbent-friendly policy. Our commitment is applied regardless of party, whether it’s Congress or the state legislature. It’s important for us to stand with those who stood with us.
Senator Reid has been very helpful on some longstanding, important issues. But President Obama made two Supreme Court picks who are anti–Second Amendment, and the two recent victories for gun owners at the Supreme Court were 5–4 decisions. So it is critical that we have Supreme Court justices that respect the Second Amendment. We were very disappointed not only with Obama’s picks, but with the lawmakers who voted to confirm them. We said at the time those votes would be important to gun owners and would be considered when making these decisions.
We do not take non–Second Amendment related issues into account. I may feel very strongly about health care, taxes, but that isn’t what I’m supposed to bring to this decision. But most of these decisions are pretty easy when you apply the longstanding policies that we have in place.
JIM GERAGHTY: How about the Florida Senate race? I know that, as governor, Charlie Crist has done a lot that you guys have wanted to see, and I know your state chair has expressed a complaint about Marco Rubio once or twice. On the other hand, Charlie Crist is not in the party he used to be, and he seems to be changing a lot of his views. What do you do when a longtime ally suddenly begins behaving, dare I say, erratically?
CHRIS COX: It’s a very interesting year. We have a pro-incumbent policy, but neither Charlie Crist nor Marco Rubio is an incumbent. If you look at these issues, Charlie Crist as governor has been very supportive of the NRA and our issues, but not perfect. Marco Rubio has been very supportive of gun owners and the National Rifle Association, but not perfect. Kendrick Meek has a proven record of not being helpful, so that part of the decision is easy. But political affiliation plays no role in our endorsement decision.
The NRA has not announced an endorsement in this race.
[JIM GERAGHTY: I spent several minutes trying to pry a hint of their preference out of him; Cox stuck to saying that no endorsement has been announced. If I had to bet, I would bet that they will not endorse, but that’s simply a hunch based on the fact that they haven’t endorsed yet and that, for all of his flip-flops, Crist has (at least so far) not given the NRA a good excuse to throw their weight behind the likely winner Rubio. If the governor hedges on this issue, I suspect the NRA will loudly endorse the GOP nominee.]
JIM GERAGHTY: In Ohio, you endorsed the current governor, Democrat Ted Strickland. You guys can read polls, and it seems clear that Republican John Kasich is favored in that race. How much of that decision was Strickland being good on that issue and how much was John Kasich’s 1994 vote for the assault-weapons ban? Kasich says he regrets the vote, insists he is resolutely pro-gun now. How long do you guys hold a bad vote against a lawmaker?
CHRIS COX: With regard to the Ohio governor’s race, that’s a reflection of our incumbent-friendly policy. Based on his strong, consistent Second Amendment support, Governor Strickland would have received our endorsement regardless of who ran against him.
I don’t want to disparage John Kasich. When you have a lawmaker who has made votes in the past, and who’s changed, we’re appreciative of that change, but we’re not in a position where we have the luxury of ignoring major votes in the past. Would we work with him if he wins? Of course.
JIM GERAGHTY: Have any of your endorsements caused any significant fallout or tension with your members?
CHRIS COX: It is important for us to stand by our friends who stood by us. This is often the hardest policy for people to understand, especially in a year like this, when the prevailing mood is, “Throw them all out.” I get that, I understand that. We hear from people who aren’t happy with some of the endorsements we’ve made. But we also have to understand the political reality. If we turn our back on the politicians who stood with us, there’s no incentive for other politicians to stand with us when we’re fighting the gun-control lobby or attacks from the national news media. It’s important to keep perspective. We put a lot of time, effort, and research into this, working through all these candidate questionnaires and interviewing candidates in many of these cases. We try to give our members and gun owners a clear choice. Sometimes the choices aren’t as clear.
JIM GERAGHTY: The tea parties, supporters of limited government and staunch defenders of Constitutional rights, seem like a very pro–Second Amendment crowd. But because they’re motivated by many issues beyond gun rights, they may not be as enamored with the pro-gun Democrats you endorse. Is there any tension with the tea-party movement?
CHRIS COX: What you’re seeing is an explosion of political activism based on concerns about liberty, and I think it’s fantastic. I’d like to see it every two years, when we’re urging gun owners go to the polls and “Vote Freedom First.” That excitement turns into a motivated voter base, and that’s great for democracy. The tea party proudly supports freedom, and all of the ones I’ve talked to support the Second Amendment.
It’s worth remembering this year that a lot of races in this election cycle will be ones where we have clear differences and clear choices: Roy Blunt against Robin Carnahan in Missouri, Rob Portman against Lee Fisher in Ohio, Dino Rossi against Patty Murray in Washington, Pat Toomey versus Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania. There are races all over this country where gun owners have a clear choice.
There are a lot of Democrats who are going to lose, we all know that, but not one is going to lose because of their stance on the Second Amendment. And when pro-gun Democrats are going down to defeat, they’re going to be replaced by pro–Second Amendment Republicans, and we support politicians who support the Second Amendment regardless of party.
The Second Amendment has to be protected and promoted, no matter which party is in power and no matter which way the political winds blow. Other groups try to defend their interests in a more partisan manner, and that tends to bring mixed success.
We are involved in close to 7,000 races in every election cycle. This means we have a lot of decisions that are easy, and a lot of decisions that are more difficult: two friends running against each other, two enemies running against each other, and two who are mixed against each other.
In some years, there is a problem with motivation. Certainly this year, there is no problem with motivation. Gun owners are fully engaged and ready to make a difference. We think it’s going to be a good night for freedom and a good night for the Second Amendment.
– Jim Geraghty blogs at the Campaign Spot.