Single issue organizations like the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood face a challenging dilemma when it comes to endorsing candidates who may give them the votes that they ask for but who represent a party that is generally opposed to their agenda. If the NRA never backs a Democrat or Planned Parenthood never backs a Republican then the success or failure of their agenda will be tied pretty strictly to partisan results of elections. Using this system, eventually these organizations will find their preferred party on the outs and they’ll be facing a power structure that was elected over their dedicated exertions and is correspondingly hostile.
A more effective strategy is to maintain support from both parties so that regardless of which party is in power you still have the power to block legislation that you don’t like. And these organizations do understand this, and they do buck their most ardent supporters from time to time by endorsing a candidate from the “wrong” party.
When they stop hedging their bets, analysts like Alec MacGinnis interpret it as a sign of weakness, and he may have a point.
Here he takes a look at four Democratic senators from red states who are up for reelection and how they voted on the Manchin-Toomey universal background amendment in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre:
That [Kay] Hagan [D-NC] is the only one of the four vulnerable Democrats mentioned above who is ahead in the polls is a further indication that crossing the NRA is hardly fatal. Meanwhile, the fact that [Mark] Pryor [D-AR] and [Mark] Begich [D-AK] are getting nothing in return from the NRA for their votes against Manchin-Toomey is yet another suggestion that the organization’s hold on American politics is loosening, or at least narrowing. One of the reasons the NRA held such sway for so long was that it commanded support from key Democratic elected officials such as John Dingell, the veteran congressman from Michigan, who could count on being rewarded for their votes with staunch NRA support, regardless of their party label. But many of those Democrats have been leaving the scene, either via retirement (like Dingell) or electoral defeat.
And now that the NRA has become so partisan in its calculations—backing Republicans even over Democrats who have sided with it on key votes—its grip on remaining Democrats will weaken further.
Along with Hagan, the other senator who MacGillis focuses on is Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who supported background checks and appears headed for at least a runoff in her reelection bid.
If recent polls are to be believed, voting for background checks certainly wasn’t fatal, and voting against them did nothing to appease the NRA or confer any kind of detectable political advantage.
Pryor and Begich might have expected some reward from the NRA, but the organization refrained from endorsing in Begich’s race and actually went all-in for Pryor’s opponent.
Assuming either or both Pryor and Begich are reelected, one has to wonder if they’ll care what the NRA wants in the future. They could be forgiven for holding a grudge and going out of their way to vote against the NRA in their next terms.
And that could be a problem if the Democrats win the presidency again in 2016 and, as expected, make a big comeback in the Senate in that election cycle.
But it isn’t as simple as saying that the NRA is making a major miscalculation. In this partisan environment, single issue groups appear to have more to gain by fighting for control of Congress rather than hedging their bets. For Planned Parenthood, it’s pretty clear that they’ll do better with a Democratically-controlled Senate than with a Republican one that has a small handful of pro-choice Republican senators who nonetheless confirm conservative justices.
It’s not easy to figure out the right strategy in this environment, and hedging bets turns off the donor base, too.