Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Could the NRA's Lockdown on Non-Gun Issues Come to Tennessee?

Posted By on Wed, Jul 25, 2012 at 6:09 PM

Since El Jefe has offered a glass half-full for progressives hoping for the political resurrection of gun control, it falls to me to serve one half-empty.

Woods hypothesizes that, if House Republican Caucus Chair Debra Maggart is successful in fending off Courtney Rogers and, more importantly, a financial blitz from the National Rifle Association, that Democrats might actually get their political balls back on gun control.

I tend to agree. If elections in Tennessee and elsewhere start to expose the NRA as an overrated political power, then it would seem that politicians, on both sides, could start to break free of the Stockholm syndrome.

As Woods notes, a piece in today's Washington Post asks whether the NRA is overrated and identifies the Maggart-Rogers race as one in which the question is being tested:

The fact remains that gun control legislation is going nowhere. But on the state level, some Republicans are testing the NRA’s power.

GOP leaders in the Tennessee legislature refused to move a bill to prevent businesses from banning guns on their property. A similar bill died in Alabama, and Georgia has resisted changes the NRA wants. Legislation to allow guns in bars in North Carolina is also stalled.

The NRA has put $75,000 behind a primary challenger to Tennessee state Rep. Debra Maggart (R) — more than the group has spent on many U.S. House races. State races are less expensive and less predictable than national ones. But the Aug. 2 result might give some hint of whether the group’s bite is as bad as its bark.

But as the Post piece acknowledges, the bark has been enough to keep lawmakers in D.C. cowering in their offices. From GQ yesterday:

It's pretty simple, actually: the NRA employs a rating system based on each member's voting history. Here's how it works. Before most votes having anything to do with gun rights, and even some that actually don't, the NRA will announce that they will be "scoring" the vote, meaning that they will take this vote into account when assembling a letter grade to assign to each candidate. (Some sample grades are here.) In part because House members have to run for reelection every two years, the NRA grades have become a vital part of how candidates portray themselves to voters—and conservative and swing-district members will do everything they can to keep a good rating.

I asked a Democratic legislative staffer for a first-person description of the NRA's power on the Hill. Here's the response I got, on the condition that I not provide any further identifying information. It's pretty breathtaking.

"We do absolutely anything they ask and we NEVER cross them—which includes asking permission to cosponsor any bills endorsed by the Humane Society (the answer is usually no) and complying with their demand to oppose the DISCLOSE Act, neither of which have anything to do with guns. They've completely shut down the debate over gun control. It's really incredible. I'm not sure when we decided that a Democrat in a marginal district who loses his A rating from the NRA automatically loses reelection. Because it's not like we do everything other partisan organizations like the Chamber [of Commerce] or NAM [National Association of Manufacturers] tell us to...

Pandering to the NRA is the probably worst part of my job. I can justify the rest of it—not just to keep the seat, but because I believe most of the positions he takes are consistent with what his constituents want. But sucking up to the NRA when something like Colorado happens is hard to stomach."

Effectively, the point is probably moot here. Our state is one of the most gun-friendly in the nation, and that doesn't seem likely to change, with or without the NRA's involvement. If you don't believe that, consider the fact that this dust-up has not come after an effort to restrict the sale or ownership of guns in this state, but rather a decision to spend more time thinking about whether to expand, yet again, the list of places you can take your gun.

The NRA is not seeking to punish Tennessee Republicans because they fear for the health of the Second Amendment in this state. When they say so, they're being disingenuous. The GOP's sin here was breaking the lockstep.

And so, Maggart vs. Rogers as a test case cuts both ways. If Maggart wins, the idea of a politician questioning, say, the wisdom of allowing the legal purchase of a semiautomatic rifle and 6,000 rounds of ammunition might again be conceivable. But if Rogers wins, the NRA will have successfully proven its ability — at least in this state — to punish high ranking legislators for stepping out of line.

Staffers on the Hill, from both parties, tell me they haven't seen the NRA exert political pressure in areas unrelated to guns, at the state level. But if their bite proves as bad as their bark, what's to stop them from trying?

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