The National Rifle Association plans to spend about $40 million on this year’s campaign, with $15 million of that devoted to portraying Barack Obama as a threat to the Second Amendment rights upheld last week by the Supreme Court.
“Our members understand that if Barack Obama is elected president, and he has support in the Senate to confirm anti-gun Supreme Court nominees, [the District of Columbia v. Heller decision] could be taken away from us in the future,” Chris Cox, head of the NRA’s political arm, told Politico.
The politically powerful gun rights group will split its message efforts between communicating with its 4 million members and the tens of millions more firearms owners across the country.
This fall, NRA members will get automated phone calls, mail pieces and pre-election editions of the group’s three magazines making the case against Obama. More broadly, the group will use an independent expenditure effort to hammer the Democratic nominee via TV, radio and newspaper ads in some of about 15 battleground states in the Midwest and Mountain West.
“We look forward to showing him ‘bitter,’” Cox said, referring to Obama’s statement this spring that some in rural America “cling” to guns and religion out of bitterness.
Since 2000, Democrats have made a conscious decision to avoid alienating gun owners and Second Amendment enthusiasts, as many in the party believe a NRA-stoked backlash cost Al Gore his home state of Tennessee , as well as West Virginia and Arkansas, in the 2000 presidential election. In the days leading up to Election Day four years ago, Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) even went so far as to symbolically court gun owners, donning camouflage and hoisting a 12-gauge in what turned out to be a goose hunt in more ways than one.
And Obama is now charting a similar course, never raising the gun issue on the stump except, when asked, to say that he respects Second Amendment rights. Indeed, the day Heller came down, he issued a carefully worded statement that indicated neither support nor opposition to the decision but clarity on a broader point meant to assure gun owners that he’s not a threat. McCain voiced enthusiastic support for the Heller decision.
“Sen. Obama has always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms and will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners, hunters and sportsmen as president,” said spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Sen. Obama also believes that we can work together to enact common-sense laws, like closing the gun show loophole and improving our background check system, so that guns do not fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals.”
One pro-gun Democrat in the House said the decision would actually help Obama by clarifying that gun ownership is an individual right and further dissuading Democrats from pursuing what has proved to be a political loser at the national level.
“It’s a nonissue,” said Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who represents a blue-collar Youngstown, Ohio-area district and has won the backing of the NRA. “Democrats have learned a lesson to not campaign on it.” And, he said, “the reality is that there is not going to be any gun legislation to get through Congress.”
But Cox said the 5-4 decision had galvanized sportsmen and Second Amendment enthusiasts and would thrust the issue back into the political arena.“This is the first salvo in a step-by-step restoration of this right,” Cox said calling Heller “only the end of the beginning.”
And the next step in that cause could be a politically awkward one for Obama.
The NRA filed suit on Friday to overturn handgun laws in Chicago, Obama’s hometown, and three Windy City suburbs
“You put a microphone to his face and ak: ‘Do you support the Chicago gun control laws?’” said Grover Norquist, an NRA board member, envisioning how to prolong the story and make the Illinois senator squirm.
It’s a quandary that the NRA and the McCain campaign hope will haunt Obama in battleground states with a deep attachment to the hunting culture that crosses party lines.
“We’ve probably still got 800,000 going afield opening day of deer season,” said Mike Bouchard, a former Michigan state Senate leader and gun rights advocate in a state where some schools on the Upper Peninsula still close on the first day of deer season. “And we’re very suspicious of people that pretend to be supportive of Second Amendment rights and hunting.”
“We can create a wedge in unions by highlighting his anti-gun background,” Paul Erhardt, a GOP strategist who works closely with members of the gun rights community, said of Obama.
While the gun culture is typically associated with the South, it’s actually the industrial Midwest where hunting is most popular.
Pennsylvania has the most NRA members per capita of any state, and, after Texas, the next four states that sell the most hunting-related goods are Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
And while Bill Clinton, Gore and Kerry could all handle a gun and had been hunting many times over the years, Obama has never hunted in his life and is the furthest thing from an outdoorsman.
Yet, as with so many issues on which Obama is vulnerable, McCain isn’t exactly a perfect alternative.
Aside from not being a hunter, he earned the enmity of some in the gun rights movement for his advocacy of campaign finance reform and background checks at gun shows.
“I don’t think they help the Republican Party at all, but I don’t think they should in any way play a major role in the Republican Party’s policy making,” McCain told CNN in 2000.
Reminded of the NRA’s past clashes with McCain, Cox acknowledged the “disagreements” but quickly cited the other option.
“Our members understand how bad Barack Obama is on the Second Amendment,” Cox said, noting that McCain had signed the amicus brief in support of Heller while Obama had not.
Still, the NRA hasn’t yet endorsed McCain and hasn’t even decided if it will make an endorsement in the race.
In the nation’s heartland, Democrats argue that the decision will not be a transcendent issue in the race.
Ryan said his Reagan Democrat constituents, most of whom backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the primary, were open to Obama and that the key was to reassure them on cultural issues before shifting to safe terrain.
“It’s guys like [Gov.] Ted Strickland and Tim Ryan saying, ‘He’s cool; he’s all right; he’s not going to do anything on guns or abortion that you don’t like,’” said Ryan, who is also against abortion rights. “And he is with us rock-solid on economic issues, education and health care.”
But if Cox and the NRA have anything to do with it, some of those traditional moderates will be stuck on “bitter” and Obama’s past support for strict gun-control measures.
“Apparently, he thinks gun owners are either fools or have short memories,” Cox said. “I can assure him he’s wrong on both.”