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First-term Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte is defending her New Hampshire seat in a race in which gun policy provides one of the sharpest distinctions between the candidates

Election 2016

These Charts Show Why the NRA Will Be Playing Defense in 2016’s Tightest Congressional Races

For the gun group, more legislative allies than foes face highly competitive reelection fights.

It’s yet to attract the attention of Hillary Clinton’s ad buys, much less Jeb Bush’s tweet. But issues of gun violence and gun rights look poised to drive another storyline during the 2016 election cycle: An unusually high number of the National Rifle Association’s allies in Congress face stiff reelection fights this year.

Across both houses of Congress, 24 incumbents find themselves in competitive contests, according to the Cook Political Report’s most recent analysis. Of those, 18 were rated at least an A- by the NRA during their last election.

Most of the NRA-blessed lawmakers are up for reelection for the first time. Four of the five senators with A ratings were originally elected in 2010, for instance, when a right-wing backlash against Obama set Democrats on the path to the minority in the Senate and wiped out the party’s majority in the House. Those Republicans start the year with the advantages of incumbency — as well as the challenges imposed by a presidential electorate, whose demographics tend to favor Democrats. In races potentially decided by a few thousand (or hundred) votes, that sets up a test of the NRA’s reputation for invincibility.

The job of protecting the NRA’s favored officeholders falls to the group’s Political Victory Fund (PVF), for which the electoral math has shifted significantly. Compared to its standing in the past two federal elections, the PVF is now a distinctly partisan organization. As recently as 2012 and 2014 there were at least six Democrats up for re-election who had stayed in the group’s good graces, and five of them received the NRA’s endorsement. This time around, all of the A-rated incumbents facing serious challenges this year belong to the GOP.  

The 2014 election was the first one following the demise of the Manchin-Toomey background check bill, a piece of legislation that enjoyed overwhelming popular support but which died in the Senate once the gun lobby decided to oppose the measure. For the NRA, it meant a chance to reinforce the narrative that politicians who cross the NRA do so at their peril. (Pat Toomey’s own NRA rating, like those of other Senate candidates this cycle, is from 2010, and the A grade that the Pennsylvania Republican still scores is reflective of the fact that the gun lobby has not yet updated its evaluations for 2016.) 

In 2014, only 10 out of 34 of the vulnerable incumbents in the Senate and House claimed A ratings, compared to 19 with either Cs, Ds or Fs. When the ballots were tallied, however, there was no clear verdict for the NRA: four of the 10 A-rated incumbents prevailed, and so did nine of 19 low-rated officeholders did. Those on the wrong side of the NRA had a slightly better batting average — but fewer of NRA allies had to fight competitive opponents.

In 2016, the NRA’s campaign map shows more allies than opponents in possible jeopardy — and since those allies today include only Republicans, Democratic strategists feel emboldened to go on offense with the issue. What will that mean for the long-held notion that the NRA delivers security to those lawmakers who pledge fealty? 

One place to look for answers is New Hampshire, where first-term Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte is being challenged by Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan in what the Washington Post called “one of the marquee Senate races of 2016.” It’s the sort of evenly matched race in which the NRA’s support and influence can be expected to make the difference: The few early polls show Ayotte with a lead just outside the margin of error, and both candidates are fundraising at the same pace, bringing in $2 million each during the last quarter of 2015. Both are also popular, and have been figures in New Hampshire’s political scene for similar lengths of time. And guns are one of the issues where these two Granite State politicians most clearly differ: Ayotte has an A rating from the NRA, while Hassan has a D. Ayotte voted against 2013’s Manchin-Toomey background check bill. Hassan vetoed a permitless concealed carry bill this past July.

According to Politico, it’s Democrats who see an edge with the gun issue. In a preview of the race written in late January, Politico reported that Democrats backing Hassan plan to hit Ayotte on her NRA-friendly voting record. Hassan and her team believe it belies Ayotte’s reputation as a more centrist Republican — in the mold of neighboring Maine’s Senator Susan Collins — who is well-matched to New Hampshire’s temperament and capable of breaking with ideological interest groups.

Of course, given that the state’s traditional centrism is increasingly matched with an ascendant libertarianism, the issue could cut the other way. But gun rights aren’t mentioned on the Ayotte campaign’s list of priorities. Strikingly, she has not embraced typical NRA tactics, declining to characterize Hassan as a gun-grabber. At least so far, in this one purple state, associating with the NRA appears to be shaking out more as a political liability than an asset.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]