NRA has Pryor's back — for now

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is coming to Sen. Mark Pryor's (D-Ark.) aid against attacks on his gun record — but it's making no promises about next year, when Pryor is likely to face a tough reelection fight.

The powerful group is airing radio ads thanking Pryor for his vote against background check legislation, a response to recent attack ads against Pryor from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's (I) Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

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But they won't say whether they plan to back Pryor in 2014.

"We're not going to start talking about future elections until they're here. There are a lot more votes down the road as well," NRA spokeswoman Alexa Fritts told The Hill on Thursday. "We're very appreciative right now for the vote and want his constituents to know that he supported the Second Amendment on this vote, and that means a lot to us."

Pryor's vote against the bipartisan background check legislation pushed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) triggered the ire of gun control supporters, and Bloomberg has spent more than $300,000 attacking Pryor for the vote. The NRA is spending a smaller sum at this point — $50,000 on two weeks of radio ads — but their move is a signal they'll come to the defense of Bloomberg's targets.

"It's about both," Fritts said when asked whether the ads are aimed at defending Pryor or confronting Bloomberg.

But she was more willing to talk about Bloomberg's actions than Pryor's past record.

"He and others who voted with us and the Second Amendment have been facing a lot of heat from Bloomberg and other groups, and we think that's wrong," she said. "Pryor listened to his constituents instead of bowing down to pressure from Mayor Bloomberg and out-of-state interests."

Their current praise of Pryor doesn't mean they'll back him in the future, however. The senator's record on gun issues has varied somewhat over the years — and he's had a hot-and-cold relationship with the group. The NRA ran newspaper ads in Arkansas as recently as February warning him not to vote in favor of any new gun legislation, and his lifetime score with the group is a "C-," partly due to his 2004 vote to extend an assault weapon ban.

The NRA has in the past gone out of its way to back pro-gun Democrats so they have allies and advocates in both parties: Their 2010 endorsement of then-Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) despite her opponent's own opposition to new gun control legislation is just one example where they sought to bridge the aisle.

Fritts points out that the group rarely makes general election endorsements before the fall of election years.

It will be interesting to see whether the group chooses to back a Democrat who's sometimes on board with them or a Republican they might be able to rely on more regularly. Pryor's most likely opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), has an "A" rating from the group.

Even if he can't get the NRA's future support, Pryor seems to have done himself some good with the vote by putting separation between himself and other national Democrats in the heavily conservative rural state, which has a high percentage of gun owners. An NRA endorsement would likely be a boost for the Democrat. But just keeping the group neutral in the election could be a win for Pryor.