NRA endorsement up for grabs in Montana's Senate race

The endorsement of a powerful gun-rights group is up for grabs in a key Senate race.

The National Rifle Association’s (NRA) decision on whether to endorse Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) or Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg (Mont.) could be the deciding factor in what is expected to be a close contest. Political analysts say that the winner of this election could determine which party will control the Senate in January of 2013.

Tester and Rehberg have strong gun rights voting records. The NRA gives Tester an A grade and Rehberg an A+.

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A Montana State University-Billings poll released earlier this month has both candidates tied at 36 percentage points, with about 25 percent undecided.

It is unclear which candidate NRA will back. The gun group did not comment for this article.

Last month, the NRA touted bills authored by Rehberg and Tester. It praised Rehberg’s leadership for sponsoring a bill requiring a court, rather than just the Department of Veterans Affairs, to declare a veteran mentally unfit to purchase a gun.

Ten days later, the NRA lauded Tester for his sponsorship of a bill to set aside money to make federal lands more accessible for hunting and other recreation.

David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University who is writing a book on the race, said interest groups tend to back the candidate from their preferred party if they think it has a chance to win the chamber.

That is good news for Rehberg because the NRA traditionally backs Republicans. "We saw that in 2010 with business groups where they saw the handwriting on the wall and switched to their preferred candidate," Parker said. "It is possible that interest groups like the NRA think that way."

Already sitting in the Senate with a pro-gun record could help Tester counter the possible national implications of the outcome of the race. "Tester has been very in line with the NRA's agenda," said Robert Saldin, a political scientist at the University of Montana. "They are probably in better shape in terms of their agenda if Republicans win back the Senate but I would still be surprised if they endorsed Rehberg."

Another gun group, the Gun Owners of America, has already endorsed Rehberg. John Velleco, the GOA’s director of federal affairs, said his group does not care which party wins the Senate "as long as they support the Second Amendment."

But do they think the current Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (Nev.), does?

"Do we like Harry Reid? No," Velleco said. "We opposed him in the last election and unfortunately we were not successful."

Reid does not meet GOA standards, largely based on his confirmation votes, most notably yes votes on Supreme Court Justices nominated by President Obama.

But Reid is widely seen as pro-gun. He has bucked the Obama administration by opposing a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban and even inserted a provision into healthcare reform ensuring that premiums are not higher for gun owners. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre called Reid "a true champion of the Second Amendment," in 2009.

However, Reid and Tester are western state outliers in a Democratic caucus that mostly favors gun control.

While Rehberg is well regarded by the NRA, a Montana hunters group has launched a new ad trying to put a dent in his armor.

The ad criticizes Rehberg’s support of H.R. 1505, a bill that would give the Department of Homeland Security more power to secure the border on federal lands. The ad features sportsmen blasting the bill, saying, “You know they could fence it off” and “restrict our access to public lands.”

The bill would authorize DHS to build fences, roads and operating bases on federal land. Rehberg inserted an amendment that explicitly prevents DHS from restricting “legal uses” of land, including hunting.

Asked if Rehberg’s support of the bill will hurt him with gun owners, Tester campaign spokesman Aaron Murphy told The Hill, “It already has.”

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“Congressman Rehberg still has explaining to do to Montana sportsmen, many of whom are outraged by this bill,” Murphy said. “If government agents wanted to fence off hunting lands or build roads through Montana’s best elk cover, this bill would allow it.”

“You have to be pro-gun in Montana," Parker, of Montana State University, said. “If the frame picks up that Rehberg is for big government, it could hurt him.”

The Rehberg campaign pointed out that the group that paid for the ad, the Montana Hunters and Anglers Action, has clear ties to the Democratic Party.

The group's president, Land Tawney, is on Tester’s sportsmen’s advisory panel. The group’s treasurer consulted for Tester’s 2006 campaign and two other officials have donated to Tester. According to Tawney, he and other sportsmen founded the group in early October specifically to pressure Rehberg.

“This hypocritical attack from some [President] Obama and Tester backers won’t hold much water with most Montanans,” said Rehberg campaign spokesman Brian Barrett. “Especially since Tester voted for a bill that's nearly identical to the one featured in the ad."

Tester did not object to a similar amendment when it passed the Senate with unanimous consent in 2009. The main difference is that the amendment did not waive environmental laws as Rehberg’s bill does.

For its part, the group pointed to its members’ conservation work and commitment to hunting as a source of legitimacy. “All of us have been out hunting this fall,” Tawney said. “It's not something that we view as a pastime. It's something that's a part of us.”

Democrats hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate; Republicans need four seats to grab control of the upper chamber (three if Obama loses).