For decades, the National Rifle Association and its allies in the gun lobby have held sway in electoral politics, using clout and campaign cash to keep a tight rein on candidates. It’s been a one-sided affair, and gun proponents ruled the roost.
That is, until Sandy Hook reshaped the picture. Given the opportunity to be an honest partner in search of solutions to the gun violence epidemic, the NRA and its allies instead dug in their heels. Their obstruction was so absolute they even opposed a tepid, watered-down and nearly irrelevant expansion of the background checks system.
Senators like New Hampshire’s Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteLewandowski saw no evidence of voter fraud in New Hampshire NH governor 'not aware’ of major voter fraud Former NH AG: 'Allegations of voter fraud in NH are baseless' MORE, Arkansas’s Mark PryorMark PryorCotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Top Democrats are no advocates for DC statehood MORE and Arizona’s Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeDem super PAC ads pressure GOP senators to back independent Russia probe Week ahead: Net neutrality supporters rally on rule's second anniversary FCC's GOP chairman blocks Internet privacy rule MORE have seen their poll numbers plummet.
But most sensible gun safety measures shy of outright gun bans have always enjoyed considerable popular support. The difference today is that the NRA finally has credible opposition. Look at New Hampshire, for example: After weeks of brutal press, the gun lobby mobilized in support of Ayotte with a $25,000 NRA campaign defending her, claiming, “Safety. Security. Family. No one understands these things like a mom.” Ayotte had stuck to their hard line, so it was natural they would have her back.
But the gun debate is no longer one-sided. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns responded with a massive $650,000 barrage of its own, making a joke of the NRA’s pitiful contribution. In their ad, the mayors group noted that “89 percent of New Hampshire residents support comprehensive background checks, but Ayotte votes no. A conservative pro-gun Democrat and a Republican come out with a tough-on-crime background check bill ... but Ayotte votes no.”
Outgunned, the NRA was forced to call in reinforcements, and the conservative super-PAC American Future Fund is spending $550,000 to prop Ayotte up, coming close to matching Bloomberg’s money. Without that outside cash, the NRA was helpless. The gun lobby can no longer carry its own weight.
Times have changed: the one-sided battle is over. Elected officials must now weigh the cost of their gun-related votes, and Bloomberg’s Mayors group, his super-PAC Independence USA, and former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s Americans for Responsible Solutions are making clear the cost will be high.
Ironically, the NRA’s electoral efforts had already been proving anemic. According to the Sunlight Foundation, of the $11 million the group spent on behalf of candidates in the 2012 election cycle, less than 1 percent actually went to winning races. And like other issues in the conservative movement, social trends are fast moving in the wrong direction for the organization. While 50 percent of American households owned guns in the 1970s, just 34 percent do so today, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. Also, while 40 percent hunted in 1977, just 25 percent of men do so today.
The NRA is a paper tiger rushing headfirst into the American fringe. Its evolution from advocacy group for hunters to Alex-Jones-style conspiracy mongering is complete. Its money is ineffective and its issues unpopular. It can no longer fight its own battles.
As always, elected officials have a choice between siding with their constituents or siding with the gun lobby. But unlike the past, wayward politicians will now face serious repercussions for siding against popular opinion, common sense and the safety of their constituents.
Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.