Last October, popular West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was fast becoming an unpopular Democrat candidate for the late Robert Byrd’s open U.S. Senate seat.
So Manchin did what many red-blooded Americans would when backed against a wall: He pulled a gun — literally — in a TV ad responding to plunging polls and stinging criticism that he would be President Obama’s rubber stamp in Washington.
Wearing jeans and a khaki jacket, banjo plunking in the background, Manchin said he would take aim at the cap-and-trade bill in the Senate — then fired a shot through a copy of the legislation.
"It was the best ad in the entire cycle," said Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle
Association executive vice president.
The NRA endorsed Manchin. He stopped dropping in the polls. And using the ad’s theme of keeping Washington off voters’ backs, he won the seat.
He was the rare Democrat who understood the 2010 midterm elections’ winning message — protecting freedom and distrusting too much government.
It’s no accident that the NRA chose Pittsburgh for its 2011 national convention.
"Most of our membership is within driving distance," LaPierre explained.
NRA members from driving-distance New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey voted en masse for GOP House candidates last year.
Yet a certain mythology surrounds NRA members. They are not necessarily
dyed-in-the-wool Republicans; many are fickle, centrist independents or rural
Democrats who don’t always vote single issues, such as gun rights, but fiercely
protect all freedoms — which made Republicans appealing in last year’s midterms.
LaPierre said a lot of NRA members also belong to labor unions.
The NRA brilliantly frames the gun-rights issue, according to Mark Rozell, George Mason University political science professor.
"Consider the message of the ‘Vote Freedom First’ slogan: You may be a working-class union member who identifies with the Democrats, but your freedoms and rights come first," he said.
The NRA has moved a lot of Democrat-leaning voters, even some elected Democrats — specially in the South and Midwest — to break with their national party on gun control.
Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman,
said those rural voters — Democrats, Republicans or independents — generally
Dean received eight consecutive NRA endorsements while in office. "It’s not so much a Democrat-vs.-Republican thing … as a rural-vs.-urban thing," he said. "I received the endorsement because I believed and supported the fundamental right to own a gun."
Veteran Democrat media consultant John Lapp said some candidates’ use of NRA
endorsements seems natural, while others’ is just plain awkward: "The ones who are successful are the ones who are part of the culture. Voters understand the
difference between authenticity and a scene prop."
The NRA convention in the backyard of Democrat U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. ends today, just as his first re-election campaign ramps up for 2012. He won in 2006 with support from conservative, rural Democrats; he didn’t have the NRA’s endorsement but its members gave him an "A" rating.
Casey said he has a lifelong respect for Pennsylvania’s tradition of gun ownership and the underlying protection of all freedoms that go with it, although he has never owned a gun.
"Fishing was our family’s tradition," he said. "Although I did go skeet shooting
once, I will be the first to admit I wasn’t very good at it."
Democrats’ bigger problem among Second Amendment voters is the Obama
administration’s elitist approach. Ever since Pennsylvania Democrats’ primary race between then-incumbent U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and then-U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, Obama’s disconnect with people who work with their hands — and, as he put it, cling to guns and religion — has been obvious.
Such a disconnect at the top has a powerful effect down any election’s ticket.
Plenty of pro-gun Democrats can survive Obama’s elitism — but must take great care to make sure voters know how they’re different.
That may be why former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine appeared to borrow from Manchin’s
locked-and-loaded playbook for a video announcing his own U.S. Senate run.