When you call the National Rifle Association’s toll-free member hotline, this is what you’re greeted with: “To hear NRA’s statement about rumors regarding Sen. Harry Reid, please press one now.” Ever since the idea that the powerful Second Amendment advocacy group might endorse the Democratic Senate majority leader began making the rounds of conservative blogs last month, the NRA has been fielding scores of irate calls and e-mails.
The NRA hasn’t endorsed Reid. But it might. Another statement that is the top item posted on the website of the group’s political arm points out that, “the NRA is a single-issue organization”—that is, not concerned with conservatives’ other priorities—and defends Reid’s record on guns at length.
A Reid endorsement would surely inspire a mutiny in the NRA’s grassroots ranks. But short of that, the group could simply ignore the Nevada Senate race. Another powerful group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has similarly signaled that it “may sit out” Reid’s race, as Politico reported recently.
The NRA and the Chamber may be the two most influential conservative lobbying organizations in Washington, and each is planning to spend tens of millions of dollars assisting political campaigns—mostly Republican ones— across the country this fall.
It is not by accident that the NRA and the Chamber are less than hostile to Reid. The story of how he has assiduously courted them testifies to Reid’s formidable gamesmanship.
Reid’s campaign portrays his advocacy for gun rights as a lifelong sympathy. But the NRA points out that in the 1990s, Reid “had some problematic votes on our issue.” Almost all of the anti-gun votes cited by angry NRA members date to this time. It’s only recently—since his last re-election, in fact—that Reid has turned things around. “In the last five years, he has dramatically improved his record,” the NRA says, “both by voting for pro-gun measures and preventing anti-gun legislation from reaching the Senate floor.”
Reid, the NRA notes, has opposed reinstating the assault-weapons ban. He shepherded to passage a bill that outlawed holding gun manufacturers and sellers liable for gun crimes. He voted to prohibit guns from being confiscated during a state of emergency, and to allow airline pilots to be armed. He co-sponsored a measure to do away with the Washington, D.C., gun ban, and voted to allow people to carry weapons in national parks and in their Amtrak luggage.
But Reid has done more than just take the NRA’s side. He secured $61 million for a 2,900-acre public shooting range in Clark County that opened this year; the NRA’s top gun, Wayne LaPierre, attended the ribbon-cutting. An NRA spokesman told Fox News the gun range would “be taken into consideration” as the group looked at Reid’s record.
The Chamber of Commerce, a business coalition that spends more on lobbying than any other group in Washington, bitterly opposes the health-care legislation Reid helped pass this year and the climate change bill he’s still working to pass. Reid also supports the “card check” legislation backed by labor unions that is the Chamber’s bête noire. And yet last month, at the same time the notion that the Chamber might not oppose Reid was being floated, Chamber President Thomas Donohue was named as one of the headliners at the Energy Summit that Reid is hosting in September, the third annual installment of the Las Vegas confab that has previously featured Bill Clinton and Al Gore as speakers.
With both the NRA and the Chamber, Reid has held out a carrot, but he’s also wielded a stick. That’s the threat of a future in which he has lost, but Democrats still hold the Senate majority. In that case, the majority leader would likely be Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, or Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois. Both are regarded as far more liberal and ideological than Reid, whom the conservative groups feel they can deal with.
“Harry [Reid] has put a lot of effort into building a relationship with Tom Donohue,” says a Capitol Hill source with knowledge of the relationship. The two talk on the phone almost every week, the source says. “The Chamber’s attitude is realistic. Republicans are not going to take over the Senate, and they see Schumer and Durbin as a much bigger threat.” Or at least that’s what Reid has managed to convince them.
Along the same lines, Reid has convinced many major donors, from the Strip to the industry lobbies of D.C., not to support any opponent of his, says Robert Uithoven, the Reno political consultant who managed Sue Lowden’s unsuccessful GOP primary campaign. “They hate the [Democratic] agenda, but they like that the Senate majority leader picks up the phone when they call,” Uithoven says.
As the election draws closer, Democrats in other states will have to contend with attack ads funded by the NRA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For Reid, who will need all the help he can get, their silence could be golden.