There's no doubt it was a rough Election Day for the National Rifle Association. The gun group spent millions of dollars supporting John McCain for President and trying to tarnish the image of Barack Obama -- with little to show for it, given that Obama won Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and other swing states where the NRA was most active.
But if you look further down ballot, there's even more evidence that one of the nation's most storied lobby groups is becoming all muzzle and no bullet. The NRA not only failed to elect John McCain and Sarah Palin to the White House, but also failed to defend many of its leading advocates in Congress who were facing tough reelection challenges. In addition, the NRA threw its weight behind several challengers and open seat candidates whose efforts fell short of the mark.
In a post-election, head-to-head analysis between federal candidates endorsed by the NRA and those endorsed by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, the puppy power clearly outshot the gun powder. The NRA had endorsed 278 federal candidates, and has won 240 of the 274 races that have been decided so far, with a success rate of 87.6 percent. HSLF had endorsed 313 federal candidates, so far winning 293 of 310 contests for a 94.5 percent win rate.
Both groups tend to endorse incumbents who have been allies on their issues in Congress, and the overall win rates are high because incumbents often don't face competitive races. In fact, as surprising as it may sound, 96 lawmakers were endorsed by both the NRA and HSLF. Many of them - -like Reps. John Campbell (R-Calif.), Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) -- recognize you can be for the right to bear arms and also for protecting animals from cruelty and abuse, and are often the bridge-builders who find a balancing of interests between diverse groups. Of this group, 89 candidates won, six lost, and one race is still too close to call -- NRA and HSLF both backed Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) who leads by 215 votes but is facing a recount -- for a win rate of 93.7 percent.
But the most important comparison, perhaps, lies in the 39 races where the NRA and HSLF went head-to-head and endorsed opposing candidates. Both groups generally throw their weight behind candidates who are viable, so these were all competitive contests, and some were decided by very narrow margins. Two of them are so close they have not been decided yet -- Mary Jo Kilroy against Steve Stivers in Ohio's 15th District, and Charlie Brown against Tom McClintock in California's 4th District. Of the 37 races that have been decided, HSLF won 28 and NRA won only nine -- meaning HSLF was the victor 75.7 percent of the time to the NRA's 24.3 percent. In three out of every four races, the HSLF candidate edged out the NRA candidate.
HSLF went five for five in the head-to-head Senate match-ups -- winning in what would typically be considered the strong NRA states of Colorado, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Oregon. On the House side, voters ousted NRA loyalists such as Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), Bill Sali (R-Idaho), and Tim Walberg (R-Mich.). The gun group fared just as poorly with its crop of challengers -- including Dean Andal (R-Calif.), Tim Bee (R-Ariz.), and Andy Harris (R-Md.) -- who misfired.
Some of the NRA's staunchest loyalists did hang on -- including Reps. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), and Don Young (R-Alaska). But the NRA's influence seems on the wane. Their hardcore ideology on gun rights and defense of extremely inhumane and unsporting hunting practices appeals only to a small slice of the electorate and provides no road map to appeal to women, suburban voters, or minorities -- all massive and increasingly important constituencies. In fact, their positions and ideology are driving these constituencies precisely in the opposite direction. HSLF, on the other hand, speaks directly to all of these constituencies, largely because our message of kindness to pets and compassion and decency toward all animals has universal appeal.
And because the NRA reflexively opposes sensible HSLF policy reforms -- such as the trade in bear parts for the black market, banning captive trophy hunts, and halting the aerial gunning of wolves -- the NRA will further alienate core voting blocs and allow us to connect even more powerfully to these mainstream voters. In addition, the NRA's intransigence will force recorded votes in the House and Senate that we can use in future elections to brand lawmakers as unreasonable and out of step when they side with the NRA instead of with their animal-friendly constituents. The NRA puts its loyalists in a political box and the group's narrow-minded orthodoxy will continue to be its undoing.