- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

The National Rifle Association’s threat to punish senators who vote for Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor has been met with a shrug by Democrats from conservative-leaning states and some Republicans who are breaking with their party to support her.

The gun rights group is used to getting its way by spooking lawmakers about the political consequences of defying its wishes. But it never before has weighed in on a Supreme Court confirmation battle and was nervous from the start about engaging in what looked like a losing battle to defeat President Obama’s first pick for the court.

The earlier caution may have been well-founded. Just over a week after the NRA said it would count a “yes” vote on Judge Sotomayor against senators in its influential candidate ratings, several conservative Democrats and even a couple of Republicans who have received the group’s highest scores have come out in support of the appeals court judge.

They include A-plus-rated and NRA-endorsed Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and his fellow Montanan, A-rated Sen. Jon Tester, as well as A-rated and NRA-endorsed Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the only GOP leader to break with the rest of his party to back Judge Sotomayor.

Judge Sotomayor is expected to easily win confirmation in a vote this week that could deflate the long-accepted truism in Washington that you don’t cross the NRA.

That’s not to say that the NRA’s late decision to wade in hasn’t had an impact.

Many Republicans who were considered possible “yes” votes for Judge Sotomayor - including Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison - come out against her after the NRA’s announcement, citing gun rights concerns as an important reason.

Some Democrats who have high NRA ratings, including Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, are on the fence.

Still, the NRA’s threats seem to hold less potency on this vote. Asked whether he was worried about ruining his perfect NRA score and endorsement by opting to vote for Judge Sotomayor, Mr. Nelson paused and said with a smile, “I’d probably have a good rating regardless.”

The NRA derives much of its considerable clout from what has become a kind of mantra on Capitol Hill: Defy the gun lobby on something it cares about and face recriminations at the polls; back it and enjoy a substantial political boost.

It’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lawmakers generally are terrified to test it, and the NRA is politically savvy about which issues it takes on. Its won-loss record adds to its reputation as untouchable.

So why would the gun lobby risk undercutting its clout by stepping into this Supreme Court debate?

GOP leaders, particularly Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s top Republican, helped force the group’s hand.

At the conclusion of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Judge Sotomayor two weeks ago, the NRA came out in opposition to her, calling her “hostile” to the Second Amendment right to bear arms. But it stopped short of saying it would include the vote on her confirmation in its political ratings.

In a later meeting on Capitol Hill with Republican senators and conservative activists, Mr. McConnell asked if the group planned to “score” the confirmation vote. The NRA was noncommittal.

Accounts of the meeting vary, and Mr. McConnell’s aides deny that he leaned on the NRA to rate the Sotomayor vote. But others present or briefed later on the session said it was clear that Mr. McConnell and other leaders wanted the NRA’s scorekeeping.

“The Republican leadership reminded them that if they don’t care about judges, they should,” said Curt Levey of the conservative Committee for Justice. “For 130 years, the NRA could be effective by focusing on legislation, but now, after last year’s Supreme Court decision in Heller, this issue is in the courts - pretty much like abortion was after Roe v. Wade.”

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