One of the most difficult 2014 congressional races, from the NRA’s perspective, took place in Arizona, where former Rep.Gabrielle Gifford’s one-time chief of staff was running for re-election. Ron Barber had been elected in 2012 after Gifford was shot by a mentally unbalanced shooter in 2011. As she was recovering, Gifford emerged as a major public advocate for firearms restrictions.
The Republican candidate last fall, Martha McSally, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, had run against Barber in 2012 and took him on again last fall in what turned out to be the single closest congressional race in the country. The NRA got into the race after much internal debate, but did so cautiously because of the emotional impact of the Gifford shooting, the fact that Barber was so close to her and the sensitivities of voters to the firearms issue. Barber, however, was a gun control advocate, the district was seen by most as a swing district and NRA supporters in the district itself were lining up in favor of McSally who was, by all accounts, a formidable candidate.
The NRA’s favorable ratings were strong in the district, but not as strong as they were in other contested races. Forty-seven percent of the district’s voters turned out to be favorable to the NRA, but 40 percent had an unfavorable view of the organization. And former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was disliked in most of the country, almost broke even in the district, with a 25 percent favorable to a 28 percent unfavorable rating. What was just as troubling was the fact that the incumbent was fairly well regarded by district voters and throughout the campaign enjoyed a slightly better favorable rating than his challenger.
At first glance, the race seemed challenging at best for the NRA. But NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox believed it was incumbent upon the association to do what it could for McSally. Before it was over, the NRA had managed to get some 46% of the district’s voters to see, hear or read its message. And on Election Day, those who did gave McSally a five point margin. That may not seem like much, but in the end the race would be decided by about 200 votes and, as the exit polls clearly demonstrated, that margin was directly traceable to the NRA reaching voters favorable to its message. In fact, among the 47 percent of those who voted and had a favorable view of the NRA, McSally won 82% to 18%. Without that margin, she would not be in Congress today.
The outcome in the district was also affected by a last-minute, well-financed barrage of negative commercials attacking McSally and paid for indirectly by Michael Bloomberg. The ads were seen by voters and the local media as “over the top” and created a backlash against Barber that benefitted the NRA-ILA effort and hurt the candidate Bloomberg’s forces were trying to help.
The fact that the NRA could have an impact in a district that had been recently torn apart by gun violence says a lot about the association’s ability to reach its supporters under difficult circumstances as well as the flaws of its opposition.