By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Threats, denunciations and verbal potshots between the National Rifle Association and the leaders of the Legislature were common in the decades that Democrats ran the show in the Tennessee Capitol. Turns out Republicans are just as good at running afoul of the powerful gun rights group.
GOP leaders in Nashville infuriated the NRA this year by refusing to go along with a bill to prevent businesses from banning guns on their property, and now the group is using its deep pockets to try to unseat one of them. Elsewhere, NRA-backed measures also ran into Republican roadblocks in Georgia, Alabama, Idaho and North Carolina this year.
The NRA notes recent successes in the legislatures of Virginia, Ohio and South Carolina, describing the recent setbacks as temporary.
“First of all the legislative process is rarely quick and is rarely pretty,” chief NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox said in a phone interview. “We certainly take the long view and we’re committed to bring this not only to Tennessee but across the country.”
The NRA is backing up its words with campaign cash in Tennessee, spending $75,000 in an effort to defeat the No. 3 Republican in the state House, Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville.
The effort includes a billboard that depicts Maggart shoulder to shoulder with Democratic President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Tennessee.
“Defend Freedom — Defeat Maggart on August 2,” the sign says, referring to the date of the Republican primary. Early voting began Friday.
The NRA contribution is equal to more than half of Maggart’s campaign balance of $147,000, and far exceeds the $10,000 that her challenger, Courtney Rogers, had on hand through the first half of the year. The gun rights group hasn’t supported any Democrats in Tennessee this campaign cycle.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga said the traditional alliance between Republican lawmakers and the NRA has had very little meaning in recent years.
“They’re our allies as long as it in their self-interest — and I don’t think it’s in their self-interest anymore,” McCormick said. “Now that we’re the governing party, they’re going to be critical. They’re never going to be satisfied.”
“They’re a fundraising organization, and their business plan is not to make politicians look good, it’s to have someone to criticize so they can generate more money,” he said.
Supporters dubbed the bill the “safe commute act,” but opponents raised property rights and safety concerns about guns being stored near large businesses, colleges and schools.
Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, called McCormick’s claims “laughable.”
“This is a self-defense issue for us,” he said. “We heard bogus property rights arguments from the business community — and McCormick and Maggart sided with the business community.”
Republican leaders in Tennessee — including Gov. Bill Haslam — said they were willing to enact a form of the bill as long as it allowed excluded colleges and gave large businesses the ability to opt out along similar lines as an existing Georgia law.
The NRA refused to budge, and a lobbyist confidently predicted to Tennessee lawmakers early in the legislative session that the Georgia law would be corrected this year. That didn’t come to pass, nor did an effort for similar legislation in neighboring Alabama, where the bill died without coming to a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
In North Carolina, the NRA lamented the failure of the Republican-controlled Senate to approve a bill to allow concealed permit holders to carry their guns in restaurants where alcohol is served. Chamber leader Phil Berger said the Senate wanted to take its time on the bill, and some Republicans had raised concerns mixing alcohol and firearms.
An unaffiliated gun rights group, Grass Roots North Carolina, has run radio ads in Berger’s district and released an open letter to Berger last month arguing that senators were afraid to take up the bill.
“Do we have to wait until more die, Sen. Berger?” group leader Paul Valone wrote. “Will your legacy be that Republicans turned their backs on slain restaurant workers due to fear of bad press?”
The June demise of the measure came too late to have an impact on North Carolina primaries, which were held the previous month.
Before the legislative session in Idaho this year, the NRA openly planned to resurrect a bill to allow students at state universities to carry concealed weapons on campus. But no bill was introduced to replace the measure that died in the Republican-controlled Senate the previous year. The NRA’s plans were likely dashed after a mentally ill professor at the University of Idaho gunned down a former student and lover before shooting himself in August.
Cox said the NRA will “absolutely” be back next year to press for gun storage bill in Tennessee and other measures around the country.
“We’re proud of the brick-by-brick restoration of rights that we’ve successfully attained,” he said.
The stakes are high in the race for Maggart’s seat. Her defeat would reinforce the NRA’s strength in forcing lawmakers to go along with their plans. But McCormick, the GOP leader in the House, predicted another result.
“The NRA has put itself so far out on a limb that they’ve lost a lot of credibility, and I think you’ll see the results of that on Election Day when Debra Maggart gets re-elected,” he said.