NRA sparring tests Manchin's support base anew
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He famously fired a gun in a TV ad while boasting of an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, but U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin can no longer rely on the backing of that powerful lobby.
The West Virginia Democrat faced off against the NRA during last week's debate over his proposal to tighten background checks for gun buyers, marking his second break with a major support group since his rise from the governor's office to Capitol Hill.
Strongly opposing the measure, the NRA told lawmakers it would track how they voted and consider that when deciding how to weigh in on the midterm elections for Congress next year. Manchin took to the Senate floor to rally support for the proposal and denounce the NRA's allegations regarding its provisions before it failed to advance in a Wednesday vote.
Manchin entered the debate with a long record of support from the gun-rights group. He boasted of an `A+' NRA rating when he successfully ran for governor in 2004 and 2008. The group had endorsed him throughout his political career, including in 2010 when he sought the Senate seat of the late Robert C. Byrd.
Manchin won that close race, during which his campaign aired a much-discussed ad that showed him shooting a rifle at environmental legislation supported by the Obama administration while touting his NRA backing.
The NRA labeled as "misguided'' the proposal that Manchin crafted with Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican. The group also denied in a January statement that it was working with Manchin to develop the legislation. An NRA spokesperson did not respond to several requests by phone and email for comment for this article.
"If they said they're going to score it, they're going to score it and reduce my rating,'' Manchin told The Associated Press on Friday regarding Wednesday's vote. "They have to do whatever they have to do. But if you're going to be against me and target me, it would be nice if you tell me why.''
The episode parallels his 2011 run-in with West Virginians for Life after he opposed an attempt to deny federal funds for Planned Parenthood. The anti-abortion group renounced its longtime support of Manchin and then actively campaigned against him when he sought a full Senate term in 2012. Manchin won re-election with nearly 61 percent of the vote, defeating the group-endorsed GOP nominee by 24 percentage points.
Manchin said Friday that he remains a lifelong opponent of abortion, just as he plans to keep his NRA membership. Now, as with the Planned Parenthood vote, he said he believes the truth is on his side.
"I'm just imploring, please read [the bill],'' Manchin said. "If a person wants to be mad at me, that's fine, but it should be based on the facts. But don't tell me the bill did something it didn't do.''
The Manchin-Toomey proposal sought to subject buyers in commercial settings such as gun shows and the Internet to the checks but exempt non-commercial transactions such as sales between friends and relatives. Before Wednesday's vote, the NRA told senators in an April 10 letter that the Manchin-Toomey measure would "criminalize the private transfer of firearms by honest citizens, requiring friends, neighbors and many family members to get government permission.''
PolitiFact.com has rated that statement "mostly false,'' while FactCheck.org concluded that it "misrepresented'' the legislation.
"What they had said was not accurate. It's just not right,'' Manchin said Friday of the NRA. "The only thing I've said is, `Read the bill.' Then look at the accusations they've made. What would you call that?''
Manchin developed the background-check proposal after the mass shooting of first-graders and staff in Newtown, Conn. He then vowed to carry through after an emotional meeting this month with parents and other relatives of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Manchin had previously gained the title of "comforter-in-chief'' while governor, for tending to the families of miners in the wake of coal mine disasters.
"Why do people vote for me, so I can vote no on everything and play it safe?'' Manchin said Friday. "Coming from a gun culture, in the state of West Virginia, if I can't bring credibility that this is reasonable and responsible, then what am I doing in public service?'' Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina