WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association said Friday that it is staying out of the heated U.S. Senate race in Nevada, declining to endorse Sen. Harry Reid or his Republican challenger Sharron Angle.
The powerful gun lobby said it would not back Reid because of his votes in favor of Supreme Court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor over the past two years -- justices the NRA believes will be hostile to gun owners in cases involving the Second Amendment.
An NRA spokesman said the organization will not be backing Angle either. "We will not be making any endorsement in the Nevada Senate race," said Andrew Arulanandam, the group's public affairs director.
Arulanandam declined to comment further on Angle, referring questions to a statement the group posted to its website. The statement is silent on Angle, but expressed "grave concerns" about the Kagan confirmation, which Reid shepherded as Senate majority leader.
"The vote on Elena Kagan's confirmation to the court, along with the previous year's confirmation vote on Sonia Sotomayor, are critical for the future of the Second Amendment," Christopher Cox, the chairman of the NRA's Political Victory Fund, said in the posting.
"After careful consideration, the NRA-PVF announced today that it will not be endorsing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for re-election in the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Nevada," Cox said.
The announcement caps months of internal NRA debate and strong reactions from among its 4.3 million members over whether to back Reid, a Democrat who has positioned himself as a friend to gun owners but who also had provoked opposition from the NRA's largely Republican-leaning membership.
The decision to stay on the sidelines of one of the nation's most crucial races -- while risking the wrath of the snubbed Senate leader -- was seen as evidence of a strong pushback from the NRA's rank-and-file after the idea of a Reid endorsement was floated a few months ago.
Reid, who owns several guns including an antique .22 rifle from his childhood, had courted the NRA, and its official blessing would have helped him shore up support in rural Nevada, said Danny Gonzales, a political science professor at Great Basin College in Elko.
"I considered it to be a significant endorsement," Gonzales said. "The NRA's clout is significant when you have a close race."
Once it decided not to endorse Reid, the NRA was probably smart to stay on the sidelines altogether, Gonzales said, or risk further angering the Senate leader.
Mark Peplowski, a professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said he doubted Reid will suffer damage.
"I don't think it is going to be a big hit on him," Peplowski said. "I tend to feel the people who vote the NRA way are those who would fall into the Tea Party camp anyway. They would probably be on the fence or lean to Angle."
Speculation that the NRA might endorse Reid created such an outcry that the organization set up a special message on its telephone system inviting callers to "press one" if they were calling about Reid. The message, which had not been updated on Friday afternoon, told callers the NRA had not yet decided on an endorsement.
A separate gun-rights organization, the more hard line Gun Owners of America, endorsed Angle, and gave Reid an "F" rating. The Angle campaign had set up a website with a compilation of Reid "anti-gun" votes taken between 1991 and 2005.
The votes included support for various gun controls, a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases and criminal background checks on transactions at large gun shows.
"It comes as no surprise that the NRA would refuse to endorse Senator Harry Reid," Angle campaign spokesman Jerry Stacy said. "Senator Reid has a lengthy record of voting for measures that are anti-Second Amendment, and his recent support for Elena Kagan was a constant reminder that the Second Amendment remains in serious jeopardy under Senator Reid's leadership."
But the NRA leadership and Reid had enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship in recent years. In July 2009, the organization leaders penned a "Dear Nevada NRA Member" letter urging gun owners to contact Reid "and thank him for supporting our gun rights."
The organization said Reid was instrumental in the 2005 passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which prevented firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. Along the way he voted against amendments to ban assault weapons and most hunting ammunition, it said.
In 2009, Reid voted to repeal a gun ban in the District of Columbia, and to allow citizens to carry guns in the national parks, according to the NRA.
Last August, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre stood by Reid at the dedication of a $61 million Clark County gun range, a showcase for which Reid had obtained federal funding.
"He is a true champion of the Second Amendment back in Washington, D.C.," LaPierre said of Reid at the event.
In floating the idea the NRA might endorse Reid, Cox earlier this year pointed out that if Reid were defeated, the new Senate leader might be Dick Durbin, D-Ill., or Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., both of whom are less supportive of the group's agenda than the Nevadan.
On Friday, Reid's campaign manager Brandon Hall pointed to LaPierre's praise, and also a $4,950 contribution the NRA had given to Reid, as evidence he remains a favorite of the gun lobby despite the lack of a formal endorsement.
"The NRA's relationship with Senator Reid has been long-standing and productive and -- unlike for Sharron Angle -- they've put their money where their mouth is this cycle," Hall said.