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The NRA’s Pyrrhic “Victory” on Sotomayor

As a follow-up to my post from earlier this afternoon, I was able to track down NRA ratings for each of the 40 Republican Senators as of their most recent election (this is much harder to do than you might think). The ratings suggest that the NRA’s pledge to rate a ‘yea’ vote on Sonia Sotomayor as blemish on a Senator’s record may indeed have swayed a few votes.

Consider that six Republican senators – Jim Bunning, Saxby Chambliss, Orrin Hatch, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Jim Inhofe, and Jeff Sessions — have an NRA rating of A. All six voted against Sotomayor.

Meanwhile, 28 Republican senators have an NRA grade of a straight ‘A’. Just four of the 28 – Lamar Alexander, Kit Bond (who is retiring), Mel Martinez (ditto) and Lindsay Graham — voted for Sotomayor.

Lastly, the remaining six Republican senators have NRA grades of C or lower. Five of the six voted for Sotomayor, the lone exception being John McCain, whom the NRA (somewhat hesitantly) endorsed for President last year and who had received higher ratings from the group in the past.

Granted, the senators who receive high grades from the NRA tend to be conservative on other issues as well. But the NRA grades are a much stronger predictor of voting than overall ideological ratings, when we plop both into a regression model. Some senators who have a reputation for being moderates on judicial appointments, like Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, but who have excellent NRA ratings, chose to vote against Sotomayor. So did Lisa Murkowski, who is one of the 3-5 most moderate Republican senators according to most rating systems but comes from a big gun-ownership state. Kay Bailey Hutchison, likewise, who has voted fairly moderately on some issues this year and comes from a state with a huge Hispanic population, was not about to jeopardize her A rating when going up against Rick Perry, who also has an A.

The question is whether the NRA was really doing the Republicans any favors – particularly given that the outcome of the vote was not really in doubt. I don’t hink that this vote will turn out to be a particularly big deal – but it’s going to turn off a few Hispanic voters for seemingly little upside, as there are rather few Americans who are strongly opposed to Sotomayor and as individual Supreme Court justices rarely make news once they join the bench. Overall, it speaks to a Republican Party that remains convinced that catering to its narrowing base – rather than hoping to expand it – is the way to win elections. That might not actually be a horrible strategy in 2010, when I expect the Republican base to be more enthusiastic than the Democratic one and for their higher turnout to swing a few — or maybe more than a few — elections. But I think it’s a mistake, in all likelihood, for 2012 and beyond.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.