It’s been about a month since Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) joined her Republican colleagues in killing a bipartisan compromise on background checks, undermining her support back home. As it became clear that Ayotte’s standing hasn’t recovered, some of her far-right allies are rushing into the Granite State to lend a hand.
Last week, for example, the National Rifle Association ran an ad, suggesting Ayotte is some kind of moderate, voting for “a bipartisan plan to make background checks more effective.” Yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) super PAC launched this related ad:
“Ayotte voted to fix background checks, strengthen mental health screenings, and more resources to prosecute criminals using guns,” the ad says. “Washington might not like it, but you can count on it.”
Actually, what you can count on is deceptive ads from conservatives who assume the public won’t know the difference.
There are two related angles to keep in mind. The first is the nature of the falsehood; the second is the larger concession underscoring the misleading commercials.
On the first point, Ayotte filibustered the Manchin/Toomey compromise on background checks, but she and her allies nevertheless want New Hampshire voters to believe she loves background checks.
It’s not technically a lie just so long as you play along with the semantics game. As we’ve discussed before, conservatives are relying on specific definitions of words and phrases that don’t quite line up with what everyone else is talking about. As Sahil Kapur explained recently:
There’s a critical distinction to be made between universal background checks, a robust policy that would require criminal checks for virtually all gun purchases – and a more milquetoast proposal to beef up mental health information in existing databases. The former is championed by gun control advocates and experts who say it would have a significant impact. The latter is supported by the NRA and does nothing to make it harder for criminals to buy firearms at private sales or gun shows, where background checks are not required by law.
It’s obviously an important clarification. The right is generally comfortable with improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, by integrating mental health records, for example. When we hear conservatives endorse stronger “background checks,” this is what they’re talking about.
Except, the NRA, Rubio, and Ayotte are counting on voters losing sight of the distinction.
Just as important, though, is the unstated concession: ads like these are inherently defensive and give away much of the game. Under the NRA’s worldview, which Ayotte supports and defends, there’s nothing for conservative senators to be embarrassed about – by crushing expanded background checks, Republicans are taking a stand against tyranny. Voters love freedom and need not fear electoral consequences for voting the way the NRA demands.
Or so the argument goes.
But these New Hampshire ads suggest that below the surface, the right knows better. Ayotte voted with Rubio and the NRA, and is paying a political price, so her friends are spending a fair amount of money to make it seem like she’s not siding with the far-right fringe, but instead, is actually quite mainstream.
I don’t know how many people will fall for the con, but Ayotte’s allies are giving it a try anyway.
Post script: Also note that Rubio is leaping in to help a colleague in the first primary state. (Cough, 2016, cough)