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Conservative Interest Groups Savor Wins : Politics: NRA targeted 24 races and has 19 trophies to show for its campaigning. Rich returns are also cited by Christian, anti-abortion activists.

November 10, 1994|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After looking over the 1994 election field, the National Rifle Assn. drew a bead on 24 congressional and gubernatorial candidates. The NRA called them: "The 12 That Gotta Go . . . and 12 We Gotta Have."

Then the pro-gun group spent $3.2 million on television and radio ads, billboards, leaflets and direct contributions to elect their friends and obliterate the "dirty dozen." In addition, it later deployed actor Charlton Heston in a television ad to help oust House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), a former ally.

In the election aftermath, the NRA and some other interest groups that participated heavily in the election--often through harshly negative television ads--were reveling Wednesday in the rich return on their investment. The anti-abortion movement and the Christian Coalition were also claiming substantial yields as Republicans, including many conservatives, swept to enough victories to give them control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

Though only one of many forces in Tuesday's political watershed election, the 3.5-million member NRA made an impression in political circles that could again drive home the value of its goodwill--or the power of its ire. Overall, 19 of the 24 priority races went its way, and the next GOP-led Congress clearly will be more sympathetic to the NRA's position--even as the public expresses widespread support for measures intended to curtail firearm violence.

The NRA's inroads were especially sweet after it suffered major defeats in the 103rd Congress with passage of measures that impose a waiting period for handgun purchases and ban certain assault rifles. The group said it felt particularly betrayed by Foley, who supported a crime bill that included the assault weapon prohibition. The Speaker was narrowly defeated this week after 30 years in office.

The National Right to Life Committee, which spent about $1.5 million, also found many happy returns after seeing its agenda sharply undercut in recent years. It counted a net gain of about 35 House members and seven senators sympathetic to its anti-abortion position.

Asked to compare these results to previous elections, political action director Carol Long replied: "I'm not sure this can be compared to anything because the results yesterday were so fantastic. Pro-lifers made terrific gains."

The Christian Coalition, meanwhile, which was particularly active throughout the South and Midwest, said that 38 of 51 House seats that Republicans picked up were won by "candidates who embraced religious conservative themes and religious conservative activists." They made the same claim for eight new senators and seven new governors.

In its most ambitious effort, the group distributed 33 million voter guides across the nation.

Referring to the increased role of groups like the Christian Coalition and the NRA, Mike Casey of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said: "Those folks have mastered the art of influencing federal elections. I would not be surprised if . . . a good 15 to 20 races were decided by right-wing, third-party groups."

An example may well have been Georgia Rep. George (Buddy) Darden, a five-term centrist Democrat who was on the hit list of the NRA and the Right to Life Committee and whose opponent, former U.S. Atty. Bob Barr, was embraced by the Christian Coalition. Darden lost by 52% to 48% in unofficial returns.

To be sure, the conservative groups were hardly successful in all their high-priority races. And some opposing interest groups question whether the contributions of these special interests made a significant difference amid a national shift to the right that produced many lopsided contests.

In Virginia, for example, Republican Oliver L. North--who had the strong support of the NRA, anti-abortion groups and the Christian Coalition--fell short in his $20-million bid to oust Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb. In turn, North's hopes may have been hurt by a shrewd eleventh-hour move by a single-interest group on Robb's behalf.

Two weeks before the election, Robb's campaign called the National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League to express concern that independent candidate J. Marshall Coleman was cutting into the Robb vote in the senator's northern Virginia stronghold, a leader of the abortion-rights group said. The organization promptly blasted Coleman as "a great pretender" on the abortion issue at a well-publicized news conference.

Robb subsequently criticized Coleman's position in a television ad and NARAL reinforced its endorsement of Robb through telephone banks. Coleman won only 11% of the total vote and did not hurt Robb as feared.

The abortion-rights group, which spent $500,000, also pointed to triumphs for key allies such as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.). But overall, James Wagoner, the organization's executive director, described Tuesday's results as "a disaster."

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