Sen. Orrin Hatch's decision to oppose Elena Kagan for a seat on the Supreme Court probably wasn't made in fear of the National Rifle Association's threat to senators that the group will take their votes on the nominee into consideration during endorsement time this election season.
Hatch already has an A+ rating from the gun group. But the moves by both parties -- Hatch's Friday announcement that he will vote "no" on Kagan and the NRA's Thursday announcement that it opposes Kagan and senators who vote for her risk their wrath -- are aimed at least in part at shoring up their conservative credentials with supporters.
For Hatch, he's already been warned that he could face the fate of fellow Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, who was ousted during the state GOP's convention this spring. Hatch voted for Kagan as President Obama's solicitor general, a no-no for conservatives, but said now that the Supreme Court seat is a very different role than being the administration's top litigation attorney.
"All the evidence Senator Hatch has is that (Kagan) would allow her personal or political views drive her legal views. That is the definition of judicial activism something he has long opposed," Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier told Fox News.
Hatch may gain some credit for getting out in front on Kagan -- he's the first Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to announce his no vote.
But the tough statement out of the nation's top gun lobby may not receive as warm a response from conservatives, who accuse the NRA of selling out, not only because of its late opposition to Kagan, but for what is perceived as its recent cozying up to Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The mounting criticism aimed at the NRA comes from opinion columnists and conservative bloggers who command a loyal audience as well as from top elected Republicans. All have questioned recent actions by the NRA, particularly its negotiating with Democrats to be exempted from some of the restrictions of the DISCLOSE Act, a Democratic bill to counter the Supreme Court's ruling in support of Citizens United, which loosened campaign finance disclosure laws.
The NRA carve-out angered liberal groups, but really lit up Republicans who were in the midst of fighting the bill.
"The NRA is all about protecting the Second Amendment, but apparently its leaders don't care about protecting the First Amendment," House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a statement last Thursday -- the day the bill passed the House.
Gun Owners of America piled on with a string of accusatory articles. The NRA rival group is now asking Second Amendment defenders to send a pre-written letter to the Senate urging the chamber to vote down the bill and repudiate "money-for-votes" politics.
In response to the criticism, the NRA put out a defiant statement saying its primary intention was to protect gun rights -- not look out for other organizations.
"There are those who say the NRA should put the Second Amendment at risk over a First Amendment principle. That's easy to say—unless you have a sworn duty to protect the Second Amendment above all else, as we do," the statement said. "We do not represent the interests of other organizations. That's their responsibility."
That may have ended it except that it didn't.
RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson, a GOA member, continued his tear against the gun group, reporting that the NRA had imposed a gag order on board members to keep them from testifying against Kagan during the confirmation hearing.
"Is this the deal the NRA cut with the left? They get a carveout and shut up their board?" reads one post.
NRA-ILA Director Chris Cox called the charge "outrageous" and issued a written statement saying that the NRA would wait until Kagan was questioned in committee before taking a position.
It wasn't 24 hours after Kagan finished testifying that Cox and NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre wrote the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kagan's political career has demonstrated a "clear hostility" toward gun rights.
Though Kagan has affirmed that the recent 5-4 decisions in favor of gun rights stand as settled law in her view, the NRA wrote that Kagan's past political work -- for instance in support of President Clinton's gun control policies -- shows she is not on the side of the Second Amendment.
But that has ended the controversy, especially for conservatives who say the NRA is throwing aside model Senate candidates like Sharron Angle for the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a well-positioned insider who during his last election in 2004 earned a B rating from the interest group. (Gun Owners of America gave Reid an F in its 2010 rating though in 2006 it listed Reid as supportive of GOA interests 100 percent of the time)
RedState.com and others have alleged that the NRA was considering endorsing Reid, as apparent payback for a $61 million earmark for a Nevada gun range that recently opened.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam denied the charge. He said Reid certainly helped with the earmark but denied that it amounted to a quid pro quo.
"There have been no endorsements. … No decision has been made," he told FoxNews.com. "To suggest that that's a sole consideration, no. Would that be taken into consideration? Yes."
Arulanandam also defended the NRA against the emerging criticism. Following a landmark Supreme Court decision affirming gun rights in all 50 states, he said the NRA has "led a brick-by-brick restoration of Second Amendment rights" in just the last few decades and will continue to put Second Amendment rights first.
As for the controversy over the carve-out in the campaign finance law, he said: "We are a gun-rights organization first" whose mission it is to protect the Second Amendment.
"We will do that without apology," he said.
Fox News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.