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Now That the Democrats Have Thrown Rocks at the NRA, How Hard Can the NRA Hit Back?

Mining recent voting data for an assessment of the gun lobby's current potency at turning out votes.

The leadership of the National Rifle Association is telling its fundraisers and membership that 2016 is the big one. At the group’s fall board meeting this September in Virginia, Breitbart.com reported, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre warned that with this political cycle’s slate of prospective Democratic nominees “We face a double-barreled threat like we never have before.” To prevent the White House from falling into a Democrat’s hands, he and legislative director Chris Cox said the organization wants to raise $50 to $75 million for the 2016 race, potentially nearly doubling the gun group’s planned $40 million effort against Barack Obama in 2008 and quadrupling the $19 million it spent in 2012. Otherwise, LaPierre said, a President Clinton or Sanders could appoint unfriendly Supreme Court justices and the Second Amendment “as an individual right will be gone for the rest of our lifetimes.”

The prospect of a head-on collision between the NRA and Democrats only grew more likely after the party’s first debate, where its candidates devoted nearly 10 minutes to arguing about who had the worst NRA rating or would do most to combat gun violence. Democrats are suddenly itching for a fight with the gun groupa villain that some strategists believe can motivate the coalition that secured Obama two terms in the White House. But it’s one thing to campaign on gun reform for the first time in a generation — and another to directly provoke a group with a reputation for marshaling Republican votes, one that takes credit for some of the most striking Democratic losses of the past twenty years. Now that Democrats have committed themselves to chucking rocks at the bee’s nest, how big a swarm will the gun lobby muster when voters go to the polls? 

No one is more familiar with the NRA’s legendary political power than the NRA itself. In 2002, LaPierre told attendees of the group’s annual meeting that they “are the reason Al Gore isn’t in the White House.” It wasn’t just bragging: After eight years in Washington and facing Bill Bradley’s primary challenge from the left, the vice president had shied away from pro-gun positions staked out at the beginning of his congressional career, in a bargain that turned off rural white voters, according to state political experts. In Tennessee, Gore’s home state and one that could have given him the election even with the loss of Florida, Republican turnout increased by 23 percent over 1996, far outpacing the 8 percent increase in Democratic votes between 1996 and 2000. Gore’s loss also immediately followed what is still the NRA’s best-ever single month of fundraising, when the group took in $1.7 million in October 2000.

Speaking at the same 2002 event, Georgia’s conservative Democratic Senator Zell Miller, then at the height of his crossover fame with Republicans, argued that Gore’s support for Clinton-era gun restrictions lost him not just Tennessee but also West Virginia and Arkansas, states Bill Clinton had managed to return to the Democrats after long years of control by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Those states have stayed in the red column. And certainly the $20 million the NRA spent in the 2010 midterms the and $28 million it poured into 2014 helped feed Republican waves those years as the older, white, more rural electorates in those cycles made their preferences clear.

As LaPierre and company gloated over the Democrats’ loss of working class and rural white voters being the NRA’s gain, however, they may have confined themselves to a demographically losing position in presidential elections. With a constituency that is solidly whiter, older, and lives in parts of the country that are losing population, the group needs a way to grow its base. But since Democrats’ Bush-era nadir, the party has regrouped around a coalition strategy focused on urbanites and minorities that has largely offset its declining support among rural whites, at least in White House contests. An electoral strategy dependent on motivating rural white voters fell short for Republicans in 2008 and 2012, when minorities in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania grew faster as a share of turnout than as a share of the total population. It’s the same political strategy the NRA seems to be pursuing now, as the group plays up the differences between Democratic candidates and their own values. Last Friday, the NRA made sure to ring alarm bells when Hillary Clinton dared to discuss an Australia-style mandatory gun buyback program during a New Hampshire campaign stop.

What’s more, if recent elections in the NRA’s home state of Virginia are any indication, the group risks seeing its voter-motivation tactics turned on their head: In those races, it’s been fear of the gun lobby, rather than alleged gun-grabbers, that has convinced the other side to come out to the polling stations in greater numbers.

The NRA faced such attacks there in 2013 statewide racesand are again in contests this fall. When the final tallies where in, the NRA’s Republican allies had lost not only the governor’s seat, but also the Lieutenant governorship and attorney generals office, the latter two offices going Democratic for the first time since 2001 and 1994, respectively. Governor Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Notham all ran on gun reform and lived to write about it in a Washington Post editorial: The NRA couldn’t muster enough voters for an effective pro-gun backlash.

“It’s very possible that the NRA’s ability to gin up even more voter turnout among gun owners or those who react negatively to gun control has reached a ceiling,” Geoffrey Skelley, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, tells The Trace. In his state, that’s due to some long term population changes: Virginia is increasingly split between a rural southwest and a so-called “urban crescent” stretching from the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Northern Virginia to Richmond and then down the coast through Norfolk, Hampton Roads, and Virginia Beach. The crescent is growing: it accounted for 82 percent of Virginia’s population increase in the first decade of the century. Expansion has been even more concentrated since 2010, with three-fifths of the state’s population growth happening in the Northern Virginia region alone. The crescent made up 70 percent of the electorate in 2012, and per Skelley, “voters in those areas are much more Democratic.” The more rural Southwest has shrunk in recent years.

Staffers working on Democrat Mark Herring’s 2013 campaign for attorney general, the most closely-fought of the Virginia statewide races that year, knew they had to concentrate on getting out the vote in those urban centers. Herring won by an incredibly slim 907-vote margin, and his strategists believe their focus on guns put him over the top. “When you run a campaign with limited resources, you have to pick issues you talk about very carefully to make sure they resonate,” says Jim Mulhall, a media consultant for SKDK Knickerbocker who worked on the Herring campaign. Mulhall says that internal campaign polling showed voters would be motivated by “a combination of women’s health issues and gun violence.” Strikingly, they found a focus on guns would motivate not just the Democratic base but swing voters as well.

“It’s very possible that the NRA’s ability to gin up even more voter turnout among gun owners or those who react negatively to gun control has reached a ceiling.”

Herring’s campaign ran an ad against his Republican opponent Mark Obenshain that argued: “There’s nothing the gun lobby can ask that he won’t agree to.” In contrast, Obenshain didn’t mention guns in any of his ads. Mulhall took that as confirmation that Obenshain had something to lose by making guns rights a rallying cry. “You know a candidate is on shaky ground when they can’t discuss their position on a issue with the broader public,” he says. “They did not defend their position on the air. They did not want to have a debate or argument on the air about background checks.”

The NRA did run its own ad against Herring. But notably the spot did not air in Virginia’s big population centers. Mulhall takes this as further evidence that NRA did not think the ad would persuade voters to reject Herring’s arguments. The 30 second commercial was instead clearly intended to scare loyalists to the polls, warning that Herring would back “gun control, gun rationing, a ban on the most popular rifle in America, and will tax your freedom away.” But notably, the ad was also subtle in its mention of the NRA itself: the ad’s voiceover touted the Republican candidate’s endorsements from police chiefs and prosecutors, but kept  the NRA’s actual endorsement to a brief flash of the logo and requisite disclosure of their sponsorship at the close. (Neither the NRA nor Mark Obenshain’s campaign manager responded to requests for comment.)

The question for the 2016 election is whether the specter of gun-grabbing will prove more successful in tilting key electoral college states red. Population trends in Florida, the crown jewel of swing states, suggest an NRA counteroffensive there would not be rewarded any more than Virginia did in 2013. For starters, the state has grown more diverse, with Hispanics comprising nearly half of its population growth from 2013 to 2014, and its Hispanic voters are now three-fifths Democrats, after decades of more conservative allegiances. Polling by Pew Hispanic shows that Hispanic-Americans also favor gun restrictions by nearly two-to-one margins, and own guns at half the rates of whites.

Like Virginia, Florida has steadily become more urbanized, with cities growing their share of the state’s population by nearly 10 percentage points over the past three decades. from 81.7 percent in 1970 to 91.2 percent in 2010. Law professor Adam Winkler recently noted similar demographic trends in the rest of the country, portending a hard road ahead for the NRA.

Back in 2000, before the NRA claimed responsibility for electing George W. Bush, it maintained a careful distance from its favored candidate. Even as the group tried to mobilize its members to vote against Gore, an unnamed NRA official told the New York Times it wanted to “do no harm” to Bush by association. When election day came around, the gun lobby had still never publicly endorsed the candidate.

[Photo: AP Photo/Jessica Hill]