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The NRA’s New Campaign Math: Pour More Money Into Fewer Races, Defeat Democrats at Any Cost

An analysis of $56 million in election spending shows a group willing to take out gun-friendly former allies.

In April 2013, four months after 20 children and six adults were killed in a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the U.S. Senate voted on legislation that would have required background checks for all commercial gun sales. Known as Manchin-Toomey, the bill was a response to the carnage. Its provisions would have imposed the most significant new gun buying restriction since the early 1990s, when mandatory background checks at licensed gun dealers became law.

The measure needed 60 votes to move forward, but in the end fell short, with five Democrats voting against it. Mark Pryor, a two-term Democratic senator from Arkansas, was among those who broke ranks with his party to oppose the legislation.

The National Rifle Association ran radio spots thanking the Democrat for listening “to his constituents” rather than “bowing down” to “out-of-state interests.”

The following year, the NRA demonstrated its gratitude by mobilizing its vast resources to end the Arkansas senator’s career as a lawmaker. With Pryor up for re-election, the NRA spent nearly $3 million — more than the group spent in almost any other 2014 race — in support of his Republican opponent, Representative Tom Cotton. Initially considered a close contest, Pryor lost by 17 percentage points.

For most of the last three decades, the NRA supported both Republicans and Democrats making bids for seats in federal elections, provided that the candidate paid proper fealty to its positions on gun rights. That era is over. An analysis of the independent election expenditures by the New York Daily News and The Trace reveals that over the three most recent federal election cycles, the NRA’s spending on behalf of Democrats has dwindled to virtually nothing — even as overall election-related spending by the gun group soared to more than $32 million in 2014.

“The NRA has a lot of influence in states like Arkansas,” Pryor says. “I tried to find common ground with them, but they just aren’t fair with Democrats, even when they have the same voting record as Republicans. They’re not treated the same.”

He added, “They say they’re not, but the NRA is now a Republican organization.”

With the 2016 elections just under six months away, the NRA’s annual convention, which kicked off Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky, makes clear the organization’s close ties with the GOP’s most prominent figures.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is among the featured speakers, along with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and former GOP presidential hopefuls Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. The roster of speakers does not include any Democratic lawmakers.

“What you’re seeing is that the NRA is now operating at the core of the Republican national party coalition,” says Michael Malbin, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a leading think tank on money in politics. “They’ve essentially zeroed out Democrats. They used to give to them as a way to maintain leverage in both parties.”

A seminal Supreme Court ruling that removed the cap on what outside groups can spend on independent expenditures — a bucket term for leaflets, postcards and ads supporting or opposing candidates in federal elections, but not given directly to a campaign — has helped the NRA maintain its role as one of the most potent forces in American politics.

The NRA is spending more money on federal races than at any time in its history, all in pursuit of one purpose: to ensure that Washington does not enact any new restrictions on gun ownership.

They just aren’t fair with Democrats,” says former Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, “even when they have the same voting record as Republicans.”

The group believes the best way to stymie the plague of gun violence that claims 33,000 American lives each year is to arm more people. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, months before Manchin-Toomey was introduced in the Senate, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the solution was to place armed guards in elementary schools.

When the NRA provides considerable financial support, its preferred candidates generally win.

During the most recent 2014 cycle, the NRA poured money into 46 congressional races — and got its desired result in 72 percent of them.

In the 20 races in which the NRA gave the most money in indirect expenditures over the past three election cycles, the group got its desired result 15 times, the analysis by the News and The Trace found. But there are a few notable exceptions, including the 2012 presidential race, during which the NRA spent $9.8 million attacking President Barack Obama and $2.7 million supporting Mitt Romney’s losing run.

At this stage of the 2016 election cycle, the NRA has spent nearly $1 million supporting Republicans in both direct and independent expenditures, and just $1,000 supporting Democrats. A substantial portion of that sum — about $420,000 — has been spent attacking Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor of Ohio who is now running for Senate. Strickland, a longtime opponent of an assault weapons ban, once had the NRA’s support, until he began advocating for additional background checks. He also says he wants to restrict terror suspects from buying guns, a position that puts him further at odds with the NRA.

Another $23,000 has been spent against Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

While the NRA hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the presidential contest, there is little doubt the group will spend millions to defeat Clinton, who the group views as a looming threat.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Cultivating a bipartisan group of lawmakers has historically helped interest groups insulate themselves against the natural ebb and flow of American politics, a point once made by the NRA itself.

On the stump, Clinton has said that the NRA wields too much power over elected officials, and she has sparred with her rival for the nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, over his support for a law that gave gun manufacturers immunity from most types of liability lawsuits.

Since he began running for office, Trump has declared he is an ardent supporter of gun rights, boasting that he has a concealed carry permit.

“We’re going to cherish the Second Amendment,” Trump said during a May campaign stop.

In the election cycle beginning in 2010 — the same year that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling dramatically changed campaign finance laws, removing the cap on what outside groups, like the NRA, can spend to influence contests — the NRA spent just under $7 million on independent expenditures in 83 races. In 18 of them, the organization supported Democrats.

In 2014, the NRA invested roughly five times as much on just 46 races. None of the $31.7 million was spent in support of Democrats.

That year, the gun group spent nearly $2.5 million attacking Kay Hagan, a Democratic senator in North Carolina. In its negative advertising, the NRA sought to conflate her with Michael Bloomberg, who, by that point, had become the country’s most notorious anti-gun boogeyman. (Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns is a forerunner to Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor to The Trace.)

Over the course of the campaign, the NRA also spent roughly $3 million on behalf of Hagan’s opponent, Thom Tillis, who at the time was the Speaker in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Discounting party organizations, the two sums accounted for 10 percent of outside spending directed toward the race. Tillis won by less than 50,000 votes.

“I don’t think anyone would want that kind of money being spent against them,” Hagan says. “It was absurd.”

Although the NRA’s narrower focus meant it backed fewer winning candidates — 33 in 2014, down from 50 in 2010 — its overall success rate was higher. In 2014, candidates backed by the gun group won 72 percent of the time, compared to 60 percent over the prior two cycles.

As the country has become more polarized, so, too, has the NRA. It began punishing powerful Democratic allies for isolated infractions as early as the 1994 midterm elections, after President Bill Clinton signed an assault weapons ban into law.

Two close friends of the gun group — then-House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat from Washington state, and Texas Democrat Jack Brooks, chair of the House Judiciary Committee at the time — voted in favor of the legislation, leading the NRA to endorse the lawmakers’ opponents. They lost their seats in a Republican takeover that sent Newt Gingrich soaring to the top post in the House.

But in 2010, as the Tea Party wave rose into a tsunami, the NRA faced criticism for propping up the incumbent Democrats it continued to support thanks to their reliably pro-gun records.

“The NRA is Helping Preserve the Anti Gun Democratic Majority,” read a headline in Red State, the influential conservative website.

The new single-party conformity may threaten the NRA’s long-term influence. Cultivating a bipartisan group of lawmakers has historically helped interest groups insulate themselves against the natural ebb and flow of American politics, a point once made by the NRA itself.

“We need our Democratic friends,” James J. Baker, a top NRA executive, told the Washington Post in the summer of 2000. “Our survival depends on the gun issue not becoming a strictly partisan issue.”

As a matter of overall strategy, during the last three election cycles the greatest percentage of the NRA’s spending was in tightly contested Senate and House races — the leading two being North Carolina and Colorado — that earned ratings of “tossup” from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

While it’s impossible to determine the precise extent to which NRA dollars help sway an election, the analysis shows that the more the gun group spends, the more often it gets the outcome it wants.

The group’s success in tossup races, where it spent the vast majority of its money, increased from around 40 percent during the 2010 and 2012 cycles, to 81 percent during the 2014 cycle, the analysis by the News and The Trace found.

During those six years, at least $33.4 million of the NRA’s spending paid for attack ads.  

“If you’re in a tossup race,” Malbin says, “the voter you aim for is the one who feels cross pressure — the one who generally agrees with the NRA on the issue, but also leans Democratic. The NRA wants that person to vote for the issue over their party. In that case, a negative ad makes sense.”

Paul Herrnson, a political scientist and election expert, says negative ads “are generally more memorable than positive ones. The NRA wants the biggest bang for its buck.”

In 2014, the seat of Senator Mary Landrieu, a three-term Louisiana Democrat, was considered a tossup. The NRA paid for a television ad that showed a young mother putting her baby to sleep and texting her husband, who had just landed in Miami. Soon after, an intruder breaks into her house.

“It happens like that,” a disembodied voice says, “the police can’t get there in time. How you defend yourself is up to you. It’s your choice. But Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights.”

The NRA spent more than $3 million attacking Landrieu, and just over $340,000 supporting her opponent, Republican William Cassidy, who won about 56 percent of the vote.

From 2010 to 2014, NRA spending accounted for 30 percent or more of total independent expenditures in seven races. In each of those instances, the candidate the gun group backed came out victorious.

One such contest was a battle for an open House seat in Arkansas. The Democratic candidate, a long-time NRA member named Patrick Henry Hays, was the former mayor of Little Rock. On his website, Hays had promised to “oppose any law, including an assault weapons ban, that would take guns away from law-abiding citizens.”

But he also previously had expressed support for the Bloomberg-backed Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The NRA spent over $1 million to defeat him, a massive sum for a congressional race, and a figure that amounted to 43 percent of all outside investments in the race.

Less than two weeks before the general election, the Hays campaign aired a television ad that showed him cleaning his firearms.

“These are my guns,” the candidate says in an upbeat voice. “I’m a proud member of the NRA, and I’ll protect our Second Amendment rights.”

He lost the race by eight percentage points, another Democrat squashed by the NRA because of his party affiliation.

“I support a lot of what they do,” Hays says. “But they’re dug in as deeply in the foxhole as you can get.”

Additional reporting by Alex Yablon for The Trace. This story is a collaboration between the New York Daily News and The Trace.

[Photo illustration: Joel Arbaje; Graphics: Steven Melendez]