The mailings began well before the 2014 election. One featured a picture of a pensive young woman with the caption, “38% fewer women are shot to death by partners when there are background checks on all gun sales.” On the reverse side, it said, “Thom Tillis is against closing loopholes that put guns in the hands of domestic abusers.”

The mailings were paid for by Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun violence prevention advocacy group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, as part of its attempt to influence the outcome of a tightly contested senate race in North Carolina. ARS spent $1.3 million to persuade core Democratic constituencies to vote in support of incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in her contest against Tillis, the Republican challenger.

The big investment by ARS was part of a broader effort by groups favoring stronger gun regulations to challenge the National Rifle Association’s prodigious election spending by ramping up their own independent expenditures — a bucket term for leaflets, postcards, and ads supporting or opposing candidates in federal elections, but not given directly to a campaign. This year, organizations on both sides of the gun debate are expected to devote millions of dollars to attempting to sway voters in key congressional races and states. General election years bring more voters to the polls — and feature a more diverse electorate — than midterms like 2014. But that election cycle, and the North Carolina Senate fight in particular, shows just how far proponents of tighter gun laws may have to go if they hope to match the NRA when it decides to go all-in.

In North Carolina, ARS spent more than it ever had on a race outside Gifford’s home district. But it was swamped nonetheless.

The NRA spent nearly four times as much as ARS on the Hagan race. It invested $2.5 million in just attack ads, which blasted the Democrat as a tool of “out of state gun control groups,” and “liberal billionaires.” One video financed by the group flashed an image of Hagan between President Barack Obama, then suffering from low approval ratings, and Michael Bloomberg, founder of Everytown for Gun Safety, another gun violence prevention group. (Everytown is a seed donor to The Trace.)

In total, the gun rights organization accounted for 10 percent of the spending by all independent groups in the race, a remarkable sum for a single-issue advocacy group. The only entities that outspent the NRA in the Hagan-Tillis race were affiliated with the national arms of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Rather than targeting specific demographics, the NRA paid for television and radio ads that ran statewide.

Hagan lost by 50,000 votes.

The ARS election strategy, according to documents provided by the group, was to target voters it deemed most likely to support Democratic candidates, and encourage them to go to the polls.

ARS documents say it only contacted “those individuals likely to be persuaded to vote for Senator Hagan.” The largest single share of the group’s monetary support — more than $800,000 — financed direct mailings sent to female voters and voters of color, key members of the Democratic voter base. The group also paid for broadcast ads, but those spots only aired on black radio stations.

Going into the election, Tillis was a state legislator with an A+ rating from the NRA and a record of opposing universal background checks and supporting expanding where concealed carriers may take their guns. The mailers aimed to showcase Tillis’s legislative history and highlighted statistics that show that women are in more danger when states lack strong gun laws. The ARS wanted to convince these specific voters that Tillis put their physical safety at risk, according to the documents. (The group would not comment directly on its strategy.)

As ARS was making its pitch to female voters, the Senate Majority PAC, a group founded by former aides to top Senate Democrat Harry Reid, spotlighted a different gun issue as part of its broader messaging campaign meant to boost Hagan: It aired radio ads lambasting Tillis for supporting the sorts of “stand your ground” laws that drew widespread criticism from African Americans after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

In contrast to ARS’s highly targeted advertising, the NRA made sure that voters across North Carolina could hear its message and levied a full-throated bid supporting Tillis, ultimately dropping $4.4 million in independent expenditures on the race. The sum was in keeping with a pattern identified in an analysis conducted last month by The Trace and the New York Daily News, which found the NRA directing ever-larger amounts of money into fewer races in a so-far successful effort to increase the winning percentage of its preferred candidates.

Reaching specific voter blocs with carefully tested messages has become an increasingly popular part of campaign managers’ playbooks. But as some pundits assessed the 2014 results, they found a downside to applying the approach to the gun issue, where it could look less like precision and more like reticence. “Pro-gun-control politicians and advocates are wary about where and how to make themselves heard,” wrote Alec MacGillis in The New Republic. By focusing only on voters already likely to be sympathetic to their cause, groups like ARS, he argued, risked undercutting reformers’ efforts “to persuade other elected officials and the media that gun politics are heading in their direction.”

That may be changing. This year, Democratic congressional candidates will be running down-ticket from Hillary Clinton, who has spoken more about gun violence than any major candidate in memory. Since early in her party’s nominating contest, she has openly and directly challenged the NRA, decrying it as a special interest bent on stopping sensible solutions to a plague of violence not experienced by any other major Western country.

Even when Clinton’s embrace of gun reform may be intended to motivate specific constituencies to turnout to the polls, she’s conveyed those targeted messages from platforms that have ensured spillover media coverage. Where the North Carolina race featured mailers about black shooting victims, Clinton has spoken about the toll of gun violence on black Americans from the pulpits of predominantly black churches in at least three different states.

An ARS spokesman tells The Trace it is too soon to say how the group will approach various Senate races in 2016. He said that approaches will depend on state characteristics and may not mimic the targeted approach in North Carolina, a mostly Republican state where Democratic candidates’ hopes rest on large turnout in swing suburbs and a handful of heavy pockets of black and liberal voters.

Last month, ARS began running television ads in New Hampshire attacking Republican Kelly Ayotte for her opposition to the Manchin-Toomey amendment, a set of gun reforms that failed in the Senate in 2013. Ayotte quickly responded, defending her record. She is running against Governor Maggie Hassan, who has vetoed legislation that would allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

Meanwhile, gun rights groups have already begun to lob attacks at Democrats that are reminiscent of their 2014 arguments against Hagan. The NRA began to target former Ohio governor Ted Strickland via direct mail this spring and is expected to air ads against him later this year. (By the end of May, the total amount the NRA had already spent supporting Republicans through direct donations and independent expenditures neared $1 million.)

The group is using the same line against Strickland that it used against Hagan. An NRA mailer sent earlier this spring warned Ohioans, “You can’t trust Ted Strickland to stand up against the Clinton/Obama/Bloomberg gun control agenda.”

[Photo: AP/Gerry Broome]