If money is an indicator of the National Rifle Association’s election priorities, then its first concern is propelling Donald Trump to the White House, and its second is defeating Ted Strickland, the former governor of Ohio.
Strickland, a Democrat, hopes to wrest away the U.S. Senate seat of Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican incumbent who is one of the NRA’s more stalwart allies in the upper chamber. The gun rights organization has spent over $1.7 million attacking Strickland, a candidate that it once supported with an A+ rating.
In 2010, the NRA even endorsed Strickland in his bid to hold onto the governorship of Ohio in his contest with Republican John Kasich, who ultimately prevailed. Since then, Strickland, under pressure from his primary opponent and President Barack Obama, has transformed into an ardent supporter of stricter gun laws, including expanding background checks and closing the “terror gap.”
Excluding the presidential contest, the $1.7 million exceeds all of the NRA’s other independent expenditures on 2016 federal candidates — ones it supports and opposes — combined. According to Federal Election Commission data, the NRA has independently spent just over $1.1 million on ads and activities like phone-banking in an effort to help or defeat candidates for federal office other than Strickland. That number includes the roughly $225,000 the NRA has spent to promote Portman.
The NRA has also spent modest six-figure sums supporting three other Republican Senate candidates — Richard Burr of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Richard Shelby of Alabama — and one Republican House candidate, Lloyd Smucker, of Pennsylvania.
But the expenditures drop steeply from there. The NRA has offered limited support to a tiny pool of Republican congressional candidates, including Kevin McCarthy of California and Darin LaHood of Illinois, but it has not spent more than $15,000 on any of them. And perhaps most surprisingly, the most it has spent attacking another Democratic candidate is $1,300 — directed toward Jason Kander, who is challenging Roy Blunt for his Senate seat in Missouri. Typically, the NRA spends more attacking candidates than it does supporting them.
This year, there are 34 contested seats in the Senate, 24 of which are currently occupied by Republicans, who hold a slight majority in the upper chamber. It is the first time in a decade that the GOP is in the position of defending the Senate, which means the NRA is playing defense, too. Over the last three cycles, the NRA has essentially become a Republican-only organization, federal election spending data show.
Yet with 11 weeks until Election Day, and some forecasts indicating that the Democrats are likely to retake the Senate, the NRA appears almost singularly focused on defeating Strickland.
The gun group’s efforts to influence the Ohio Senate contest appear to be part of its larger strategy to inject money into close down-ballot races to ensure that Congress remains under Republican control. That it has spent so much money on just one race, however, suggests that more than election strategy may be at play: The NRA views defeating Strickland as personal, and necessary to maintaining its reputation as the lobbying group politicians had better not cross.
“This is the heavyweight bout among Senate races,” says David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati and a federal elections expert. “You have two major names going up against each other in the battleground state, and one of them, Ted Strickland, is considered a traitor to the NRA’s cause.”
For the gun rights organization, making a show of punishing politicians who defy it is part of the standard playbook.
“It’s a signal,” says Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University. “This is what we do if you change. We go after you big time.”
Strickland is not the only Senate candidate who was once considered a staunch NRA ally, only to later change course. In 2010, the NRA provided copious financial support to Pat Toomey, a Republican who was seeking Arlen Specter’s seat in Pennsylvania. Three years after Toomey won the race, he worked with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin on legislation that would expand background checks, an initiative the NRA opposed and ultimately helped defeat. (Toomey is now up for reelection, but the NRA has not spent any money attacking him. He may have defied the organization, but punishing him would only help elect a Democrat.)
Strickland was once a committed pro-gun Democrat. As a congressman, he opposed the Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban. As a first-term governor — his only term, it turned out — he promised that “no anti-gun bill will ever pass in Ohio” under his administration. During his reelection bid, in a nod to his roots in the state’s working class Appalachian region — now a Trump stronghold — he ran an ad that featured the NRA’s endorsement, and a shot of him in the woods, holding a rifle.
The NRA was convinced. It supported Strickland over Kasich, his Republican challenger. This likely had much to do with Kasich’s own record: As a congressman under President Clinton, he had voted in favor of the assault weapons ban.
Those rural voters are certain to support Portman in overwhelming numbers. In June, both the United Mine Workers of America and the Ohio Conference of Teamsters endorsed the Republican incumbent.
The NRA did not comment for this story, and generally refuses to discuss its election strategy. But in assailing Strickland, it is likely trying to ensure that white, working class constituents, in particular, vote against him in overwhelming numbers. With Trump trailing in polls in the state, the group is also likely trying to persuade dispirited voters who are turned off by the candidate at the top of the ticket to turn out to vote.
In its latest ads, the NRA tells a story of betrayal and apostasy, sins that require extreme punishment.
“Some people want power. Others want money,” one spot goes. “Ted Strickland wants both.
Strickland was the first member of his family to attend college. He is from a rural part of the state, and has lived around guns his entire life. A spokesman for his campaign says that his background makes him a credible advocate for restrictions meant to reduce gun violence.
“Ted has a close, personal connection to Southeast Ohio,” says David Bergstein, Strickland’s campaign spokesman. “His background makes him a powerful messenger because he understands that guns and hunting are a way of life in that region of the state.”
The nonpartisan Cook Report considers the Ohio contest to be a “toss-up” — one of 2016’s most competitive races. But the latest poll by Monmouth County University has Portman ahead by eight points, a number that accords with the other major polls that have been conducted since the conclusion of both parties’ conventions.
For the NRA, the story of how it defeated an apostate would be a powerful narrative to tell its members. But it would come with a large asterisk.
All told, independent spending against Strickland has reached at least $18.8 million. Another $2 million has been spent in support of Portman. The NRA’s spending, while substantial, accounts for a little less than 10 percent of this total.
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, at least 46,000 ads related to the Strickland-Portman race have run in Ohio since the start of the campaign. No other Senate race has come close to attracting as many.