The final polls made the National Rifle Association’s big bets on the 2016 election look like many were set to go bust. But those polls, as we all know now, did not match the voting results.
Several prominent gun violence prevention groups and allied Democratic candidates headed into Tuesday’s balloting riding a wager of their own, defying the conventional wisdom that assumes campaigning on promises of tougher gun laws is a sure way to provoke a crushing wave of turnout by gun rights supporters. To judge from the startling outcome of the White House race, the audacity of the reformers could be read in hindsight as rashness — and no doubt about, the 2016 campaign was a good one for the NRA.
Gun safety groups did succeed, however, in sending a much-desired message to NRA loyalists with an expensive and stick-thin win in one high-stakes Senate race, and also managed to muscle past NRA opposition to a ballot initiative. An accurate picture of the implications of the historic election of 2016 on the future of the gun debate will require months (or years) worth of journalism, data analysis, and academic inquiry. A first step can be take taken now, though, simply by collecting what we do know: Who won where, and what each side spent to press their cause.
As of Election Day, the NRA had spent more than $30.2 million in favor of Donald Trump — more than twice what it spent on the 2012 race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Even after other conservative groups backed away from Trump’s roller coaster candidacy and divisive rhetoric, the group continued to pour money into the presidential race, becoming a top outside spender.
How much credit the NRA actually merits for Clinton’s surprising loss is a question The Trace will dig into over the days to come, as spending figures and voting returns provide only a superficial (and possibly illusory) answer. Voter models from Clarity Campaign Labs, a data analysis firm that works with Democrats and progressive groups, point to how difficult it will be to isolate the gun group’s influence on candidate preferences and turnout in the states that tilted the race in Trump’s favor. Ohio and Wisconsin — two of the Republican winner’s key midwestern pickups — have electorates that are comparatively hostile to tougher gun laws. Florida has more constituencies receptive to gun reform — but Clinton, of course, lost there too. How big a difference did gun issues make one way or another? It’s way too soon to tell.
Donald Trump (R), 279 Electoral Votes, 47.5% popular vote
Hillary Clinton (D), 218 Electoral Votes, 47.7% popular vote
NRA: $30.3 million /// Independence USA PAC: $788,926; Everytown: $124,784
The NRA was also a significant financial player in six tight Senate races, dropping at least $2 million on each, good for a combined 38 percent of the record $52.4 million in independent expenditures made by the NRA this cycle, according to our calculations.
In five out of six of the Senate races, the NRA’s preferred candidate won, a better win rate than it recorded in its highest spending races in 2014 and 2012.
The NRA was somewhat less aggressively involved in a seventh race, putting in $610,000 on behalf of a resounding reelection win by Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
In another swing state, however, a Republican won despite the antipathy of the NRA. Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey squeaked to a second term despite having his NRA grade dropped from an A to a C as payback for co-sponsoring an expanded background check bill after Sandy Hook. The conservative Republican’s pitch to voters as a pragmatic problem-solver was aided by spending from Independence USA, the Super PAC founded by New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, in a move meant to preserve bipartisan support for basic gun reforms.
With Democratic upstart and AR-15 aficionado Jason Kander falling short in Missouri, the one big win for gun reform groups came in New Hampshire. In a race decided by roughly 700 votes (at last count), Democrat Maggie Hassan ousted Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte — who had voted against Toomey’s bill but took steps to position herself as a moderate on the issue following the Pulse nightclub massacre this summer. Gun violence prevention organizations, hoping to impose a price on swing state lawmakers who vote in lockstep with the gun lobby’s wishes, hammered Ayotte with $8.8 million in spending, and despite her previous loyalty to the NRA, the group mustered only modest eleventh-hour expenditures on her behalf.
The full breakdown of Senate results, in order of spending by gun groups on both sides, looks like this (winners are in bold, and incumbents are marked by a *):
Maggie Hassan (D), 48%
Kelly Ayotte (R)*, 48%
NRA: $90,431 /// Independence USA PAC: $6,206,137; Americans for Responsible Solutions: $2,536,894; Everytown: $27,548
Richard Burr (R)*, 51%
Deborah Ross (D), 45%
Marco Rubio (R)*, 52%
Patrick Murphy (D), 44%
Patrick Toomey (R)*, 49%
Katie McGinty (D) 47%
Independence USA PAC: $3,043,865
Roy Blunt (R)*, 49%
Jason Kander (D), 46%
Todd Young (R), 52%
Evan Bayh (D), 42%
Catherine Cortez Masto (D), 47%
Joe Heck (R), 45%
Rob Portman (R)*, 58%
Ted Strickland (D), 37%
House of Representatives
The NRA entered the 2016 cycle with seven lawmakers rating at least an A– in its candidate grading system listed as tossups or potentially vulnerable to defeat, while fewer D or F rated incumbents found themselves battling to hang onto their seats. With the NRA devoting much of its independent spending to the races for the White House and control of the Senate, gun violence prevention groups and pro-reform PACs furthered their newfound boldness on firearms issues by making forays into a handful of congressional contests.
In the aggregate, the results of the 12 House races tracked by The Trace show the NRA fended off challenges to five out of seven Republican incumbents facing competitive races, but only won two of five tight races for open or Democratic-held seats. The gun group fared better than Americans for Responsible Solutions and Independence USA PAC: Democrats only won in two out of four races where those gun violence prevention groups spent money, and more NRA-opposed candidates won without those groups’ backing — three in total — than with their support.
Seats Defended by Incumbent Republicans with NRA Grades of A- or Higher:
Scott Tipton (R)* 55%
Gail Schwartz (D) 41%
Mike Coffman (R)*
Morgan Carroll (D)
Stephanie Murphy (D), 51.4%
John Mica (R)*, 48.6%
NRA: $58,262 /// ARS: $60,000
Rod Blum (R)*, 54%
Monica Vernon (D), 46%
New Hampshire 1st
Carol Shea-Porter (D) 44%
Frank Guinta (R)* 43%
New York 1st
Lee Zeldin (R)*, 59%
Anna Thorne-Holst (D), 41%
NRA: $36,138 /// ARS: $44,192
Barbara Comstock (R)* 55%
LuAnn Bennett (D) 45%
NRA: $58,549. ARS: $96,722
Democratic and Open Seats Where the Democrat Has a D or F Grade from the NRA:
Val Demings (D), 66%
Thuy Lowe (R) 35%
Independence USA PAC: $538,641
Charlie Crist (D) 52%
David Jolly (R)* 48%
Neither the NRA nor gun violence prevention groups have spent in this race, but gun issues are a factor, for reasons explored here.
Rick Nolan (D)* 50% Stewart Mills (R) 50%
New York 22nd
Claudia Tenney (R) 46%
Kim Myers (D) 41%
Lloyd Smucker (R) 54%
Christina Hartman (D) 43%
For reform advocates, more hopeful signals came from the state level. A ballot initiative requiring background checks on private gun sales passed in Nevada, where the $16 million funneled into the effort by Everytown for Gun Safety and Independence USA far surpassed the $6.5 million spent by the NRA to try to defeat the measure. The more than 558,000 ballots cast in favor of Question 3, according to figures from the Associated Press, slightly best the totals received by Clinton and Democratic Senator-elect Catherine Cortez Masto. In Maine, a similar push for stricter background checks failed, with 52 percent of voters deciding against the measure.
Successful ballot initiatives enacting gun violence restraining orders in Washington state and background checks for ammunition sales and bans on high capacity magazines (among other new regulations) in California put gun violence prevention advocates’ strategy of taking their policy agenda straight to voters at three-for-four on the night. Two years ago, Washington state voters approved their own background check expansion measure.
When all the new requirements go into effect, just less than half of the U.S. population will live in states that have closed a major gun safety loophole.
California Proposition 63
Prop 63 prohibits the possession of large capacity magazines and require background checks for ammunition purchases, among other proposed reforms.
California Democratic Party: $1.1 million; Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2014 campaign: $727,564 /// NRA: $95,000; three state gun groups: a total of $133,000
Maine Question 3
Question 3 would require background checks for all gun sales and transfers (with exceptions for family members, hunting, or emergency self-defense). Everytown spent $5.6 million, ARS: $454,459 /// NRA: $949,359
Nevada Question 1
Question 1 would require all gun sales to go through a licensed gun dealer who would conduct a background check.
Everytown: $13.7 million, Michael Bloomberg: $3.5 million /// NRA: $6.5 million
Washington’s Initiative 1491
Authorizes courts to issue extreme risk protection orders to temporarily remove guns from individuals who threaten to harm themselves or others.
Spending in support of the initiative has come largely from three individuals: Hanauer ($790,000), Steve Ballmer ($500,000), and Paul Allen ($250,000). Everytown spent $550,0000; ARS spent $250,000. As of yet, there is no record of NRA spending in opposition.
Gun safety groups targeted a few state legislatures, hoping to repeat their success in Oregon, where the ouster of opponents of expanded background checks paved the way for the passage of a background check law last year.
Efforts by gun safety groups to help Democrats regain control of the Minnesota House of Representatives, which would have eased efforts to pass background check legislation in the state, failed, as Donald Trump, amid his surge in the upper northwest, came closer than expected to carrying the state. The GOP gained on its 12-seat edge in the House and seized control of the state Senate, where Democrats had held a 10-seat majority. Democrats did gain control of the New Mexico 70-member House of Representatives. Whether Democrats pursue background checks there might be an early indication of whether gun safety advocates can continue to push for reforms in the face of Trump’s triumph.
[Photo: Kyle Grillot for The Trace]