The National Rifle Association took a historic gamble in 2016, and it paid off in a huge way.
The gun rights group placed multimillion-dollar bets on Donald Trump and six Republican Senate candidates locked in highly competitive races. It poured $50.2 million, or 96 percent of its total outside spending, into these races, and lost only one — an open seat in Nevada, vacated by the Democratic Minority Leader, Harry Reid. That race cost the NRA roughly $2.5 million.
The NRA’s big night came as a tidal wave of white voters without college degrees voted overwhelmingly for Trump, leading to one of the biggest election-night upsets in memory. The reasons why this demographic turned out in such high numbers for the GOP nominee will be parsed for years, and it is not at all clear how much of a factor his embrace of the NRA’s hardline position on gun rights played into the outcome.
But the NRA’s investment, which was more than any other outside group, paid for a slew of ads that directly targeted the same voters who propelled Trump to victory. The organization’s radio and television spots sought to cast Hillary Clinton and the Democratic rivals of its preferred Senate candidates as an existential threat to the Second Amendment, and national security. It is a message that resonates in the gun belt, a swath of primarily Southern and Midwestern states where Trump achieved some of his most consequential victories.
In October alone, according to the Center for Public Integrity, roughly one out of every 20 television ads in Pennsylvania was sponsored by the NRA. That same month, the group paid for one in nine ads in North Carolina, and one of every eight in Ohio. The ads imply that Clinton and Democrats would leave law-and-order abiding citizens defenseless. In one spot, a woman is alone in bed when a burglar breaks into her home. The narrator intones, “Don’t let Hillary leave you protected with nothing but a phone.”
Trump won all three states, and the NRA’s preferred Senate candidates also swept to victory.
The NRA’s largest 2016 outlay was the $30.3 million it spent in support of Trump.
In North Carolina, the group spent $6.2 million on the incumbent Republican Senator Richard Burr, the most it has ever invested in a down-ballot race. Burr won by about six percentage points. Elsewhere, the NRA helped elect Senators Marco Rubio in Florida; Roy Blunt in Missouri; Todd Young in Indiana; and Rob Portman in Ohio. It spent between $2 million and $3.2 million on each of those races.
The numbers account for independent expenditures—unrestricted money spent on ads and other media, independent of official campaigns.
The 2016 election results represent a continuation of the NRA’s impressive success rate when making substantial investments in closely-contested races. Over the three prior election cycles, the group disbursed $1 million dollars or more toward 14 congressional races, and achieved its desired outcome 11 times. To help Republicans win back the Senate in 2014, it spent $20.6 million dollars on five key races in the upper chamber, and in each of them, its preferred candidate won.
This election cycle, the NRA spent more than $52 million—a number that will rise as final campaign finance figures are tallied — to carry on its effort to increase Republican control of government, a mission that has ramped up since the Citizen’s United decision in 2010, when the Supreme Court removed caps on independent expenditures. The sum is by far the greatest in the organization’s history, smashing its previous record, of $31.7 million, set in 2014.
In federal elections, the NRA typically ranks among heavyweight outside spending groups. For the second cycle in a row, it has earned a place in the top ten. But 2016 was a unique year for the organization, owing to the fact that many super PACs, like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads GPS, which spent roughly $115 million to elect Mitt Romney in 2012, declined to back Trump. The NRA stepped in to fill the void, putting at least $30.3 million on the line to help elect the real estate mogul, more than any other outside group — including the leading Trump super PAC, which spent $20.3 million.
By comparison, the gun rights group deployed about $12.5 million to help Romney in 2012.
The close relationship between the NRA and Donald Trump began in May, when the organization endorsed the candidate earlier than it had ever endorsed a Republican presidential contender. Trump appeared before thousands of people at the NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, where he gleefully accepted the organization’s official support.
“The Second Amendment is under threat like never before,” Trump told the crowd. “Crooked Hillary is the most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate ever to run for office.”
In July, the NRA’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, was given a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. He reminded attendees that the next president would fill a Supreme Court vacancy, and the new Justice could directly affect gun rights.
“A Hillary Clinton Supreme Court means your right to own a firearm is gone,” he said.
Before Election Day, polls suggested that the Senate, under Republican control since 2014, was up for grabs. Now in the position of defending the upper chamber, the NRA focused the majority of its resources on six toss-up seats, hoping to keep or flip them Republican.
The House, under Republican control before the election, was not expected to change hands, and so it was not a priority for the NRA. All told, it sprinkled roughly $1 million over 48 races. The group made two substantial investments in Republican incumbent candidates — just under $215,000 in Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania, and about $175,000 in Bruce Poliquin of Maine. Both candidates won.
[Graphics: Francesca Mirabile for The Trace. Photo: Lionel Hahn/ABACAPRESS.com]