The National Rifle Association has downgraded its ratings of 15 Republicans in federal and statewide races this election cycle, according to a Trace analysis of the gun group’s 2018 candidate ratings. That’s a sharp increase over previous cycles, indicating that while the NRA maintains a tight grip on the GOP, more Republican candidates are willing to risk the group’s ire by supporting gun control measures.
Every election season, the NRA assigns letter grades to thousands of candidates in state and federal races nationwide. This grading system has become a notorious indicator of a politician’s fealty — or opposition — to the influential group. The grades can make or break campaigns.
Earlier this month, the NRA published its grades for the upcoming midterms, but they’re not easy to access: The NRA website requires users to provide a street address before returning the names and grades of every candidate in the corresponding district. It’s not possible to search by a candidate’s name, or to look up every candidate in a state. In order to see every House and Senate candidate, you’d have to plug in a full street address for each of the country’s 435 congressional districts. So that’s what we did.
We’re releasing an archive of the NRA grades for every House and Senate candidate, as well as candidates for statewide races like governor and attorney general. (Although the NRA also grades candidates for state legislative bodies, we haven’t scraped those.)
Of the 15 downgraded Republicans, more than half were docked two full grades or more. In contrast, the NRA downgraded just six Republicans in 2016, and only one of those involved a swing of more than one letter grade. The 2014 and 2012 election cycles saw eight and seven GOP candidates downgraded, respectively — only three of whom involved swings of more than one grade.
NRA downgrades 15 Republican candidates
|FL||U.S. House||Brian Mast||AQ → F|
|VT||Governor||Phil Scott||A → D|
|MA||Lieutenant Governor||Karyn Polito||A- → D|
|FL||U.S. House||Carlos Curbelo||B+ → Fx|
|PA||U.S. House||Brian Fitzpatrick||B → F|
|FL||U.S. Senate||Rick Scott||A+ → C|
|NJ||U.S. House||Leonard Lance||A → C-|
|MD||Governor||Larry Hogan||A- → C|
|IL||U.S. House||Peter Roskam||A → B-|
|KY||U.S. House||Thomas Massie||A → B|
|NJ||U.S. House||Jay Webber||A → B+|
|TX||U.S. House||Louie Gohmert||A → B+|
|KS||Secretary of State||Scott Schwab||A → B+|
|OR||Governor||Knute Buehler||A- → B|
|OH||U.S. House||Tim Ryan||D → F|
The spike in downgrades is partly due to a revolt of sorts among Florida politicians in the wake of the Parkland school shooting earlier this year. Governor Rick Scott, whose intimate association with the NRA had earned him an A and a speaking slot at the group’s 2017 leadership forum, was dropped to a C this year for signing a bill that raised the minimum age for purchasing a long gun to 21.
Brian Mast, a Republican congressman and Afghanistan war veteran from Palm Beach who was elected in 2016 with the help of an A rating — and $30,000 in campaign support — from the NRA, proposed banning AR-15 rifles and universal background checks after Parkland. He was rewarded with an F rating, and marked as a “true enemy of gun owners’ rights.” His fellow Florida Republican, Representative Carlos Curbelo of Miami, was also downgraded to an F from a B+ for endorsing a slew of gun control measures after Parkland. Curbelo has taken $7,450 from the NRA since 2014. (Mast, Curbelo, and Scott did not respond to requests for comment.)
Other significant swings include Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito of Massachusetts and Governor Phil Scott of Vermont, both of whom were knocked down from A grades to D’s after expressing support for so-called “red flag” laws, which make it easier for authorities to take guns away from people who are deemed a risk to themselves or others. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, who signed a red flag law and other gun legislation this year, saw his grade slashed from an A- to a C.
Not all of the downgrades are easy to figure out. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, the right-wing firebrand who has compared bans on high-capacity magazines to support for bestiality, was dropped from an A (“solidly pro-gun candidate”) to a B+ (“generally pro-gun candidate”) for no readily apparent reason.
Another decidedly pro-gun GOP congressman, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, was downgraded from an A to a B, seemingly because he got cross-wise with the NRA from the right. Last year, Massie vocally opposed the Fix NICS Act, which offered incentives to states to increase data submissions to the federal background check system. The NRA supported the proposal, but Massie said it would “advance former President Obama’s agenda” of restricting gun purchases. Massie’s refusal to play ball resulted in the bizarre spectacle of the gun group accusing the chairman of the House Second Amendment Caucus of “spreading misinformation” about a gun control measure. The incident appears to have lowered his gun GPA, as far as the NRA is concerned. Neither Gohmert nor Massie responded to requests for comment.
This election cycle is the first time that NRA grades have been concealed behind an address-based search function. But it’s not the only action NRA has taken in recent months to make its ratings harder to access.
In June, the group deleted the archive of past years’ grades from its website. Though the removal was initially chalked up to a technical glitch, an anonymous NRA employee told The Washington Post that the move was designed to prevent political opponents from weaponizing the grades, saying, “I think our enemies were using that.” Indeed, in the post-Parkland environment of widespread support for gun control, an A rating from the NRA can be a political liability — in some suburban districts, the NRA could be doing candidates a favor by downgrading them. (Everytown For Gun Safety, which has funded The Trace, recovered and published the archives going back to 2009; we are using that data for our historical comparisons.)
As in each of the past four general elections, the vast majority of Republican candidates — about 93 percent — received grades of A- or higher. But the share receiving an F has begun to grow, from virtually none in 2012 to 2.2 percent this year.
On the other side of the aisle, the share of Democratic candidates receiving the NRA’s backing has diminished with each successive election: 29 percent of blue candidates earned A grades in 2010, compared with 1.2 percent this year. The number of candidates holding middle-ground grades of B through D has also shrunk, from 20 percent to 8 percent. Over the same period of time, the group’s financial support for Democrats has dried up. In the current election, only three Democrats have received campaign contributions from the NRA, compared with nearly 250 Republicans.
The NRA did not respond to an email request for comment. The gun group says that its evaluations are based on candidates’ voting records and their answers to a questionnaire that it distributes. (The survey contains a mix of big-picture questions about gun rights and ones that address legislation in individual states — here are examples from Florida this year and North Dakota in 2016.)
What exactly do these grades mean? Candidates who receive an A or A+ are ones whose votes hew closely to the NRA’s agenda, while AQ designates candidates who have no voting record but responded favorably to the questionnaire. B through F designate increasing degrees of divergence from the NRA’s positions. A newly introduced grade, Fx, is reserved specifically for Florida lawmakers who have received endorsements from pro-gun control groups. A question mark indicates that a candidate has no voting record and declined to complete the questionnaire.
As the NRA appears increasingly embattled, one early indicator suggests that its blessings may not carry as much weight as they once did. FiveThirtyEight found that of 14 primary candidates endorsed by the NRA in 2018, only eight won their races — a lower success rate than the majority of other right-wing endorsers they examined.