The National Rifle Association owes its fearsome political reputation to its muscular election spending: In recent years, the gun group has poured tens of millions of dollars into dozens of races, winning big in many of them. But with the 2018 midterms just a month away, the NRA’s spending is lagging far behind recent electoral cycles.
Using data from the Federal Election Commission and The Trace’s NRA Campaign Finance Tracker, we dug into into the group’s spending.
In every election between 2010 and 2016, the NRA set new campaign spending records for itself, pouring increasingly massive sums into House, Senate, and presidential races. The group’s outlays in 2014 — the last midterm election — topped $25 million, a total which nearly doubled in 2016.
In the 2018 cycle, it’s a different story. As of October 9, the NRA has paid out just $4.9 million in direct campaign contributions and outside spending, less than it had spent at this point in any of the previous four elections. About a third of that money went toward last year’s special elections in Alabama and Montana. Since then, the NRA has only spent big in a handful of general election races: six-figure ad buys for Senate contests in Montana and West Virginia in September, and Missouri and Tennessee last week. Otherwise, its outlays have been a trickle of direct campaign contributions (which are capped at $5,000 per candidate per election) and small sums spent on phone banks, door hangers, and booth rentals.
The NRA gives direct contributions to hundreds of candidates each year. But the number of races in which it makes independent expenditures — money spent on efforts to support or oppose candidates, including television ads or phone banks — is much more limited.
At this point in 2014, the NRA had supported or opposed candidates in 42 midterm races. This year, the count is just 24 — 10 Senate races and 14 House races. Unless there’s a dramatic reversal in trends, the gun group’s once-pervasive influence will be felt in fewer contests.
At the same time that the NRA’s spending has waned, money spent by pro-gun-control interest groups is climbing. For the first time, the group’s opponents are matching it on the national stage. Giffords, a PAC that promotes gun violence prevention, has spent $3.9 million in outside spending in the 2018 elections, placing it neck-and-neck with the NRA. This is a dramatic departure from the 2016 cycle when, according to PolitiFact, pro-gun interests outspent gun control groups 19-to-1. (Another prevention group, Everytown for Gun Safety, provides grant funding to The Trace.)
As the NRA spends less on elections, it reports money woes elsewhere in its budget
Several recent revelations about the NRA’s finances may explain its dramatically scaled-back spending.
In a court filing in July, the group claimed that its ability to operate has been jeopardized by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to encourage its partners to sever business ties with it.
And an audit of the NRA’s nonprofit arm, reported by OpenSecrets.org last month, revealed that it has spent itself into a hole in recent years, emerging from its 2016 spending spree with a deficit of nearly $15 million and deepening that shortfall to $32 million the following year.
How the NRA spends its election money has also drawn scrutiny. The NRA faces multiple complaints filed by a campaign finance watchdog over its relationship with its top campaign vendor, an apparent shell company called Starboard Strategic. Between 2014 and 2016, the NRA paid Starboard nearly $60 million, which primarily went toward television ads backing or opposing a slate of congressional candidates, as well as 2016 presidential contenders. Amid the scrutiny of the current election cycle, the firm has received only $3.6 million in business from the NRA, much of which was spent on 2017’s special elections.