The shifting politics of guns provided steady fodder for campaign reporters leading up to the 2018 midterms. Ads by Democrats pressing the issue were way up, as the party’s candidates made gun reform part of their platforms even in red districts. Spending by the National Rifle Association, which broke its own spending records during the past four election cycles, was suddenly way down.
Now that voters have cast their ballots, we have much more meaningful data: The outcome of close races in which groups on both sides of the issue were significant players. And what those results tell us is that Democrats’ and gun control groups’ aggressiveness on the issue did not boomerang into overwhelming turnout by pro-gun voters.
Democrats earning F ratings from the NRA for their views on gun laws prevailed not only in increasingly bluish swing states such as Virginia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Colorado, but also in conservative strongholds like South Carolina and Kansas. Despite a stinging loss for the Parkland activists in the Florida governor’s race, Democrats picked up seven governorships and six state legislative chambers. In Washington state, voters embraced a ballot initiative that will enact strict regulations for assault-style rifles and gun storage.
The brighter spot for the NRA was in the Senate, where its candidates defeated moderate Democrats in Trump states and helped to ensure Republicans held the chamber.
To see how we selected which races to track for this scorecard, click here.
Gun violence prevention groups got a positive return in their investment in House races. In a first, Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords outspent the NRA this year on federal contests, and that imbalance was most pronounced in the battle for Congress. In four of the six House races the reform groups poured the most money into, their preferred candidates won. They may claim a fifth in Georgia 6, where Democrat Lucy McBath received $4.1 million from gun reform groups in race yet to be called when this newsletter went out. McBath became a gun violence prevention activist following the death of her son, Jordan Davis, in a stand your ground shooting, and the district has been in the national spotlight ever since Jon Ossoff raised a boatload of money in a losing special election bid earlier in the Trump era.
One of the members of Democrats’ new House majority is a former Army Ranger who bases his support for an assault weapons ban on his own military experience. Jason Crow, the winner in Colorado’s 6th district, became the poster boy for proudly pro-gun reform Democrats in twin late-season articles in the New York Times (“Bearing F’s From the NRA, Some Democrats Are Campaigning Openly on Guns”) and Washington Post (“Suburban Democrats Campaign on Gun-Control Policies as NRA Spending Plummets”) summing up the new political dynamic in swing state suburbs.
The latest campaign finance disclosures show the NRA’s spending in competitive House races reaching six figures in just two contests, both won by its preferred candidates. In Virginia, where three female Democratic contenders flipped seats, the group made a late $60,000 expenditure in the 5th District on behalf of Republican Denver Riggleman, who prevented opponent Leslie Cockburn from becoming the fourth Democratic woman to pick up a seat for her party in the Old Dominion State. In Florida, Mario Diaz-Balart fended off a challenger backed by Everytown and Giffords despite scant support from the NRA.
NRA strongholds preserve Republicans’ grip on the Senate. The map always looked tough for Democrats, whose slim path to a majority disappeared when Republicans picked up Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana and held Tennessee — the three Senate races where the NRA made seven-figure plays during a cycle in which its overall spending was down dramatically.
One of those outcomes may invite more scrutiny of the group’s campaign spending practices. Missouri, where Republican Josh Hawley usurped Democrat Claire McCaskill, was the state that drew the most NRA dollars on federal races. As The Trace has reported, campaign finance records also suggest the gun group may have illegally coordinated its expenditures with Hawley’s campaign.
In Indiana, the $1.25 million the NRA dumped to bounce Joe Donnelly shows how much the gun group has become an adjunct of the Republican party. Donnelly hardly fit the profile of a gun grabber, and is the sort of Democrat who not so long ago might have remained in the NRA’s good graces. He’s voted against assault weapon bans, signed onto national concealed carry reciprocity, and voted to repeal DC gun laws. Despite his record, he’s got a D rating from the group.
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Democrats cheer pickups as the Parkland teens absorb a tough loss on their home turf. Unlike the previous two scorecards, which focused on federal races with uniform reporting requirements, state campaign spending disclosure laws very widely, making it difficult to confirm outside expenditures and cross reference them with competitiveness ratings. The numbers above are therefore necessarily less granular than the spending data for the House and Senate, and this list less complete.
One state where we could document significant spending was Florida, where Democrat and proud NRA foe Andrew Gillum lost the gubernatorial race to Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis. Lois Beckett of the Guardian was on the scene as March for Our Lives activists watched the returns, and captured their mix of anger, frustration and resolve.
Democratic gains in other gubernatorial races may well be the biggest story of 2018 when it comes to actual gun safety measures. The party gained seven governorships, including in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker was bounced despite $1+ million in support from the NRA. Nevada’s Steve Sisolak is the first Democrat elected governor there since 1994. He defeated state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who became a burr for gun reform groups when he kept a ballot referendum creating universal background checks going into force.
Voters continue to choose stronger gun laws when they get to decide directly. Washington state’s million-dollar gun-law ballot initiative passed with 60 percent of the vote. Initiative 1639 enacts strict regulations on those seeking to buy assault-style weapons and a safe storage requirement while also increasing penalties for gun owners whose weapons fall into criminal hands. It’s at least the fifth gun safety ballot measure to pass in Western states in the past few years.
The other measure we tracked, a ballot initiative in Florida, might leave casual observers scratching their heads: The NRA unsuccessfully fought an effort to ban betting on greyhound racing. But those familiar with Marion Hammer, the gun group’s chief lobbyist in the state, will know her history of folding seemingly unrelated matters into the NRA’s agenda. The initiative amends the state’s Constitution to affirm “humane treatment of animals” as a “fundamental value.” To Hammer, for whom no cause is too petty or tangential to the NRA’s mission of scorched-earth political warfare, that reads like an opening for anti-hunting groups.
Why We Picked These Races
We selected the races on our federal scorecards by cross-referencing the Cook Report’s catalogue of most competitive races (“Lean Democratic,” “Lean Republican,” and “Toss Up”) with the contests on which the NRA or the gun control groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords have spent the largest sums, as captured in Federal Election Commission reports. Those criteria excluded elections where groups made significant, targeted investments in get out the vote advertising that did not highlight specific candidates.
We did the same for 2018’s marquee governor’s elections and a handful of ballot referenda, with spending numbers for those coming from state online campaign finance databases. (The nonpolitical arm of Everytown is among The Trace’s funders, a list of which can be found here.)
Interest group spending is an admittedly imperfect proxy for issue salience: It doesn’t tell us where gun violence and gun rights ranked among the motivations of voters who turned out on Tuesday in specific races. (Preliminary national exit polling data from NBC News shows that about one in 10 voters listed gun policy as the most important issue facing the country, though 60 percent of overall respondents favored stricter gun laws.) Nor does it capture how many voters may cross party lines to register their preference for candidates who share their views on the subject. But it does give a sense of where the most powerful organizations on either side of this policy fight thought their independent expenditures may matter most.