CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story failed to specify that the analysis was based on itemized FEC contributions and suggested an erroneous figure for what the NRA’s Political Victory Fund spent last year. The story has been revised to reflect that fact, and to include the total amount raised by the PAC, including unitemized donations.
The National Rifle Association saw support for its political action committee collapse in advance of the recent midterms, with far fewer NRA members donating large amounts than in any Congressional election year over the last decade, a Trace analysis of Federal Election Commission filings found.
Only 5,300 NRA members made donations totaling more than $200 to the group’s Political Victory Fund last year, down 45 percent from 2018 and more than 40 percent from 2020. The slide is all the more stark given that a Democrat who backs stricter gun laws occupies the White House, a situation that has typically benefitted the NRA’s political machine.
“Damn, that is scary,” said NRA board member Phil Journey, after hearing the figures. “That is huge.”
The FEC itemizes only donations from those whose giving exceeds $200 during an election cycle. An indeterminate number of donors give less than that amount, and the majority of the PAC’s revenue comes via smaller donations. But there’s indication of a decrease in smaller donations, too: When contributions under $200 are added to the itemized total, the PAC took in $7.3 million last year, the lowest amount in the last five federal elections and a 44 percent drop from the $13 million total collected in 2018.
NRA members are deluged with pitches to support the PAC. They can make multiple donations, but individual giving is capped at $5,000 annually. There was also a significant slump in the number of individual donations from higher-dollar donors last year, with 9,600 collected — a nearly 50 percent drop from the 19,000 in 2018 and a 40 percent fall from 2020, when roughly 15,900 such donations were made.
The analysis covers the PAC’s activity through November 28. Year-end filings to the FEC are to come, so it’s possible that the NRA will add a handful of donations to its 2022 total. Historically, however, few donations are reported in the final month of a federal election year. For instance, in December 2020, when control of the U.S Senate rested on the outcome of special elections in Georgia — races that were a focus for the NRA — the PAC reported just 142 donations.
The PAC, which can only accept support from NRA members, recorded almost $1.4 million in itemized donations in 2022 — the first time in at least a decade that the amount collected failed to exceed the prior federal election year. The figure is roughly half the nearly $2.6 million in itemized donations that the PAC reported in both 2020 and 2018, and slightly more than reported in 2012. In unitemized donations, nearly $6 million was collected, by far the lowest amount in the last five federal election years.
Journey, a dissident board member and critic of NRA leaders, speculated that economic anxiety and misplaced faith in a “red wave” of GOP victories contributed to the decline in donation numbers. He also pointed to members’ lost confidence in CEO Wayne LaPierre and top officials generally. Journey said that the majority of members remain oblivious to the scandals that have surrounded the NRA in recent years, but the “most attentive” ones, which he estimated to be between one-fifth to one-tenth of the membership, are disillusioned. “I can’t tell you,” he said, “how often I speak to members who say, ‘I am not giving another dime until Wayne is gone.’”
The NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The organization is nearing the end of discovery in a civil case that New York State Attorney General Letitia James brought against the group in 2020. The suit alleges that LaPierre and other top executives looted the group’s assets for their own benefit. Much of the wrongdoing that James alleges was first detailed in news reports, including several by The Trace in 2019. Since that time, the organization has seen overall income and revenue from membership dues drop sharply, indicating that the number of members is declining. According to the group’s most recent tax filing, dues revenue was $97 million in 2021, the lowest figure in 15 years.
Robert Spitzer, a State University of New York at Cortland professor who has studied the NRA for decades, said the low number of donors last year is “a clear indicator that there are fewer members rallying to the cause.”
While the drop in the number of large donors, as well as declining member revenue, point to erosion of support for the NRA, the organization remains by far the most powerful, well-funded group within the gun-rights movement. As the NRA has contracted, however, other organizations within the movement have seen their prominence and clout rise.
The NRA did claim a major Supreme Court victory in 2022 in a case that it filed five years ago, but the organization initiated only one federal lawsuit last year — a public records action apparently aimed at warding off FEC enforcement. The Second Amendment Foundation, based in Bellevue, Washington, is a plaintiff in at least a dozen federal district court suits filed in the last year.
Some gun-rights groups, like Gun Owners of America and the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, have created super PACs in recent years. Unlike traditional PACs like the NRA’s Political Victory Fund, which was established in 1976, super PACs can accept donations of any size from individuals, corporations, nonprofits, and other PACs. But they cannot give directly to candidates or coordinate with their campaigns. The Gun Owners of America super PAC has collected $2.7 million since it was registered in June, with almost all that money coming from the GOA rather than individual donors.
“None of them has climbed to the top of the mountain,” Spitzer said of the gun-rights groups that are filling the breach, “but to some degree they must be elbowing the NRA out.”
The NRA created its own super PAC in March 2020. Super PACs must disclose their donors, but so-called social welfare organizations like the NRA do not. Almost the entirety of the super PAC’s funding has come via the NRA — meaning that its origin is opaque. In 2022, the super PAC spent nearly $7 million, largely on key Senate races, far less than the more than $19 million spent in 2020.
Just two of the six Senate candidates who received substantial NRA support (and hundreds of millions of dollars more in GOP backing) won in November. They were Republicans Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Ted Budd in North Carolina, who both received roughly $1.2 million in support from the super PAC. In Georgia, the PAC spent $1.6 million backing Herschel Walker, who lost to Democrat Raphael Warnock. In Pennsylvania, it spent $1.4 million on Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, who lost to John Fetterman, a Democrat. The super PAC also spent a combined $1.4 million on losing senate candidates in Arizona and Nevada.