Fresh from its biggest legislative victory in years, the gun lobby is gearing up for its next project: backing their congressional champions in the 2014 midterm elections. But this time the landscape will be different. At least one, if not more, gun reform groups are promising to spend millions of dollars challenging those incumbents who voted against gun control.
Both sides in the nation’s debate over gun policies are already looking to raise money to spend in 2014, in what promises to be an unprecedented struggle. The National Rifle Association morphed into the gun lobby only in the late 1970s when the group abandoned its more than a century long practice of backing gun control measures. Today’s NRA leaders are already preparing their supporters for the fight.
“In his bitter response to the Senate’s votes, President Obama said that this fight is far from over, and that’s the one thing that he is right about,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm, said in a statement.
In addition to the millions spent by the NRA in each election cycle, so-called “dark money” from various groups who no longer have to disclose their funding sources (thank you, Citizens United) has pumped in even more money for attack ads, especially during elections.
“They are blanketing them everywhere,” Sunlight Foundation spokeswoman Gabriela Schneider, told msnbc.com. “But voters don’t know what’s behind them.”
The gun lobby still faces a challenge, considering that about nine in 10, or 91% of Americans polled in January, said they support background checks for gun purchases. Nearly the same percentage of Republicans in today’s Congress, or 88%, have received money from the NRA at some point in their career, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
The NRA has already begun running print ads against Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and West Virginia, and against Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins in Maine. One Democratic incumbent, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, seems oddly vulnerable to attack by both sides. Sen. Pryor has a C- rating from the NRA, although he voted with the gun lobby last week against gun control legislation.
No less than 42 out of the 45 senators who voted against gun reform measures last week in Congress have received money from the NRA or even more conservative gun lobby groups. The top beneficiaries from the NRA in the 2012 elections were the Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia ($14,000), Lamar Alexander of Tennessee ($10,000), and minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky ($10,000).
The sums may seem small, but NRA spending on campaigns does not count the money that the organization spends promoting pro-gun lawmakers (and targeting gun safety candidates) in its various communications to some 4 million members. Many voters in pro-gun communities also seem to follow the NRA’s lead on candidates whether they are dues-paying NRA members or not.
NRA OUTSPENDING OPPONENTS
Gun reform groups have yet to match either the gun lobby’s financial resources or its electoral clout. The NRA outspent the nation’s leading gun control advocacy group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, by a remarkable 3,199 times or a reported $18.6 million to $5,816 on lobbying in the 2012 elections. At the same time, none of the nation’s various gun control groups have ever claimed large memberships they can mobilize to vote.
The same trends go back decades. Gun rights groups have spent more than $17 million to influence federal elections since 1989, spending 85% of the funds in favor of Republicans, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics website OpenSecrets.org. The NRA alone has contributed more than $14 million. All the campaign donations by gun control groups since 1989 add up to only $1.7 million.
In the past few years, larger sums of “dark money” may have played a greater role.
In January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court 2010 ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that a politically-active group like a “civil league,” a “social welfare organization,” or a trade union could run ads, including attack ads during electoral campaigns, without needing to disclose its sources of funding.
Ten months later, by the time of the 2010 mid-term elections, voters had seen more attack ads than anytime in at least a decade, according to the nonprofit Wesleyan Media Project led by a Wesleyan University professor. Back in the 1990s, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action began implementing a new strategy to broaden out beyond just a pro-gun rights agenda to also raise issues like crime in collaboration with other groups to better target unfavorable candidates.
By the early 2000s, the strategy seemed to bear fruit. In 2002, just 10 days before the November election, Kirk Watson, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, found himself suddenly under attack for allegedly being soft on crime by a group called the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a “social welfare organization” founded by a grant from the National Rifle Association. Watson lost, although he later filed suit over the ads against the LEAA in a case now pending before the Texas Supreme Court.
A decade later, in the 2012 elections, “dark money” groups spent at least $213 million to help Republican candidates and only $35.7 million to help Democratic candidates, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The largest, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies funded by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, spent $67 million in the 2012 election. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $31 million, and Americans for Tax Reform (led by NRA board director Grover Norquist) spent $15 million.
During the recent Senate debate over gun reform, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $12 million running ads in favor of gun control and against gun rights candidates. He began running ads earlier, spending over $2.2 million this year in an Illinois senate race to replace the seat vacated by Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.
Democrat Robin Kelly defeated Debbie Halvorson running on an explicitly pro-gun control ticket backed by Bloomberg’s television ads. It was perhaps the first time, as msnbc host Rachel Maddow has noted, that a national candidate won an election by running a campaign directly against the NRA.
Bloomberg’s effort failed this spring in the Senate. But the group he founded, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and a new group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark, Americans for Responsible Solutions, have already announced their intention to challenge incumbent legislators who voted against gun control, especially in the Senate, in the 2014 elections.