The National Rifle Association spent at least $12 million -- and bestowed its endorsement on Republican nominee Mitt Romney at a Virginia rally -- in its unsuccessful bid to oust President Barack Obama.
The pro-gun rights organization invested $300,000 in each of the Senate races in Ohio, Virginia and Florida, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, and lost them all. Its lone winner in a competitive Senate contest: Arizona Republican Jeff Flake.
And now the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA is facing its biggest legislative challenge in more than a decade: the revival of a gun control movement after 26 people -- mostly children -- were killed during a Dec. 14 shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The 20-year-old suspected shooter also killed his mother and himself.
“Every American has Second Amendment rights, the ability to hunt is part of our culture,” Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, an NRA ally, told WTVR-TV in Richmond. “But, you know, enough is enough. I think most of us realize that there are ways to get to rational gun control.”
The NRA has declined to comment since the Connecticut shootings. Phone calls and e-mails yesterday to Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, were not returned. The association removed its Facebook page and has not sent any messages from its usually active Twitter page.
How the organization manages the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre could have ramifications for 2014, when its ability to sway elections may again be tested.
More than a half-dozen Democratic senators up for re-election represent states with substantial rural territory where gun ownership is common and an ingrained part of the culture. The senators include Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Democrats owe their Senate majority partly to the political success of some senators in states supportive of gunowners’ rights.
A lower voter turnout in a non-presidential election year may give the NRA a better opportunity to knock off opponents in those races. Its influence is “real. It’s not just perceived. They have a real influence because their focus is very clear and they organize around a single issue and have substantial grassroots support for their positions,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator who lost a long-shot, comeback bid to an NRA-backed opponent in November.
“I object to what they say and don’t think that they’re altogether honest as they approach their audience, but that doesn’t mean they’re not effective,” said Kerrey, a Democrat. “Dishonesty is not necessarily something that makes you ineffective in a political campaign.”
The NRA’s history of political prowess dates to at least 1994. In the elections immediately following passage of a ban on individual ownership of assault-style weapons, gun policy was an issue “that could hurt Democrats in Republican-leaning districts,” Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, said in an interview.
After the 2000 presidential election, the NRA calculated that 87 percent of the candidates it endorsed won, including President George W. Bush, who defeated Democratic nominee Al Gore. Since then, no significant gun-control bill has advanced on Capitol Hill.
Since 2010, the NRA hosted at least a dozen receptions for lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans -- including laser-shoot themed fundraisers and happy hours, according to invitations obtained and posted online by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group that tracks political money.
“One of the things that helps them maintain their clout on Capitol Hill is their constant reminding of lawmakers that they have big money that they can put into elections at any time,” Bill Allison, director of the Sunlight Foundation, said in an interview.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate and gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said the NRA is different from other outside groups that have emerged to participate in elections: It’s less partisan.
“You see some Democrats working just as hard as Republicans to get their endorsement,” she said. “They have influence where other Republican groups don’t.”
In the Montana Senate race this year, Democratic Senator Jon Tester, defending his seat, battled with Republican challenger Representative Denny Rehberg as to who was more pro-gun. Tester won the argument, Duffy said, and the election.
Until recently, gun opponents have barely counter-punched.
“There’s really no comparison in money and influence,” said Allison. “If you look at the groups aiming for gun control, there’s very little out there, and in Washington, what counts is getting people elected.”
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns together spent $216,000 on federal lobbying in the first nine months of this year and the 2012 elections, less than 1 percent of the NRA’s spending on those activities.
Some elected officials and gun-control advocates are beginning to question why the NRA has held so much sway on Capitol Hill. A Washington Post/ABC poll released yesterday shows that 54 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws compared to 43 percent who don’t.
Robert Yuille, a 58-year-old registered nurse from Portland, Oregon, whose wife, Cindy Ann, 54, was one of two people killed in a Dec. 11 shooting at the Clackamas Town Center, said lawmakers should defy the NRA and pass legislation.
“I think that we shouldn’t be backing people that want to carry assault rifles around,” Yuille said in an interview. “They are military weapons. If they want to carry a military gun, they should be in the military then.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a chairman of the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said in a press conference that elected officials in both parties are “a bunch of people who I think are cowed by the NRA.” Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Bloomberg tapped into his personal wealth and spent $8.2 million through a super-political action committee on five House races in the month before the election. Candidates he supported won two of those races. Its biggest victory was helping Gloria Negrete McLeod defeat Representative Joe Baca, a fellow Democrat who was endorsed by the NRA. McLeod had been polling low before Bloomberg’s super-PAC stepped in.
Still, the NRA, which was founded in 1871, has proved an enduring institution that withstood the backlashes from the shootings in April 2007 at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, the July 20 rampage at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, and the Oregon shopping mall attack this month.
The organization has 4 million members and reported about $219 million in revenue last year, according to tax documents available online. The money was spent on public education, local and state activities and court battles, tax documents show. Affiliated foundations, civil-rights and political funds reported another $32 million in revenue, tax records show, although some money transfers within the NRA’s various groups.
More than $100 million in its 2011 revenue came from member dues, while $59 million came from the gun industry and other donors, according to its tax forms. A toaster that burns the NRA’s logo onto bread fetched $650 at a November 2011 auction.
The NRA is led by a steady team of executives, tax documents show. Wayne LaPierre has been executive vice president of the NRA since 1991, earning almost $1 million in 2011, the group’s tax documents show. Nine other NRA officials made between $346,000 and $758,000, the tax filings show.
The NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, appeared to be closed yesterday, according to protesters who gathered outside its Capitol Hill doors.
About 200 people invited by Credo, a political group that spent approximately $3 million trying to defeat anti-tax Tea Party Republicans this year, showed up. They held black, white and red signs that said “Stop the NRA,” and chanted “Shame on the NRA.”
Becky Bond, Credo’s political director, said the Newtown shootings represent a tipping point. “It had been gun control groups versus the NRA, but that changed Friday,” she said. “It’s now the American people versus the NRA.”