The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • Archive
  • Dwight Morris

  • Campaigns

  • Campaign Finance Special Report

    Money Talks
    The NRA: Political Behemoth Or Overblown Player?

    By Dwight Morris
    Special to
    Friday, July 6, 1998

    One of the most controversial advocacy organizations in America, the National Rifle Organization has long prompted fervent reactions from both its defenders and its detractors. Now widely seen as having lost much of its clout, it has turned to actor and longtime member Charlton Heston in hopes that he can help restore its reputation as one of the 900-pound gorillas of American politics. Looking at the NRA's political track record, it's debatable whether that lofty reputation was ever justified.

    Judging from the numbers alone, it is easy to see how the NRA won a reputation as a political heavyweight. Since January 1991, it has pumped $16.3 million into federal campaigns – more than the six largest defense contractors combined.

    Playing the Campaign Game
    During the past seven years, the NRA has donated $6.1 million directly to candidates and $541,225 to the soft money accounts of the Republican and Democratic parties. During that same period, the organization has poured $9.6 million into so-called independent campaigns, including roughly $5.3 million for mailings and phone calls to its members, and $4.3 million for advertising, persuasion mailers to non-NRA members and staff support.

    And its average isn't bad. In the 1992, 1994 and 1996 campaigns, the organization backed 714 general-election winners in House and Senate contests; only 315 of its candidates lost.

    Unsuccessful Efforts
    But these numbers do not tell the entire story. While there is no denying that the NRA has spent heavily to influence the political process, it is less clear what it got for its money. In 1992 the gun lobby spent $811,418 in an unsuccessful attempt to reelect President George Bush – including a $760,081 communications campaign designed to energize NRA members. It was by far the group's most expensive effort during the 1990s.

    Also in 1992, the NRA invested $236,063 in an unsuccessful attempt to oust then-Democratic Rep. Mike Synar (Okla.) in the primary. It spent $127,561 on anti-Synar radio and television commercials, accusing him in one TV spot of voting "with liberals like Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank over 90 percent of the time." One of the NRA-sponsored radio ads, a parody of the game show "Jeopardy," began with a mock contestant saying, "I'll take 'No Home on the Range' for $400." The host then read, "He owns a beautiful home in Washington, D.C., but doesn't even have a trailer in Oklahoma," and asked the contestant for the question. The obvious and instant response: "Who is Mike Synar?"

    The NRA also bought full-page newspaper ads for $43,479, calling Synar "the only congressman from Oklahoma who voted to take away your guns." The organization opened an office in Synar's congressional district and spent $14,007 on travel for the staff that orchestrated its opposition effort. Ultimately, Synar skated through with a five-point primary victory and cruised to reelection that November.

    Better Luck
    On the flip side, the NRA has successfully supported some high-profile winners. In 1992, the "Year of the Woman," the organization spent $181,911 to help reelect Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who narrowly defeated women's advocate Lynn Yeakel. In 1994, another Pennsylvania Republican benefited from NRA support: Rick Santorum won his Senate bid, helped by a $324,114 independent effort. The NRA also targeted Tennessee Republicans for help that year; it spent $233,030 on behalf of Sen. William Frist and $228,755 for Sen. Fred Thompson.

    But in the context of these multimillion-dollar Senate races, it is hard to argue that the NRA's outlays made the difference between winning and losing. Specter spent $10.1 million on his bid, including a $4.6 million budget for television and radio commercials. The National Republican Senatorial Committee helped out with another $980,540 for Specter's ads, which all but ignored the issue of gun control.

    On the House side, the NRA spent $114,710 on an independent effort to help Rep. George R Nethercutt, Jr. (R-Wash.) in his 1994 upset victory over then-House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D). Long a Foley supporter – the NRA spent $22,539 to elect him in 1992 – the organization ran ads in 1994 attacking his support for a ban on assault-style weapons. In an election decided by fewer than 4,000 votes, the organization's reversal may have made the difference.

    Even so, the NRA has boosted its ratio of electoral success by backing – like most other big players in the political game – a huge number of safe incumbents like Rep. Robert L. Livingston (R-La.), who would have won with or without the gun lobby's help. The organization tends to lend modest financial backing for such candidates, but the effort nonetheless looks good on the post-election tally sheet. Livingston received just $3,637 in 1992 and $2,000 in 1994 for races he won with 73 percent and 81 percent of the vote, respectively. In 1996 he ran unopposed, and the NRA gave him $4,950.

    Affecting Legislation: The Story of the Crime Bill
    According to conventional wisdom, the NRA gives all this money – especially the money to safe incumbents – to help sway the legislative process. In August 1994, for example, President Clinton suffered a stinging defeat when the House voted 225 to 210 to block a decision on his crime bill. The measure had received an early thumbs up from the House just four months earlier, but because the August version of the bill included a ban on assault weapons, the NRA and its generous donations quickly won credit for its defeat. But that was wishful thinking as well as political reality; the president conveniently overlooked his own political blundering on the issue.

    Roughly half of the 42 Democrats who deserted Clinton's position between April and August had received no money from the NRA. One such Democrat, Rep. Ted Strickland of Ohio, was narrowly elected in 1992 despite the NRA's $20,000 expenditure against him. He backed the gun lobby's position in 1994 because he had promised his constituents he would not support gun control, and in so doing had won over the NRA. In short, his constituents' beliefs mattered more than the organization's money.

    The agendas of congressional groups played a role as well. Ten members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed the August version of the bill because it failed to include anti-discrimination mandates in applying the death penalty. If eight of those 10 had voted for the measure, it would have passed.

    Of the Republicans who switched their positions to oppose the crime bill in August, 32 received no money from the NRA. Seventeen of them, including Rep. Deborah Price of Ohio, supported an assault weapons ban but voted against the crime bill because they felt it had become a vehicle for more spending on social programs that had nothing to do with crime. Again, if only eight of those members would have stuck to their original position, the bill would have passed.

    On the other side of the equation, Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) opted to support the crime bill and the assault weapons ban, even though he benefited from the NRA's $180,708 independent outlay during his extremely tight 1992 election. The district had been gerrymandered to increase the likelihood of electing a new Hispanic member of Congress, and Green, who is white, emerged with the Democratic nomination after three rounds of acrimonious campaigning.

    After finishing second to Houston City Councilman Ben Reyes in a five-candidate primary, Green won the subsequent runoff by only 180 votes. However, when several hundred people who had voted in the Republican primary were determined to have crossed over to vote in the Democratic race, a state district judge declared the runoff results void. That launched a third round of mud-slinging, which Green won by 1,132 votes. Without the NRA's support, he might very well have lost. Less than two years later he turned his back on the gun lobby and voted for the assault weapons ban because he felt it was in his constituents' best interests.

    Money is crucial in modern politics, but don't let anyone tell you it is the only thing that matters.

    © Copyright 1998 Campaign Study Group

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar