The announcement came two days after the National Rifle Association donated $200,000 to the political action committee of House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). That’s by far the NRA’s largest one-time contribution in Virginia in at least the past 20 years, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. The NRA has contributed a total of about $800,000 directly to candidates over that same time frame, according to VPAP.
The NRA traditionally wields power by mobilizing its network of members rather than through large donations. It also makes relatively small independent expenditures, advocating for or against candidates without going through a candidate’s campaign. So far in 2019, the NRA has reported just over $12,000 in such expenditures, according to VPAP.
Virginia’s races are drawing national attention as the only elections in the country this year that will determine control of a state legislature. Republicans are defending thin majorities of 51 to 48 in the House of Delegates and 20 to 19 in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.
Guns became a focal point of the races after a shooter killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called a special session of the General Assembly in July to take up gun-control bills, but the Republican leadership adjourned the session after 90 minutes without debating a single piece of legislation. All bills were referred to a state crime commission, which met last month and is studying the proposed legislation but is not scheduled to report back to the legislature until after the election.
“It’s really shocking how blatantly the NRA controls the House Republican leadership,” House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said via email.
Later on Thursday morning, Filler-Corn announced her political action committee would match the NRA contribution, giving $200,000 to the House Democratic Caucus.
She and other Democrats have criticized Gilbert and House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) for consulting with the NRA and allowing the group to coordinate with gun-rights protesters from Cox’s conference room during the special session.
“It couldn’t be clearer — the NRA is rewarding Virginia Republicans for standing with them instead of their constituents,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post said Wednesday in a statement.
Cox has countered that Republicans are taking a deliberative approach to gun-control measures. The crime commission spent two full days last month hearing testimony from experts and lawmakers.
The NRA’s campaign contribution “pales in comparison to the millions that Mayor Bloomberg has already pledged to bring New York-style gun control to Virginia. It’s less than one tenth,” Gilbert said Wednesday via email.
Gilbert, running in a heavily Republican district, traditionally distributes money from his coffers to other GOP candidates around the state.
Everytown is being strategic with its donations, generally focusing on candidates in suburban swing districts that could determine the balance of power in the legislature.
On Thursday, the gun-control group said it would donate $100,000 to the House Democratic caucus, $125,000 to the Senate Democratic caucus, $100,000 to a state Democratic political action committee and $113,000 to candidates running in particular General Assembly races.
Everytown said the money was to boost candidates it was endorsing in 22 key legislative races, including several in suburban districts in Richmond and Hampton Roads. In Northern Virginia, the group is supporting Democrat Dan Helmer in his challenge to Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax); Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-Clarke) in her contest against former Republican delegate Randy Minchew; Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William) in her race against conservative activist Kelly McGinn; Del. Hala S. Ayala (D-Prince William) in her race against former Republican delegate Rich Anderson; and Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William) in her contest with Republican D.J. Jordan.
The group is also backing Del. John J. Bell (D-Loudoun) in his bid for the state Senate seat being vacated by Republican Richard J. Black. Bell’s opponent is Republican Geary Higgins.
Everytown also said it would hold grass-roots “weekends of action” in partnership with its sister group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, on Sept. 21-22 and Oct. 19-20.
“The mass shooting in Virginia Beach should have spurred state lawmakers to take action to protect Commonwealth families — but the Republican-led General Assembly decided to protect the gun lobby instead,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said via email. “Everytown is going all-in on the November elections.”
Even before Everytown’s announcement, a spokeswoman for the NRA played down the group’s effectiveness in Virginia.
“The NRA is fully engaged in this election to protect the self-defense rights of every law-abiding Virginian,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said. “We are focused on educating and mobilizing our members in support of candidates who will protect our fundamental rights. . . . The Bloomberg and Everytown/Moms Demand lobbyists may outspend the NRA, but they will never outwork us.”