Last year’s mass shooting of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., refocused national attention on gun control and led many to call for politicians to stop accepting money from the National Rifle Association. But in the campaigning that followed, Georgia politicians still accepted thousands from the NRA and other pro-gun groups.
But that’s not the whole story.
While the NRA remains a potent element in Georgia’s political climate, there are signs the group’s monopoly on gun issues is weakening. Contributions to Georgia’s congressional delegation dropped by 35 percent compared to four years ago, during the last mid-term election. The decline in spending mirrors a national trend as the NRA is faced with serious financial difficulties, but Sarah Bryner, research director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, said there is another trend at work.
“The NRA’s power for decades has been its ability to activate its supporters,” Bryner said. “There’s not really an answer on the other side. This cycle was different.”
Following the Parkland shooting, gun-control advocates took to the streets in mass demonstrations, students staged walkouts and donors opened their wallets.
While the NRA’s political spending has been stagnant or on the decline, gun-control groups, like Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords PAC, poured millions into congressional campaigns. According to the CRP analysis, gun-control groups spent $11.9 million in political donations and independent spending in the 2018 election cycle, while the NRA and several smaller pro-gun groups spent $9.9 million.
For voters who support gun rights and those who support further restrictions, the change in the landscape is significant. Gun rights advocates have long been able to count on the NRA for significant financial backing. That backing translates into campaign spending that funds advertisements, pamphlets sent to selected voters at home and turnout efforts — and ultimately, election victories. The change means those seeking restrictions on guns now have a new funding stream to tap to be competitive in a close district.
In Georgia, look no farther than Georgia’s 6th District in Atlanta’s northern arc, a House district once held by Newt Gingrich. Newcomer Lucy McBath unseated an incumbent Republican, Karen Handel, in a district that has been trending Democratic. The infusion of millions of dollars in outside spending from gun-control groups helped McBath to be competitive.
The impact of political spending on the gun issue will likely become more pronounced in Georgia as more suburban districts like the sixth become competitive for Democrats.
Georgia’s 6th District targeted
The story of political spending supporting or opposing gun rights in Georgia is more nuanced.
Pro-gun groups gave five times more in campaign donations than gun-control groups, but gun-control groups dominated in independent spending on things like mailers and television ads.
Georgia’s congressional delegation took in more than $20,000 in direct contributions from the NRA’s Virginia-based Political Victory Fund, while state-level candidates received another $14,000, led by Gov. Brian Kemp, who received $5,000 from the NRA’s political action committee.
Much of the outside spending went to Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The tossup district that stretches across the north metro matched freshman Rep. Karen Handel, a Republican, against Democrat Lucy McBath, a national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety who lost her son to gun violence.
According to CRP’s calculations, pro-gun groups plowed more than $86,000 into Handel’s reelection campaign. But gun-control groups, led by Everytown, contributed $4 million to elect McBath, virtually all of which came as outside spending.
McBath defeated Handel in an upset that made national headlines. And just a few days after being sworn in, she stood behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to support a bill expanding criminal background checks to most gun purchases.
“I intend to make sure I am working on the front lines of this issue while I’m in Washington,” McBath said this week in an MSNBC interview. “We are in a very interesting time in our nation right now. For the first time in about a decade we are now actually having hearings that I get to sit in on with the judiciary committee.”
The NRA had better luck in the gubernatorial race, despite a rocky start. The organization backed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Republican primary, a nod to Cagle’s pledge to punish Delta Airlines for its decision to end airfare discounts for NRA members.
After Kemp upended Cagle in a runoff election, the NRA backtracked, formally announcing its support for Kemp for governor on Sept. 21.
“Brian Kemp is an unwavering supporter of our Second Amendment freedoms,” said Chris Cox, chairman of the NRA’s Political Victory Fund. “He is the only candidate running for governor who can be trusted to protect our constitutional right to self-defense.”
But the organization had already made amends for backing the losing candidate by cutting Kemp a $5,000 check several weeks earlier. In addition, NRA board members chipped in $1,525 of their own to Kemp’s campaign.
But the NRA’s real contribution came from almost $850,000 in independent expenditures. Most of that went to advertising aimed as much at defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams, whom the organization claimed would confiscate Georgians’ firearms if elected, than at electing Kemp.
NRA support to Dems dwindles
While the NRA’s giving power has dipped, Bryner of the Center for Responsive Politics said the group’s strategy to support Republicans almost exclusively has made gun rights a more polarizing issue than ever. A $1,000 contribution won’t make or break a campaign, but when it comes from the NRA, it’s a stamp of approval for conservative voters or a deal breaker for liberals, she said.
A decade ago, the NRA contributed regularly to dozens of Democrats in Congress. No more, Bryner said.
“You see candidates advertising their F ratings from the NRA,” she said.
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, is a notable exception. Bishop received a $2,500 contribution from the NRA PAC in this last cycle and was one of just three House Democrats in the nation to accept money from the group.
Bishop has long accepted money from the NRA and other pro-gun organizations, but the checks from the NRA have gotten smaller over the years. In a statement from his congressional office, the 14-term lawmaker tried to appeal to both sides in an extremely polarizing debate.
“Any life impacted by gun violence is tragic,” he said. “I support the Constitution of the United States in its entirety, including the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. That right, however, is appropriately subject to reasonable measures including background checks to limit access to those whose mental health or criminal history demonstrates a lack of requisite responsibility.”
But Bishop is one of just nine House Democrats not to sign on the background check bill. The bill has five Republican co-sponsors.
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