Ask the National Rifle Association whether it is a partisan organization, and it will issue strenuous denials.
The political reality is that we have President Obama, who had at one point 60 Democratic votes in the Senate and a 39-vote margin in the House. If it weren’t for our pro-gun Democrats, we would be having a very different conversation. To not only have no bad legislation pass, we’ve gained ground despite those very real and very challenging numbers, [which] probably makes us one of the few right-of-center groups to have victories during this period….
We are a non-partisan organization, and we don’t base any grade or any endorsement on a party affiliation. That’s how we have continued to succeed, by solely considering how a candidate stands on the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms…. Our commitment is applied regardless of party, whether it’s Congress or the state legislature. It’s important for us to stand with those who stood with us.
Is the NRA’s nonpartisan portrayal of itself actually true? Let’s take a look at patterns in campaign finance activity to find out.
The Unfair Question
Perhaps the simplest — yet most unfair — answer to this question is a clear “No.” After all (according to Open Secrets’ summation of NRA PAC contribution data from the Federal Election Commission), of the $665,510 in NRA PAC contributions given to candidates in the 2010 election cycle only 28% has gone to Democrats and 71% has gone to Republicans. Isn’t it obvious that the National Rifle Association is partial to Republicans?
No, actually it’s not. The truth is that almost all Republicans in office are strident opponents of any restriction on the right of Americans to own and carry weapons. Only a minority of Democrats feel the same way. The NRA can be non-partisan by supporting all candidates who oppose restrictions on gun ownership and use, but still end up supporting more members of one party if members of one party support the NRA more than members of the other party. To find out if the NRA is partisan in its choices of campaign favorites, we need to ask whether Democrats and Republicans who support the NRA platform are equally supported by the NRA in the group’s campaign largesse.
Does the NRA distribute cash according to party or policy?
Tonight, let’s look at congressional candidates in the first five of the fifty nifty United States: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas and California. Because it takes incumbency to build a track record to make judgments on, we’ll look at congressional incumbents who are running for re-election — that leaves out open contests between newcomers in Alabama Districts 5 and 7, Arkansas Districts 1 and 2, Arizona District 3 and California District 19. Out of the other 67 House districts and 4 Senate seats across the 5 states with a defending incumbent, the National Rifle Association has endorsed the incumbent 32 times and declined to endorse the incumbent 39 times.
28 of the 32 incumbents the NRA endorses are Republicans and 4 are Democrats. Every one of the incumbents the NRA has declined to endorse is a Democrat. But there’s a more nuanced judgment by the NRA: a grade based on a series of votes in Congress. Let’s break down NRA’s endorsements according to political party and the NRA’s policy grade:
REPUBLICANS ENDORSED by the NRA:
2 A+ grades
21 A grades
2 A- grades
3 B+ grades
DEMOCRATS NOT ENDORSED by the NRA:
1 A grade
1 B+ grade
2 C grades
1 C- grade
3 D grades
1 D+ grade
30 F grades
Understandably, Democrats who received D, D+ or F grades from the NRA did not gain NRA endorsements. The few Democratic incumbents from these five states who did receive NRA endorsements had impeccable NRA grades. While Republican incumbents could receive NRA endorsements with lesser grades of A- or B+, one Democratic incumbent with an A grade and one Democratic incumbent with a B+ grade did not receive NRA endorsements.
Who gets NRA support? Who gets NRA opposition? Who gets nothing?
Endorsements are rhetorical expressions of support. But when it comes down to it, especially with today’s PR-dependent public, a congressional candidate needs monetary support to win. That support can come from the NRA in one of two ways. The NRA’s political action committee (PAC) has given some candidates money directly. The NRA has also indirectly bought advertisements in print and over the airwaves to express support for congressional candidates. On the other side of the money equation, the National Rifle Association can sabotage a congressional incumbent’s campaign by giving a PAC contribution to that incumbent’s opponent, by paying for advertisements that support the opponent, or by paying for ads that trash the incumbent. Finally, the NRA might contribute absolutely nothing to a campaign, laying down no money in support of or opposition against an incumbent. For data on all of these sorts of contributions, see the FEC, my source for data.
Six candidates the NRA endorsed have nevertheless received nothing from the NRA in direct contributions or independent expenditures. Five of the six stiffed endorsees are Republicans.
The Democrats who received both endorsements and monetary support from the National Rifle Association have gotten $3,333.33 on average so far. The Republicans who got endorsements and monetary support from the NRA have raked in an average of $2,224.43.
The National Rifle Association has spent $347,970 to oppose incumbents in these five states in this election cycle. Two of them — Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Raul Grijalva — have received a grade of F from the National Rifle Association. But the other three targets — Reps. Jim Costa, Harry Mitchell and Jerry McNerney — have relatively tepid grades of C, C- and D. 33 incumbents, many with NRA grades of F, have been ignored by the NRA altogether in its spending.
If you’re looking to pick a statistic that will show the NRA is unfairly biased against Democrats, you can find one above. But if you’re looking to pick a statistic that will show the NRA isn’t biased against Democrats at all, you can find that too. This is what happens when variation is due to random noise rather than some sort of intention.
I see no conclusive reason (at least based on information from these five states) to reject the National Rifle Association’s assertion that it focuses on policy, not party. Is that what you see?