When it comes to elections for federal office, Missouri candidates are some of the NRA’s top targets in the nation.
An analysis of the National Rifle Association’s campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that the state ranks third in terms of the amount of money the NRA has spent opposing and supporting current members of U.S. Congress over the course of their time in office.
As of August, the amount of NRA money opposing and supporting current Missouri members of Congress has exceeded $6 million. Utah and North Carolina are the only states with higher totals. Longevity makes a difference. In Missouri, a longtime lawmaker like Sen. Roy Blunt has had years to accumulate campaign money, while a newcomer like Sen. Josh Hawley has only had one election.
The NRA has spent nearly $88 million on current members of U.S. Congress when they’ve been on the campaign trail. This includes independent expenditures as well as direct contributions to their campaigns. Independent expenditures are for political advertisements that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate but aren’t made in coordination with the candidate’s campaign. They can fund newspaper, website, TV or direct mail ads.
Both independent expenditures and direct contributions — money that goes straight to a candidate’s campaign — are used to influence elections. And there’s a lot of both targeting U.S. Congress.
“A lot of times, we talk about influence and the appearance of influence,” said Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at watchdog group Common Cause. “It’s certainly safe to say that with the NRA, we’re well beyond the appearance of influence.”
For each current member of U.S. Congress, the Missourian added together all NRA funding related to them. That includes direct contributions to their campaign, indirect contributions that funded material supporting or opposing the candidate and expenditures related to candidates running against them.
For example, the amount of money the NRA might have spent on a TV advertisement advocating for the defeat of senatorial candidate Jason Kander in the 2016 election would count as money supporting senatorial candidate Roy Blunt’s campaign, whom Kander ran against.
Of the total amount of money the NRA has spent supporting Missouri candidates, independent expenditures have accounted for over 92%. It isn’t uncommon for the NRA to spend so much in terms of independent expenditures, as this number is almost 87% for all other states.
While direct contributions are subject to legal limits, independent expenditures aren’t. Because of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, nonprofit organizations like the NRA can spend unlimited sums of money in the form of independent expenditures, which is why the NRA may favor independent expenditures over direct contributions.
“(Independent expenditures) may be an approach that the NRA can use to more specifically target races that might matter … without having to deal with contribution limits in the states that have contribution limits,” said Pete Quist, research director for FollowTheMoney.org, which tracks campaign spending.
The NRA did not reply to repeated requests for comment for this article.
Focus on opposition
The NRA seems to care more about targeting candidates it opposes for federal election in Missouri than rewarding candidates it supports, moreso compared to other states. More often than not, the candidates that the NRA opposes are Democrats.
Using another database from the Center for Responsive Politics, another group that tracks campaign cash, the Missourian found that more than 65% of the money the NRA has spent in independent expenditures targeting Missouri candidates for federal office since 2010 has been spent against candidates, compared to about 57% in all other states, excluding presidential candidates. Nearly 40% of NRA independent expenditures targeting Missouri candidates for federal office from 2010-18 went against Kander when he ran for U.S. Senate against Blunt.
“There’s a general belief that negative emotions are a bigger motivator in getting people to vote and take political action than positive emotions, and so (the NRA) may feel like attacking Democrats is a more effective way to motivate their supporters to get out and vote rather than praising Republicans,” said University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor David Kimball.
The amount of money the NRA spends in terms of independent expenditures tends to fluctuate. For example, it spent over $3 million in Missouri in 2016, the year that Kander ran for Senate, but it didn’t spend anything in 2014. Then it spent nearly $1.4 million in 2018.
These fluctuations can likely be explained by how much the NRA cares about an election and how close the election is expected to be. In 2014, all of Missouri’s House seats were up for election, but they were all won by incumbents, and all races were won by at least 6%.
“(The NRA) just didn’t think there was a need to spend money (in 2014),” MU political science professor Peverill Squire said. “They didn’t see any race where they thought their money was necessary to change the likely outcome.”
Why Missouri gets so much money compared to other states may be due to the political makeup of its federal lawmakers. Of Missouri’s 10 senators and representatives in Congress, eight are Republicans. Missouri’s number of Republican congressmen and women ranks ninth among all states, and Republicans tend to be stronger supporters of gun rights legislation than Democrats.
Both of Missouri’s senators, Blunt and Hawley, are Republicans, and the NRA spends overwhelmingly more money on Senate elections than House elections. Nationally, the NRA has spent an average of almost $779,000 on senators, who run statewide,compared to about $23,000 on House members, who run in smaller districts. Missouri is one of 22 states where both senators are Republicans.
“The NRA tends to give money to legislators that in the past have been strong supporters of gun rights legislation,” Kimball said. “At least on the Republican side, the members of Congress from Missouri all have voting records that have been pretty supportive of NRA policies, so it wouldn’t surprise me that (the NRA has) made significant contributions to Republican legislators from Missouri.”
Of the roughly $6 million in NRA direct contributions and independent expenditures that have targeted Missouri members of Congress over the course of their careers, almost 74% has gone to Blunt. The only congressmen that the NRA has spent more on are Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr.
Why Blunt has gotten so much money from the NRA is due at least in part to his seniority and experience as a federal politician. He represented Missouri in the U.S. House from 1997 to 2011 and was elected to the Senate in 2010, a seat he has held since. If anything, the amount of NRA money flowing into Missouri may be a testament to Blunt’s loyalty to the NRA for so many years.
“I think Roy Blunt is probably already inclined to vote the way the NRA would want him to vote on most issues,” Squire said. “I think what the money does is not change the votes that Blunt might cast on the floor of the Senate, but rather it probably prevents him from taking some of the actions he might otherwise, and that is to try to seek some sort of compromise on some of the more contentious issues we have on things like background checks. It probably makes him less willing to take a political risk.”
Blunt’s office did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
The NRA experienced a $55 million decline in income in 2017, spending nearly $18 million more than it took in, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Member dues also dropped by roughly $36 million from 2016 to 2017. While the NRA said it doesn’t provide membership totals over time, it said it currently has around 6 million members.
The NRA has also been dealing with unstable leadership, according to The Washington Post. In April, its president, Oliver North, was ousted, and its top lobbyist, Chris Cox, resigned in June. Its board members are resigning regularly.
The organization has also had to deal with a shift in some Americans’ attitudes toward gun control. The share of Americans who say U.S. gun laws should be stricter increased from 52% in 2017 to 60% this year, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Squire said this shift may be a reason for the NRA to care more about defeating Democrats than supporting Republicans.
“Certainly the conversation about gun control laws has changed a little bit in the last few years,” Squire said. “I think the NRA has, to some extent, been on the defensive. They have also, to be frank, achieved many of their goals over the last decade, decade and a half. So, rather than trying to push a lot of new legislation through, they’re trying to protect what they’ve already achieved, and to do that, they would like to keep Democrats who might push legislation they don’t like out of office.”
MU law professor Richard Reuben said the NRA might be hesitant to give money to legislators who may or may not support gun rights legislation when it has limited financial resources.
Missouri lawmakers “have been able to get pretty dramatic (gun rights) legislation through, and that’s a proxy for how things are going to play out in congressional districts and in the Senate. In a time of declining resources, it would make a lot of sense for the NRA to target Missouri,” Reuben said.
One might ask why it would be important for the NRA to focus so much on Missouri when it can already count on Missouri members of Congress to support gun rights legislation.
“Just because you’ve got a strong base doesn’t mean you can ignore it,” Reuben said. “You do need to keep stroking it, and in a time of declining revenue, that’s especially important.
At those times, you’re not looking at expanding— you’re looking at protecting what you’ve got. And one of the things that (the NRA has) is Missouri.”
Money isn’t everything
Though Missouri ranks high in terms of NRA spending at the federal level, money is only one way the NRA is able to influence politics. Brendan Quinn, outreach and social media manager for the Center for Responsive Politics, said NRA members are still an influential force.
“The biggest way that the NRA is able to influence politics is actually not something that can be necessarily measured in data — it’s the influence that they have over their members and their supporters,” Quinn said. “They can mobilize their massive email list and get those people to turn out and vote or protest or something like that. That is not necessarily quantifiable. We can track how much they spend on lobbying, we can track how much they spend on independent expenditures, but there’s not really an easy way to track something like that.”
Kristin Bowen, a volunteer for the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action, has traveled to Jefferson City dozens of times to talk to state lawmakers about gun legislation. She said the fact that some lawmakers receive a lot of money from the NRA doesn’t discourage her from approaching them.
“Of course we want to know if they have an ‘A’ rating from the NRA, but we still go and talk to them because we have to be optimistic,” Bowen said. “At the bottom of this work, we have to hope that if we just keep coming back year after year talking about and looking for commonsense places where we can agree, that we’ll get through to these folks, even the ones with the ‘A’ ratings.”
Elaine Blodgett, former president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, said it’s frustrating when any political group has millions of dollars to spend because it makes it more difficult for the individual voter to feel as if they have a say in American politics.
“When you can get out your message a lot more than somebody else can because you’ve got the money to get it on TV or radio or whatever medium you’re using, it is a little frightening,” Blodgett said.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.