The Slow Breakup Between Democrats and the NRA

Group’s all-or-nothing approach to gun rights is forcing some to abandon ties

New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, left, and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid both received donations from the National Rifle Association in 2010, two of 66 incumbent Democrats to receive money from the group that cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, left, and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid both received donations from the National Rifle Association in 2010, two of 66 incumbent Democrats to receive money from the group that cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 6, 2018 at 5:03am

Just eight years ago, the National Rifle Association dished out $372,000 in campaign contributions to a record 66 Democratic incumbents.

By the 2016 cycle, that number had dwindled to four.

At a time when several mass shootings have shocked a nation — prompting calls for stricter gun regulations even from some Republicans — the NRA has become something of a boogeyman for many Democrats.

How that will play out politically is still a question mark. For Democratic lawmakers in urban areas and districts that have dealt with mass shootings, shunning the NRA and pushing for gun control may not be a hard choice. 

For vulnerable Democrats in districts and states where a gun rights culture has deeper roots, failing to earn the NRA’s endorsement has its perils.

But one outcome is already evident: the breakup between the NRA and Democratic lawmakers is all but complete.


It’s not you, it’s me

Some Democrats who have parted ways with the NRA have said the group’s all-or-nothing approach to gun rights during an era of increased mass shootings forced them to abandon their affiliation.

Sen. Martin Heinrich is a gun owner and former NRA member. During the 2010 cycle, the group donated $2,000 to the New Mexico Democrat when he was still a House member. Since then, zilch.

“My frustration with them as a group is they just aren’t part of any solutions. They’re ideologically pure, and they’re not interested in doing anything. … I just don’t think that’s in any way responsible,” Heinrich said. “At a certain point, you just got to say, ‘I’m going to engage with people who want to be part of the solution.’”

Heinrich has not given up his gun collection. He hunts regularly in his home state and works with a number of sportsmen’s groups there.

“[Those groups] represent most of us who are gun owners I think far better than the NRA ever could,” Heinrich said.

The NRA’s real leverage is opposition spending. It spends tens of millions of dollars every year on congressional races, but only a fraction of that goes into the campaign accounts of candidates it supports because of Federal Election Commission rules.

“The gun lobby’s power lies less in donation spending and more in spending against candidates they think aren’t pro-gun,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics.

Take 2016, for instance. The NRA’s PAC spent $14.5 million supporting 44 candidates who won their races, per But it spent more than double that — $34.5 million — against 19 candidates who lost.

NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said the group’s membership is strong when it comes to mobilizing.

“Voters respond to the Second Amendment,” she said. “That’s really the strength of the NRA.”

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is a good example of the risk Democrats take when they  abandon their pro-gun rights positions.

As a congressman, Strickland voted against the assault weapons ban and Brady legislation, which earned him NRA support when he became governor. But by the time he challenged Sen. Rob Portman in 2016, he had shifted away from the NRA. The group spent more than $1.5 million against Strickland. He lost to Portman by nearly 21 points.

2018 will test whether Democrats can win on gun control, said Richard Aborn, the former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence who helped lead the charge on the legislation in the 1990s.

“Does it have the strength to thrust it into the square in 2018?” he asked of gun control. “We need to rally now. It’s not going to happen in three weeks. People say it’s all over. Bulls—. It’s not over.”

Final few

There are still some NRA-backed Democratic holdouts.

In 2016, the gun group’s contributed money to just four Democratic incumbents: Reps. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia, Henry Cuellar of Texas, and Collin C. Peterson and Tim Walz of Minnesota.

Bishop received $3,500; Cuellar $3,000; and Peterson and Walz $2,000 apiece.

The NRA’s Baker said the organization does not actively seek out candidates when it makes contributions.

“We aren’t out, like, recruiting members to run,” she said. “They come to us seeking our endorsement. Our endorsement carries a lot of weight.”

Walz, who is vacating his seat in Minnesota’s mostly rural 1st District to run for governor, has been accused of flip-flopping on guns. He now supports an assault weapons ban and said he will return every dollar the NRA has donated to his campaigns — $18,000 in total over a decade.

Unlike their Minnesota colleagues, Cuellar and Bishop represent districts that Hillary Clinton carried with ease in 2016. But they also represent rural populations with deeply ingrained gun cultures in areas where access to guns directly affects economic viability.

“As a South Texan, I represent a constituency that includes ranchers, farmers, and sportsmen who are responsible gun owners,” Cuellar, who supports the bipartisan and NRA-backed “Fix-NICS” bill to bolster background check enforcement, said in a statement.

Many of his constituents are ranchers who “depend on firearms in order protect their livestock on a daily basis,” he said, and the hunting industry generates thousands of jobs in his district.

“Bottom line,” Cuellar said, “firearms are significant economic drivers in the area that I represent and they play a large role in providing support for thousands of individuals.”

On the rebound

Over the years, a number of prominent Democrats have received NRA cash. 

New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the man tasked with flipping the House this November as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, received $1,000 from the NRA during the 2012 cycle.

Luján said he gave that contribution away.

“The NRA has become out of step with what it means to be a responsible gun owner. Their support ended when I wouldn’t defend their outlandish policy positions — positions that I know would compromise public safety and would not prevent guns from getting into the hands of dangerous people,” he said in a February statement. 

When he was a member of House, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnellyone of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year — raked in nearly $14,000 in contributions from the NRA.

In 2010, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada cashed a $4,950 check from the organization.

The drying-up of NRA contributions reflects a larger shift on guns within the Democratic Party over the past 20 years.

In 1994, Democrats were swept out of the House in a Republican wave year. Many Democrats feared it was because they passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and a ban on assault weapons. President Bill Clinton acknowledged in his State of the Union address the next year that “several members of the last Congress who voted for that aren’t here tonight because they voted for it.” 

After that, “Democrats started to second-guess their support [of gun control], somewhat reluctantly,” Aborn said. 

By 2006, when Democrats took back the Senate and won the House for the first time since 1994, the assault weapons ban had expired. And Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy pushed Democrats to be as competitive in as many states as possible. Many who were elected then were considered moderates or supportive of gun rights.

The shift on guns was so stark that Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist, wrote at the time that while he worried about some anti-gun Democrats, “pro-gun Democrats will also chair some very important committees and subcommittees.”

But over the last few years, Democrats have been divesting themselves of the NRA.

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio received more than $15,000 from the organization since his first congressional campaign in 2002. But he announced last year he was donating that money to three groups, including Courage to Fight Gun Violence, the group run by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011; Sandy Hook Promise; and Everytown for Gun Safety.

Ryan, who has criticized Democrats for losing white working-class voters to Donald Trump and is in the conversation about potential 2020 presidential candidates, said it is important to be upfront with voters about supporting measures to curb gun violence.

“I think as long as you come from the perspective of the sportsman culture is woven into the fabric of America and is something that’s passed down from generation to generation, no one wants to mess with that at all,” said Ryan, who is a duck hunter. “The question is, do we want these weapons of war in the hands of American citizens? The answer is no.”

But the NRA’s Baker said adopting a hard-line position on guns could be the death of Democrats in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“We have a lot of Democrat and independent members,” she said. “[Democrats have] abandoned their constituency.”