The National Rifle Association has spent more money on state elections in Washington than any other state in recent years, showing the gun-rights group’s willingness to flex its financial muscle here even as it has scaled back on direct contributions to influence campaigns elsewhere.
Candidate contributions totaling about $203,000 helped the campaigns for both the Washington state House and Senate between 2012 and 2016, the most recent election year for which reliable data is available from the National Institute of Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan clearinghouse for campaign-finance information. Texas was a distant second over that period with $95,750, according to a Seattle Times analysis.
The effort by nation’s most powerful gun-rights group to shape the makeup of the Washington Legislature comes in a state where the split between Democrats and Republicans has narrowed over years and the issue of firearm access becomes increasingly divisive.
How the NRA wields its political influence – with its deep pockets and powerful mobilizing – is particularly important now while changes to gun laws dominate talks among both state and federal officials after the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting last month.
At most state and federal levels, the gun-rights group is easing direct candidate contributions and instead ramping up donations to get-out-the-vote operations and ad campaigns.
But a different story is playing out in Washington.
“I would say the NRA has a vested interest in trying to flip the Legislature in Washington,” said J.T. Stepleton, a researcher for the institute.
He called the spending in Washington “very much an anomaly.”
According to the data, which are a compilation of campaign-finance reports from all U.S. states, contributions to state-level candidates in Washington began ramping up in 2010, when Democrats had significant majorities in both chambers.
Since then, more wins by Washington Republicans have narrowed the split. Currently, Democrats have a one-vote majority in the Washington state Senate and two-seat majority in the House.
“Both sides were really close, and as time has gone on, gun control has become a more partisan issue,” Mark Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington. “It makes controlling the chamber that much more important.”
But as a whole, the NRA donates small amounts of money to candidates when compared with independent expenditures, or money that has no limit and often take the form of mailers, television and online advertising and other campaign tactics to persuade voters one way or the other. The bankroll increased by some $54.6 million between 2011 and 2016, according to institute’s data.
The NRA did not return a message seeking comment.
Across the country, state officials are taking up gun legislation in response to public outrage over the Feb. 14 shooting at the Parkland high school that killed 17 people.
The proposals range from what the NRA calls “self-defense” legislation that would allow people to carry guns around schools or churches in South Dakota to an executive order by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to establish a policy to take away guns from people who pose a danger to themselves or others, joining five other states with similar laws, including Washington, the New York Times reported.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bump-stock ban, making Washington the latest state to prohibit the devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire more quickly. State senators are also mulling a proposal that would enhance background checks on rifle purchases and raise the legal age to buy rifles to 21.
Beyond campaign donations, the NRA’s success mobilizing its some 5 million members nationwide and pushing messages online, in meetings and via letters, proves more powerful than its financial clout.
The group shapes the country’s dialogue on guns with its vocal fan base, focusing on the fear of people losing them with government intervention, Smith said.
“Thirty years ago, you could talk about gun control, and people weren’t going to assume that it was government troops showing up at your doorstep,” he said.
The issue taps into people’s cultural identity.
“If you’ve grown up around guns, and you think guns are part of who you are, it’s just not something that you want to see tampered with,” Smith said.
According to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, Republicans and Democrats have very different beliefs on what causes gun violence, and whether it is a serious problem in the U.S.
Majorities in each party seem to find common ground on preventing people with mental illnesses from buying guns, barring gun purchases by people on federal no-fly or watch lists and background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows, the 2017 study says. The most divisive proposals are those that allow people to carry concealed guns in more places and arm K-12 school officials.
With the NRA, elected officials receive grades based on their voting record on gun rights; several in Washington have lifetime ‘A’ ratings, including Democrats Sen. Dean Takko, Sen. Steve Hobbs, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, Rep. Brian Blake and Rep. Pat Sullivan.
Other gun-rights lobbying groups include the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights, only the first of which donated $5,500 to state-level candidates in Washington in 2016, according to the institute.
Meanwhile, opposing organizations, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility and Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocate for measures such as the 2014 initiative that expanded gun-purchase background checks and the 2016 gun-safety ballot measure, donated a combined $50,250 to state-level candidates the same year.
The institute, based in Montana, is wrapping up its configuration of 2017 data and is in the process of collecting 2018 campaign-finance reports, Stepleton said.
Material from The Associated Press contributed to this report.