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NRA’s spending is way down in the 2018 midterms. Does it have a popularity problem?

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 2, 2018

In this Feb. 22, 2018 photo, Dana Loesch, spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), at National Harbor, Md. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
In this Feb. 22, 2018 photo, Dana Loesch, spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), at National Harbor, Md. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
By Ben Wieder and Greg Gordon Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – The National Rifle Association’s political spending is sharply down heading into the 2018 midterm elections, a shift that could reflect declining fundraising in the wake of a string of mass shootings and an FBI investigation into the group’s Russia ties.

The politically potent gun advocacy group has this year spent one-tenth of what it had spent politically at this point in 2014, according to the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission.

So far, the NRA’s political action committee and political nonprofit arm have spent just over $1.6 million in 2018 on outside expenditures, such as political attack ads, and direct campaign contributions to federal candidates and groups, compared with more than $16 million on similar expenses at this point in 2014.

That decline comes as the FBI investigates whether the group illegally received money from Russia to fuel its support of President Donald Trump during the 2016 election and as the group has seen a decline in dues that has deepened the group’s operating deficit.

And it comes in a year when more than half the states in the country have passed gun safety measures in the wake of protests following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead, and other deadly shootings before it. Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the nation’s worst mass shooting, in which 58 people died and several hundred were injured on the Las Vegas Strip.

“I think in a lot of places they have a popularity problem,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report. She said the shootings and the Russia inquiry could both be taking its toll.

“Their strategy is don’t give an inch,” because then you might have to give a second inch, Duffy said. “I think that that was a strategy that served them pretty well for a while and now they’re paying a price for it.”

The NRA didn’t comment on whether it is seeing a decline in donations, but provided a statement to McClatchy after publication.

“While the NRA doesn’t have billions to spend, we have a formidable grassroots organization. Our strength has always been the tens of millions of NRA members and Second Amendment supporters who consistently go to the polls and vote for candidates who support our constitutional right to self defense. ”

Gallup found in June that, while a majority of Americans still hold a favorable view of the gun rights organization, fewer support the group now than did in 2015.

The NRA has spent less than half the $3.6 million laid out this year by the gun safety political action committee Giffords PAC, created by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 at a constituent meeting in a Tucson suburb. Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has spent just under $1.5 million so far, nearly matching the NRA.

So far the two sides have largely focused on different races, with the bulk of the NRA’s spending focused on Senate races and the majority of spending by the gun safety groups targeting House races.

The NRA has spent most heavily – roughly $400,000 in each – opposing the Democratic incumbents in Senate races in Montana and West Virginia, both states that President Donald Trump won handily in 2016.

The nation’s leading gun lobby group did not oppose either of those Democratic candidates, Jon Tester in Montana and Joe Manchin in West Virginia, the last time they faced election in 2012.

That year, the NRA had spent most heavily by this point in Florida, where Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson faced a challenge from former Republican Rep. Connie Mack.

Nelson survived the race and is now being challenged by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in a race rated a tossup. But the NRA has not yet spent a dime in the race.

Some believe that Scott, a former health care executive who could be worth as much as $500 million, doesn’t need the cash.

“If the building is on fire, Rick Scott always has the ability to break the glass himself,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political strategist in Florida.

But there are also other dynamics at play.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting in February, Scott signed into law a measure rushed through the state legislature that increases the minimum age for purchasing a gun to 21 and requires a 3-day waiting period – or background check – before guns can be sold.

The fact that the law passed – and that its Republican supporters have largely escaped any political consequences for the bill – suggests that attitudes about guns might be shifting in the state.

But the NRA’s lack of spending in Florida so far could also be good, old-fashioned political revenge.

Soon after Scott signed the bill, the NRA sued the state.

Wilson suggested that the group’s powerful Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer could still hold a grudge against Scott.

“She does not take betrayals lightly,” Wilson said.

The group’s choices could also be a product of financial challenges.

While the NRA’s PAC has actually raised more in the first eight months of 2018 than it did in the same period in 2014, its non-profit arm has been operating at a deficit for the past two years, according to an audit of the organization’s finances reviewed by the Center for Responsive Politics.

If the NRA’s finances are constrained this cycle, the group could be making a calculated effort to spend its money in lower-cost states, said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

“Your dollar goes further in a state like Montana or West Virginia than a state like Florida,” Kondik said.

The organization reported a $35 million decline in dues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, contributing to the weakened position of the group’s nonprofit arm.

And the NRA is also enmeshed in numerous legal skirmishes.

In a lawsuit in August, the NRA claimed that the state of New York has cost the organization millions of dollars in revenue by blocking insurance companies from working with the NRA to offer liability insurance to gun owners.

The group also faces an ongoing FBI investigation into the group’s Russia ties, which McClatchy first reported in January. The FBI inquiry apparently began sometime before Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller took over a sweeping inquiry into the Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 elections in May of last year. But the two inquiries have had similar tracks.

Mueller has sought to determine whether Trump’s presidential campaign collaborated or coordinated with Russian operatives. Separately, McClatchy quoted knowledgeable sources as saying the FBI was investigating whether Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, had funneled money to the NRA to help Trump.

The group spent $31 million backing Trump’s presidential bid, including $23 million from its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, which is not required to publicly disclose its donors. Four years earlier, the nation’s leading gun lobby group spent about a third as much in support of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The origins of the additional $20 million remain unclear.

But the FBI investigation appears to have morphed to focus on whether Russia planted an unregistered foreign agent in the United States who befriended influential U.S. political figures.

Last summer, the FBI arrested a Torshin protege, Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina, and accused her of conspiring to infiltrate U.S. political groups, including a U.S. organization that fit the description of the NRA, without registering with the Justice Department. An unnamed alleged Russian co-conspirator matched the description of Torshin, who coached Butina in messages sent via Twitter and Facebook. Butina has pleaded innocent.

To date, there has been no disclosure of significant donations to the NRA from Russian sources. The group revealed last April that it had received a total of $2,513 in donations and membership dues from 23 Russians since 2015.

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