NRA influence stretches beyond direct contributions

By ANDREW BIRKLE
Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite the National Rifle Association’s reputation as a powerful lobby, the group donated to only one Michigan lawmaker in 2017, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records.

While Michigan’s state lawmakers raised nearly $8 million last year, Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, was the only one who got money from the NRA’s political action committee – a $500 donation.

Why Cole was singled out is hard to say. The NRA isn’t talking about it. Cole emailed this statement: “I am honored that because of my Second Amendment stance and hard work on legislation that I have gained the support of the NRA.”

Cole said the NRA is a grassroots organization with many members in his district, which covers Montmorency, Antrim, Charlevoix, Oscoda and Otsego counties.

So, how does the NRA maintain its reputation as a powerful influencer of state lawmakers without direct PAC donations?

The organization still spends a lot of money on elections without contributing to individual candidates, said Emily Durbin, the leader of Michigan’s Moms Demand Action chapter, an organization that works to reduce gun violence.

“Much of it consists of funding mailers in opposition to those running against their preferred candidate,” Durbin said.

Mailers fall under something called independent expenditures, a way of supporting a specific candidate without being in communication with them, said

J T Stepleton, a researcher for the National Institute on Money in State Politics based in Helena, Montana.

That makes them unlike traditional PAC donations, which go directly to lawmakers’ campaigns where they can use it however they chose, Stepleton said.  The strategy used by the NRA’s PAC allows the organization to support a candidate without appearing in campaign finance reports.

“If (PACs) are spending money on Michigan elections, the odds are it’s going to end up being in the form of independent expenditures,” Stepleton said. “That comes with a number of benefits for those involved, especially because they don’t have to deal with contribution limits.”

The NRA doesn’t spend a lot of money on state-level races, he said. “It’s not that they won’t, and they often times strategically target certain races, but they do devote most of their money to federal elections.”

The NRA’s support often come in the form of scorecards, which are mailed to voters to show where candidates stand on gun issues and usually come with a grade.

Scorecards “can be a pretty powerful force in an election,” Stepleton said.

The NRA says it remains influential because its members truly care about gun rights. Officials with the group declined direct comment and an interview request for this article. However, they said in an email:

“The power of the NRA comes from our expansive and passionate member base and our grassroots organization,” Amy Hunter, the media liaison for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, wrote. “Our members, and all Second Amendment supporters, care deeply about this issue and they vote.”

Durbin, of Michigan’s Moms Demand Action, said a key factor in the NRA’s effectiveness is its ability to fire up its base, Durbin said.

“They mobilize some of their members to loudly and persistently advocate with their lawmakers,” Durbin said. “They tend to use a lot of inflammatory language and scare tactics to convince their members that reasonable, common-sense measures on gun policies are actually covert attempts to confiscate guns or to completely roll back the Second Amendment.”

Stepleton agrees that member engagement is key for the NRA.

“One thing that just goes overlooked is their own mobilization capacity,” Stepleton said. “That is essentially how they interact with their members, which wouldn’t really show up on a campaign finance report.”

Durbin said that when constituents call, lawmakers pay attention, and the narrative that the government and political left are trying to take away guns has been very effective for the NRA.

“It is really telling people, many of whom have hobbies or interest related to firearms, that someone is trying to take that part of their hobby, their identity, their interest, part of their traditions away and people wish to defend that,” Durbin said. “Even if none of the proposals on the table are anything close to that.”

In Michigan, Stepleton said, it’s less about direct money contributions and more about the NRA telling its members whom they can trust. When the NRA’s leaders talk, its members listen and tend to vote accordingly.

Andrew Birkle writes for Spartan Newsroom.