When Democrats in Congress consider gun control, it is always through the optics of 1994, the year Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives after 40 years as the minority party. Democrats had passed (by a razor-thin 216-214 margin in the House) a crime bill that included a ban on 19 specific assault weapons.
The National Rifle Association responded with a $4.2 million campaign that backed 67 candidates, two of whom lost. Much of the spending was concentrated on a “Twelve We Gotta Have” campaign, in which the NRA lost only one race.
In the end, Republicans won 54 House races and picked up eight Senate seats. Since 1994, Democrats have avoided gun-control legislation—until the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December.
Yet it is unlikely that 2014 will be 1994 redux. Months before the NRA began its campaign in response to the killings in Connecticut, its leadership learned that gun money doesn’t buy as much as it did 18 years ago.
The NRA spent $19,298,775 in 2012, according to OpenSecrets.org, winning 50.7 percent of the races it funded. That statistic, which involved 136 candidates, is deceptive. Most NRA campaign contributions are less than $3,000 and most NRA candidates in that category won. If the metric is dollars spent rather than races won, the NRA wrote off a lot of losses in 2012.
The biggest loss was at the top of the ticket, where the NRA spent $7,201,185 in a campaign against Barack Obama and $1,850,149 supporting Mitt Romney.
The dollar return on Senate races was almost as bad. The NRA spent $489,618 in a campaign to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio; $262,047 against Democratic candidate Tim Kaine in Virginia; $247,962 against Florida Senator Bill Nelson; $210,799 against Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri; and $164,162 opposing Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin.
Brown, Nelson and McCaskill held onto their seats; Kaine and Balwdin are freshmen members of the Democratic Senate Conference.
NRA spending in Indiana is easy enough to quantify. The NRA lost more than $500,000 in Indiana, spending $168,753 on a successful effort to defeat Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, then pouring $349,327 into Republican Richard Mourdock’s losing campaign in the general election. That registers as 1-1 in the win-loss column, even if the NRA campaign against Lugar was the essential predicate to the election of Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly.
With 4 million members, an annual budget $300 million, and a militant grassroots constituency, the NRA remains a force in electoral politics. Yet six Democratic senators who weathered $1.36 million in gun-money attack ads proved that well-financed, well-managed campaigns beat the NRA at the polls.