Gun signs

Washington – Gun rights groups and gun control advocates are both claiming victories in this year’s midterm elections, but their political impact wasn’t as they would like you to believe.

The biggest victory for the National Rifle Association,  which spent more than $50 million trying to elect friends and defeat foes, is that it helped the GOP regain control of the Senate and no longer has to worry about gun control advocates winning support in Congress for federal legislation.

The NRA concentrated much of its spending supporting a group of Senate candidates who share its Second Amendment views in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Dakota and, probably, Alaska, where the race has still not been called.

The NRA had a clear advantage in those contests because they were run in “red” states that leaned toward the GOP.

“It was gun owners, time and again, who put those candidates on top,” said NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre.

Gun control advocates had big wins, too.

Their biggest win was the approval by Washington state voters of a ballot initiative to expand background checks to cover all private sales and transfers of firearms.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded with the help of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent $4 million on the effort, outgunning the NRA, which spent about $500,000.

The initiative makes Washington the fifth state to approve expanded checks since the massacre of first-graders in Newtown in 2012.

Gun control advocates say they will take the issue directly to voters from now on, bypassing Congress and state legislatures. They are preparing another initiative in Nevada, and possibly in Arizona and Maine.

“From the very beginning of this election season, we have not been focused on Washington, D.C., because it is broken,” said Erika Soto Lamb, communications director for Everytown for Gun Safety.

Gun control advocates  claim another victory in the re-election of Gov. Dannel Malloy, who pushed strict new gun control laws after the Newtown shootings.

A photograph of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signing the bill passed in response to the Newtown shootings, surrounded by family members of Sandy Hook Elementary School children who were killed.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signs the bill passed in response to the Newtown shootings.

Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC spent $1.7 million in attack ads directed at Malloy’s GOP challenger Tom Foley. Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group founded by former Rep. Gabriel Giffords, D-Ariz., herself a victim of a mass shooter, spent more than $500,000 in ads and $200,000 in mailings to help Malloy.

Other gun control victories were the re-elections of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was in a tight race; and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wasn’t. Like Malloy, Hickenlooper and Cuomo successfully marshaled new gun-control measures into law after the Newtown tragedy.

The NRA did not spend money in Connecticut and spent less attacking Hickenlooper and Cuomo than it did other Democrats.

But Second Amendment advocates did spend money a lot of money. The NRA can now count on seven new NRA-backed senators in Congress and have expanded its number of allies in the House of Representatives.

 Good news for gun control?

While the NRA backed many winning candidates, in a letter to supporters last week, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., preferred to look optimistically at the issue of guns in the midterm elections.

“This past Tuesday, we took a giant leap forward, and amidst a very bad day for Democrats across the country, I wanted you to know about this good news,” Murphy wrote.

The e-mailed letter, which has a “donate” button at the bottom, mentioned the victories of Malloy, Cuomo and Hickenlooper, and the re-election of others who supported a 2013 effort in the Senate, known as the Machin-Toomey bill. That measure, named for its bipartisan cosponsors, would have extended FBI background checks of gun purchasers. The bill failed to muster the 60 votes needed to move it ahead.

“In states with a high number of voters who own guns, like New Hampshire, Oregon, Maine, New Mexico and Minnesota, senators who voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill to expand background checks were re-elected,” Murphy’s letter said.

Soto Lamb said the midterm elections served as a myth buster.

“We showed in this election that guns were not a third rail of politics,” she said. “It used to be if you voted against the NRA, you were through.”

Murphy and fellow gun-control supporters also point to the recapture of two state House seats in Colorado that had been lost in the recalls of lawmakers who supported the state’s tough new gun laws.

Murphy also said that in Oregon and Minnesota, nearly all candidates backed by Everytown for Gun Safety won their races.

“The majority of candidates supported by Gabby Giffords’ organization won their races, as well,” Murphy said.

His letter did not note that most of these races – except the New Hampshire Senate race – were not close. And  Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and her GOP rival Scott Brown – have supported new gun-control measures.

But there’s no doubt that gun-control advocates have increased their fundraising and activities.

“For the first time in decades, there’s a growing counterweight to the gun lobby’s influence in Congress and state Capitols across the country,” Murphy said. “And as we look forward to the years ahead, it’s important to note that our work is paying off.”

In an analysis of the midterm elections, the non-profit Sunlight Foundation gave the NRA a 95 percent success rate.

But it also gave Independence USA a 100 percent success rate because it focused the bulk of its general election spending — $3.8 million — helping to re-elect Robert Dold, an Illinois Republican, to the House seat he lost two years ago.

“The PAC also made smaller expenditures to help re-elect Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., both of whom faced far less competitive races,” the Sunlight Foundation said.

Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, called Bloomberg “a gamechanger” in politics.

But he also said the NRA is powerful even when it loses elections, like it did in 2012 when only about 5 percent of the candidates the organization had backed won.

Even with the disastrous results of that election, the NRA was able to block the Manchin-Toomey bill the next year, he said.

“One of the things people should remember is that the NRA spends a lot of money lobbying in Washington,” he said. “That’s just as important when it comes to understanding its influence.”

Here is a breakdown of spending by the National Rifle Association of America Political Victory Fund, which had a success rate of 95 percent.

  • Total 2014 general election spending on identifiable federal candidates: $12,211,117
    • Positive General Election Spending: $4,964,168
      • $4,642,105 spent supporting winners
      • $281,204 spent supporting losers
      • $40,859 spent supporting candidates in undecided races.
    • Negative General Election Spending: $7,246,949
      • $248,107 spent opposing winners
      • $5,973,542 spent opposing losers
      • $1,025,300 spent opposing candidates in undecided races

Here is a breakdown of election spending by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which had a success rate of 83 percent.

  • Total 2014 General Election spending on identifiable federal candidates, $10,310, 724
    •  Positive General Election Spending: $3,884,000
      •  $3,241,370 spent supporting winners
      • $395,003 spent supporting losers
      •  $247,627 spent supporting candidates in undecided races.
    •  Negative General Election Spending: $6,426,724
      • $1,261,540 spent opposing winners
      •  $4,883,709 spent opposing losers

Here is a similar itemization of election spending by the Independence USA PAC.

  • Total receipts: $12,987,916
  • Total disbursements: $15,810,556
  • Total independent expenditures: $7,680,716
  • Federal candidates supported or opposed by independent expenditures of $5,000 or more are listed below:
    • Dold, Robert James, Jr. (R) Supported, Won, $3,850,822
    • Halveroson, Deborah (D)  Opposed, Lost in primary, $1,403,873
    • Kelly, Robin L (D)  Supported, Won,  $833,614
    • Booker, Cory A (D) Supported, Won,  $732,536
    • Franken, Al (D) Supported, Won, $512,851
    • Fitzpatrick, Michael (R)  Supported, Won,  $347,020

Source: Sunlight Foundation

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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