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The NRA used to be a bipartisan campaign contributor, but that changed in 1994. Here's why

The NRA used to be a bipartisan campaign contributor, but that changed in 1994. Here's why
The booth of National Rifle Assn. at CPAC 2018 last month in National Harbor, Md. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

It may be hard to remember, but there was a time when the National Rifle Assn. was a bipartisan organization.

During the 1992 election cycle, the NRA contributed 37% of its congressional campaign donations to Democrats. Republicans got the lion's share — 63% of the $1.8 million the group gave that year — but it was not as if the NRA was a pseudo-wing of the party.

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By 2016, that had all changed.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in political campaigns, nearly 99% of the $1 million in NRA contributions to congressional candidates in 2016 went to Republicans. The few Democrats who did get money — Reps. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota and Tim Walz of Minnesota — all have A ratings from the group.

What changed? Two things, according to many of those who have followed the group.

First, in the fall of 1994, the Democratic-controlled Congress — with staunch opposition from the NRA — narrowly passed a 10-year federal ban on assault weapons. In the two-year period leading up to the vote on the issue, the NRA increased its contributions to Republicans by about $675,000 while reducing contributions to Democrats by nearly $200,000. It was the group's largest single-cycle — or two-year — dip in donations to Democrats.

Second, many who study the issue say, both the NRA and the Republican Party became more implacably opposed to gun regulations, while Democrats mostly favored them.

"It is all about playing to the arch-conservative base," said Robert Spitzer, chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland, who has written extensively on politics and gun control. He said that since the 1994 assault weapons vote, the NRA "locked itself into a pattern of ever more apocalyptic, extremist, uncompromising rhetoric." The progression, he said, coincided with the Republican Party's own shift to the right.

Spitzer said Democrats have mostly remained consistent in their positions on gun control, but there "are fewer of those so-called Blue Dog Democrats around who supported less gun control." Indeed, in the early to mid-2000s, moderate Democrats from conservative-leaning states such as Arkansas and Louisiana received NRA support, although not at the levels seen in the early 1990s, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment about its political spending.

One question now is whether the NRA's shift in contribution patterns poses a long-term threat to the group's power. A change in power in Congress, or defections by Republicans, could leave the group on the outside.

The chief executive of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, seemed to be worried about the former scenario when he spoke last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference. "If they seize power … our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever," he said. "The first to go will be the 2nd Amendment."

LaPierre didn't explicitly identify "they," but the message was clear.

In the weeks since a gunman killed 17 people at a South Florida high school, some Republicans — including, at least briefly, President Trump — have broken ranks with the gun rights group to support modest gun control legislation, such as raising the age limit for buying assault weapons and banning so-called bump stocks, which turn semiautomatic weapons into something close to machine guns.

But despite a surge in mass shootings — seven of the deadliest in modern U.S. history have happened since 2007 — the NRA has remained mostly steadfast in its opposition to any gun control legislation.

In 2012, after mass shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., various proposals — such as requiring more thorough background checks — lost traction in Congress because of a lack of Republican support.

But soon after, several blue or purple states, including Colorado, California, Connecticut and Maryland, passed some of the strictest gun laws in the country. In Colorado, the then-Democratic-controlled Legislature passed bills requiring universal background checks to buy guns, and limits on ammunition magazines. Not a single Republican supported the legislation.

After Tom Sullivan lost a son, Alex, who was killed on his 27th birthday in the Aurora theater shooting, he gained a singular focus: The country needed stricter gun laws and the NRA was in the way.

"The NRA is about fear and stifling progress," Sullivan said. "Republicans are so concerned that the NRA will put up money to primary them that the thought of supporting gun control legislation is almost unheard of."

If that has changed in recent days, it mirrors a shift in the views of voters.

In a CNN/SSRS poll released days after the Florida shooting, 70% of people questioned supported stricter gun laws — the largest share since 1993. That included 49% of Republicans, up from 30% in October, after the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas.

Since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a slew of corporations have rushed to cut ties with the NRA. At the same time, some Republicans have pushed back against the powerful special interest group in ways that, a month ago, seemed unimaginable.

Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican who lost his legs while serving in Afghanistan, recently called for a ban on assault weapons. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who has an A rating from the NRA, said he supports raising the minimum age for purchasing semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21. In an extraordinary televised meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday, Trump indicated support for such legislation and even suggested he would support taking guns away from citizens, and worry about the legality of such a move later.

"I like taking guns away early," Trump said. "Take the guns first, go through due process second."

Rick Tyler, a longtime Republican political strategist and NRA supporter who has worked on several state-level campaigns, said Trump's comments were concerning.

"He demonstrated that he is going to sell out every member of the NRA and every law-abiding gun owner in America," Tyler said, adding that the group shouldn't worry about the handful of Republicans rebuking them.

Despite declines in gun ownership nationwide, "the NRA will not lose influence," said Tyler. "If anything they will gain it because their members contribute and they vote."

On Friday, following a meeting with NRA officials, the White House emphasized that Trump was committed to defending the 2nd Amendment.

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Still, Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan group that analyzes congressional and gubernatorial races nationwide, said that "it's really unheard of to witness Republicans so vocal in supporting legislation that the NRA opposes."

"Is this a breaking point? … Time will tell, but Republicans and the NRA have gone hand in hand for a long time," Gonzales said.

In past years, Republicans have rebuffed the NRA and have faced challenges.

In election cycles between 2010 and 2018, the NRA spent nearly $36.4 million in support of Republicans, while also spending about $256,000 to oppose members of the GOP in primaries, general elections and the special Senate election in Alabama last year.

Former Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar was among the NRA's primary targets. In 2012, the group spent $169,000 in opposition to his reelection. Lugar, a Republican who had served more than three decades in the Senate, often held moderate views on gun legislation, voting in support of the assault weapons ban in 1994. He had an F rating —usually reserved for liberal Democrats — from the NRA. Lugar lost in a primary to a candidate supported by the NRA.

Earlier in the week, during the meeting about school safety and gun control, Trump highlighted the fear that some Republicans — not himself, he said — have when dealing with the NRA.

During the meeting, Trump, who got nearly $10.6 million in support from the group in 2016, asked Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) if the bipartisan background-check bill he helped author in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting included a provision to raise the age to buy rifles from 18 to 21. (The gunman in the elementary school shooting was 20.)

Toomey said it did not. "You know why?" Trump prodded. "Because you're afraid of the NRA."

Twitter: @kurtisalee

Twitter:@maloym

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