NRA’s influence comes from $14 million in spending — not just campaign contributions

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The NRA is known for its wide-ranging campaign contributions — but its spending on ads is arguably even more powerful. (Photo credit: Democracy Chronicles/Flickr)

When people talk about money in politics, they often point to the money that a candidate receives from a special interest (regardless of the amount of that contribution) as evidence of undue influence. Nowhere is this more true than with the National Rifle Association. In recent months, we’ve seen people tweet and write about which candidates have received money from this powerful lobby. The NRA, according to, has contributed about $593,000 in 2016, almost entirely to Republicans.

And while contributions certainly tell part of the story, it is the NRA’s big campaign spending that makes up most of its influence: The group’s two political arms, the NRA Institute for Legal Action and the NRA Political Victory Fund, have spent $14.5 million opposing and supporting federal candidates, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by the Sunlight Foundation.

It’s always hard to prove that one donation caused the candidate to vote a certain way. In a representative democracy, politicians often vote based on fear of losing their seat. A very simplified breakdown of campaigning would say it consists of three things:

  1. How much the candidate can raise to project his/her own message
  2. How much the opposing candidates and interests can raise
  3. Whether the message of those opposing forces can rally voters

When it comes to the NRA and other gun rights organizations (as we’ve written in the past), the final peg is consistently true. When you add the $593,000 in contributions, which are subject to limitations, to the more than $14.5 million in expenditures, it is easy to see why the NRA wields so much power.

The NRA Political Victory Fund has spent $14 million total and represents the bulk of the NRA’s political spending. The PAC clearly prefers to run negative ads, spending $9 million in opposition compared to more than $4 million in support of candidates. Hillary Clinton and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who is running for the state’s U.S. Senate seat, top the list of opposed candidates — the targets of $6.6 million and $3 million in opposition spending, respectively. No one even breaks the seven-figure mark when it comes to supportive spending, except for Donald Trump. He’s benefited from $3.1 million in spending from the NRA Political Victory Fund.  

The National Rifle Association Institute for Legal Action is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. We call these groups “dark money” because they are not required to disclose their donors; we have no idea who is funding them. We also have no idea how much they raised from those donors. Traditionally though, the NRA has been funded by its members. But by who, and by how much, remains to be seen.  

So far this cycle, the NRA Institute for Legal Action has spent a total of $475,277 so far. That breaks down to:

  • $161,835 opposing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton
  • $136,526 supporting incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
  • $48,100 opposing Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.
  • $44,034 supporting Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.
  • $84,782 supporting Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa

According to the National Institute for Money in State Politics, the NRA has spent upwards of $7 million supporting or opposing candidates at the state and local level (that we are aware of). Top-spending states for the NRA include $1.9 million in Colorado, where the NRA opposed Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in a competitive race, and Wisconsin with $3.8 million. So far in 2016, it has spent at least $33,000 on local races. In 2014 alone, the NRA spent more than $4.5 million on both state and local races.