The National Rifle Association, as every savvy politico knows, is all but invincible, a force of millions of dollars and grassroots power that keeps the U.S. Capitol and most state legislatures in its iron grip.
Or at least that's how people have thought of the NRA for a long time. But that may be about to change. In fact, Democrats could actually make the NRA toxic, at least in some places. All they have to do is try.
Better than almost any other interest group, the NRA wields influence through fear. Legislators believe that if they cross the NRA then the group will use its vast power to destroy them, activating its vast army of supporters to crush its enemies. The result is that gun safety legislation usually dies before it ever sees the light of day, as each proposed bill to regulate guns is met with, "Don't bother, the NRA would never allow it."
But right now we may be experiencing a unique moment, not just because the activism of the students from Parkland, Florida, is galvanizing the gun safety movement, but because in the process advocates are focusing on the NRA and the complicity of the Republican legislators who do its bidding.
On Wednesday, the groups Everytown For Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action published a two-page ad in The New York Times listing every member of Congress and the amount they had received from the NRA, with the obvious intention of having people look up their representatives to see whether they're being rewarded by the group, then perhaps confront them about it.
Is that likely to work? Isn't the NRA pretty popular? The answer is that it's complicated, and it depends on what districts and states we're talking about. Nationally, the NRA has in the past had approval ratings in the 40s or 50s. But they've relied on an aggressive effort to cultivate grassroots activism and convince legislators that their members are unusually motivated by the gun issue alone. The idea is that while there may be more Americans who oppose the NRA's positions than support them, theirs is a particularly active minority that will mobilize on the gun issue.
At some times and in some places, that's true. But it's also true that the NRA's ability to swing elections in its favor is largely a myth, one the organization works hard to cultivate and maintain. When Republicans win elections the NRA takes credit, saying that the outcome was due to their money and their voters. When Democrats have a good year, on the other hand, they grow strangely quiet. For instance, in 2012 they spent $13 million trying to defeat Barack Obama, to no effect. That year they also spent over $100,000 to help eight different Senate candidates; seven of them lost.
Yet the myth of the NRA's electoral potency persists, and it's one the organization depends on. But what if Democrats not only didn't take it as a given, but started attacking politicians who take the NRA's money? They wouldn't have to do it in deep-red places like Alabama or Wyoming where it would be futile. There are lots of Republicans in more moderate districts and states who have benefited greatly from the group's largesse, but who have never worried before that it might hurt them.
Let's take just one example. Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a district in the northern Virginia suburbs right outside D.C. that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by 10 points, is one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election this year. If there's anything keeping Comstock in office it's the impression that she's a moderate, an impression she has tried to sustain with occasional criticisms of President Trump, despite almost always supporting the legislation he favors.
Yet according to an analysis by The New York Times, Comstock has been the beneficiary of $137,232 in NRA assistance, in both direct contributions and spending on her behalf. Given that the NRA has become an increasingly radical organization that often takes positions even its own members disagree with — like opposing universal background checks, which are favored by just about everyone — perhaps the enormous support Comstock has gotten from the group might be an issue Democrats could use against her, both to motivate their own voters and to convince the undecided that she isn't the moderate she claims to be.
If they do — and if that gets repeated in swing district after swing district — before long the idea that it's suicide for a politician to take on the NRA could begin to crumble.
The NRA's greatest victory has been convincing Republicans to place support for limitless gun rights alongside a belief in small government, low taxes, and abortion restrictions as the very foundation of what it means to be a conservative today. But that's a relatively recent development, and it's one that could be reversed. If Republicans start paying a price at the ballot box for their alliance with the NRA, you might see some of them start to distance themselves from the group. All it would take is a few to demolish the NRA's carefully crafted image of invulnerability.