WASHINGTON — During the 2016 election, the National Rifle Association and its donors gave Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s campaign $9,900 — a drop in the bucket of the $25 million Portman raised, and an argument against the notion that the gun-rights group “bought” the support of the state’s junior senator.
But three other numbers are also worth considering: $242,708, $1.55 million and $3.06 million.
The first represents the amount that the NRA spent on independent expenditures such as ads supporting Portman in 2016.
The second represents the amount spent opposing Democrat Ted Strickland, whom Portman defeated in 2016.
The third is what the organization has spent on Portman since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The oft-repeated refrain from gun-control advocates after mass shootings is that gun-rights groups use political donations to influence lawmakers to oppose gun-control measures.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. Instead, say those who monitor the NRA and other gun-rights groups, the goal is to make sure that the seats are never held by anyone who might support new restrictions in the first place.
Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said, “It’s mostly hyperbole that campaign contributions can directly buy votes in Congress.”
Instead, he said, the issue falls on strictly ideological grounds: Republicans rarely stray from the party’s stance of opposing new gun restrictions while Democrats — once far more divided on the issue — have dug in on the notion of additional restrictions.
“The debate is on clear party and ideological lines,” Grossman said.
And while Democrats have become more vocal on the issue, it’s episodic. No one is shutting down the government over gun control.
“It’s not like it’s the No. 1 issue in the Democratic Party,” he said.
While money may not change hearts and minds, it does help win seats. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics, gun-rights groups directed about $54 million in outside spending to 2016 campaigns. Gun-control groups, by contrast, spent about $3 million.
President Donald Trump received $969,138 in direct contributions from gun-rights groups during the 2016 election. Gun-rights groups spent an additional $11.4 million in outside expenditures, such as ads supporting him or other communications.
Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of the book “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” said while “money helps,” it’s how that money is spent that matters.
“The NRA is strong today not simply because it doles out independent expenditures,” he said. “The NRA is strong today because voters listen to the NRA.”
He also dismisses the frequent notion that pro-gun-rights lawmakers vote that way solely because of campaign contributions.
“If you think elected officials are for sale to the highest bidder, then Michael Bloomberg (who founded Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group) should just spend more than the NRA does on the exact same candidates,” he said.
“I would assure you that all the Republican candidates who got a huge contribution from Michael Bloomberg are not going to change their positions on guns … the NRA’s power comes from the fact that they can swing voters on Election Day, and politicians know that.”
Everytown is advocating that more states pass “red-flag laws” that allow an “Extreme Risk Protection Order,” which empowers family members and law enforcement to petition courts to temporarily limit a person’s access to guns if they are proven to be a danger to themselves or others.
“As we mourn those killed in Florida, our elected leaders need to take action to prevent gun violence, or we will elect new lawmakers,” said John Feinblatt, president of the group.
Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said political contributions are aimed at electing those who have supported gun rights — not trying to persuade people to do so.
“It would never occur to me to give money to someone hoping they’d vote for me,” he said. “What happens is groups donate to politicians who agree with their position.”
While polls taken as recently as November 2017 indicate that 94 percent of Americans support requiring background checks for all gun buyers, for example, the gun-rights advocates often have more power because they are more vocal, Winkler said.
“In a democracy, a mobilized and vocal minority can often win over a diffuse majority,” he said. “And that’s how it is on gun control. A lot of people support federal gun-control laws but are not single-issue pro-gun-control voters, whereas people are often single-issue pro-gun voters.”
Protesters assembled outside Portman’s Downtown office Thursday to demand the senator return his NRA contributions, labeled “blood money” by some, and sign onto legislation to enact gun-control laws.
Asked about NRA contributions to her boss, Portman spokeswoman Emily Benavides said Portman supports Second Amendment rights but believes in strengthening the national background-check system and working to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
“Rob’s priority is doing what’s right for the people of Ohio, and that’s what guides his legislative decisions in Washington,” she said.
She called the most-recent mass shooting at a Florida high school — which killed at least 17 — “an unspeakable tragedy.”
“Sen. Portman and his wife, Jane, send their prayers to the victims, their families, and the entire school community,” she said.