Rifle Association PAC Is Loaded for Elections

Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:56pm

On the National Rifle Association’s grass-roots phone line, callers have the option to hear a statement regarding rumors about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In the message, the gun rights association tries to tamp down speculation that it is endorsing the Nevada Democrat, explaining it won’t officially back Senate candidates until closer to the November elections.

Even so, the influential group is readying a high-dollar campaign blitz to boost its Capitol Hill allies and to defeat enemies. As evidence, the NRA had more cash on hand, $11.5 million, than any other association, union or corporate political action committee this election cycle, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Aside from the NRA, the list of organizations with the heftiest campaign accounts is dominated by labor unions, led by the Service Employees International Union, which had almost $11.2 million in cash on hand as of June 30. Other PACs with large cash reserves include the National Association of Realtors, which had $8.6 million at the end of June.

Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, attributed the large amount remaining in the group’s bank account partly to its policy of conserving resources for the general election rather than playing a major role in primaries. While the NRA has already hired field workers in select states, Cox said the gun lobby has held off on endorsements so it can continue to track and influence Congressional activity.

But when it does proceed, the NRA will not only be making contributions to favored candidates but also, more significantly, be using loosely regulated independent expenditures to underwrite TV ads.

“Obviously, we’ve been known to engage in independent expenditures during campaigns,” Cox said. “We expect to be active in races all across America.”

In a sign of its formidable clout on Capitol Hill, the NRA successfully lobbied House leaders recently to carve out an exemption in the DISCLOSE Act, which would require more transparency by entities that receive political funds.

The NRA still faces some controversial political decisions, particularly over a potential endorsement of Reid, who is opposed by many conservative allies of the gun group.

But in a statement posted on its website, the NRA suggested Reid, who has supported some gun rights legislation, may be preferable to an alternative.

“If Sen. Reid loses, the next candidate for Majority Leader is very likely to be Chuck Schumer or Dick Durbin — two of the most anti-gun legislators in U.S. history,” the statement says, referring to the Democratic Senators from New York and Illinois, respectively.

The NRA contributed $950 to Reid’s campaign in May during the primary season. And while the group still gives the vast majority of its contributions to Republicans, it has recently helped more Democratic candidates, such as Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who is running for Senate in Indiana.

Cox said the NRA focuses solely on gun-related legislation in making endorsement decisions, not party affiliation or other hot-button issues.

“I have very strong personal feelings on a lot of issues: government spending, health care, bank bailouts. But that is not my job. The job of the National Rifle Association is to protect the Second Amendment,” he said.

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said companies or groups with successful PACs have historically combined the ability to raise money with a grass-roots organization that extends into almost every community.

However, McGehee said the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which threw out the limitations on political ad buys by corporations, unions and nonprofit groups, could change the landscape and make regulated PACs a less attractive vehicle for influencing races.

Direct PAC contributions are limited under federal laws to $5,000 to an individual candidate for each election.

The top corporate, union and association PACs in terms of contributions to candidates through June were those affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has given
$3.9 million, Honeywell International at $3.8 million, AT&T with $3.7 million, American Association for Justice at
$2.8 million and the National Beer Wholesalers Association at $2.6 million.

So far in this election cycle, SEIU has raked in the most receipts with $27.1 million, followed by EMILY’s List with
$19.4 million and the National Rifle Association with $12.8 million.

SEIU spokesman Mark McCullough said the union’s political donations from its 2.2 million members have grown by 20 percent in each of the past three years.

Alex Knott contributed to this report.