You can hate the NRA all you want. You can loathe their tactics, abhor their racism, or despise their manipulation of the rural poor. You can mock their frontman, Wayne LaPierre, for behaving like a grotesque movie villain, or rage at their refusal to even talk about mass shootings until mass shooting fury has simmered. But you must admit this one thing: They are fucking effective.
Never since the heyday of the Italian-American Mafia has an organization with so few confirmed members wielded such tremendous power. But the NRA isn’t trigger happy Tommy from Goodfellas, flying off the handle and whacking everyone who crosses them. They aren’t even Al Capone — the real or Untouchables version — fearless, thanks to superior muscle. Instead, they wield political influence like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, with a series of shadowy gambits, precisely calculated for maximum return. They play the long game when everyone else moves in fits and starts, and their patience benefits them greatly.
For decades now, the NRA has gaslighted a nation — convincing voters that the problem isn’t guns and that they’re silly for ever thinking so. They’ve done this while claiming roughly five million members in a country of 325 million. That’s barely 1.5% of the populace leading the fight against gun safety legislation in a nation where 55% of voting-age adults support stricter gun laws. If you were writing a script about La Cosa Nostra and endowed them with NRA-level power, no one would believe you. You’d have to scale it back for the sake of realism. Because LaPierre and his cohorts win more than peak Tom Brady. They’re literally no joke — too successful to be satire; too proficient to be parodied.
But can they be imitated? Might the oft-thwarted opposition steal the NRA’s hyper-focused game plan, co-opt it, and flip it? What would it take to build an anti-NRA?
1. CREATE PINCH POINTS
Every time there’s an active shooter, we’re reminded just how many House and Senate campaigns have accepted NRA super-pac money while wishing “thoughts and prayers” to victims. And it’s a lot. But the direct cash influx isn’t particularly significant. Here’s the total list of senators and congresspeople who accepted more than $9,000 in campaign contributions in 2016:
- Blunt, Roy (R-MO) Senate $11,900
- Comstock, Barbara (R-VA) House $10,400
- Burr, Richard (R-NC) Senate $9,900
- Coffman, Mike (R-CO) House $9,900
- Grassley, Chuck (R-IA) Senate $9,900
- Guinta, Frank (R-NH) House $9,900
- Hardy, Cresent (R-NV) House $9,900
- Hurd, Will (R-TX) House $9,900
- Katko, John (R-NY) House $9,900
- Mills, Stewart (R-MN) House $9,900
- Paul, Rand (R-KY) Senate $9,900
- Poliquin, Bruce (R-ME) House $9,900
- Portman, Rob (R-OH) Senate $9,900
- Rubio, Marco (R-FL) Senate $9,900
- Zeldin, Lee (R-NY) House $9,900
15 people. And for selling their souls, they’d theoretically be able to buy a 2013 hatchback with a clean title and 95K miles. But that’s not the point to the NRA. Their expertise is making themselves the deciding factor between candidates getting elected or not. They create pinch points and exploit the hell out of them.
As an organization, the NRA ranks 460 of 18,591 in direct contributions. In 2016, they gave $1,090,200 total, mostly parceled out in small chunks, as you can see above. Where the NRA really puts their cash is in “outside spending” — expenditures and electioneering that they can control themselves without candidate oversight (these are the “non-candidate endorsed” messages you see near the end of particularly ugly campaigns). In that category, the NRA gave a whopping $54,398,558 (including $30 million to support Donald Trump).
Now check this: The NRA-backed candidate won four of the five Senate races and three out of five House races that the NRA put money behind. They also won the presidency.
While candidates might relish the ability to distance themselves from the NRA’s aggressive messaging, they also recognize that they need this back-alley brawler on their side. The NRA knows the candidates get this, so they turn the screws (because the votes are the point here, not the dollars). Since Newtown, when the gun debate really caught fire, the organization has been unafraid to crush longtime supporters who step out of line. They’ll even oppose incumbent allies by backing new candidates who fit their needs better. The message in all of this is very clear: Push back and we will ditch you; defy us and we will ruin you.
The anti-NRA could replicate this, though it’s a scary technique for liberals and leftists to fathom. It means opposing semi-aligned candidates without an iota of guilt. It means being laser-focused on “One Big Idea,” rather than putting things into context within the political landscape. It may not be the best strategy for the country, but boy has it ever worked for the NRA.