If the National Rifle Association (NRA) is the most powerful interest group in Washington, then why did its poster boy in Congress, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), lose a Republican primary this week? According to an analysis of NRA power by The American Prospect contributing editor (and former Media Matters staffer) Paul Waldman, the result should not come as a surprise. Waldman studied congressional races in the four most recent election cycles and concluded that, despite the NRA's tenancy to puff itself up, both the organization's endorsement and campaign contributions offer no real benefit to congressional candidates.
In a campaign ad released in June, Rep. Stearns touted his endorsement by the NRA Political Victory Fund (NRA-PVF). Earlier this week, the NRA's website listed its endorsement of Rep. Stearns, although now the page is no longer accessible. NRA-PVF also gave Rep. Stearns $4,950 in contributions this election cycle, tying him for the seventh biggest recipient among Republicans in the House of Representatives so far.
He also did the NRA's bidding in Congress. In February 2011, Rep. Stearns introduced the NRA-backed National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act (H.R. 822). The bill sought to loosen restrictions on the carrying of firearms in public by forcing states to recognize the validity of concealed carry permits issued by other states.
Rep. Stearns had been praised by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) as early as January 2009 for supporting the idea. In August 2011, as the legislation moved through Congress, the NRA-ILA issued a press release expressing strong support for H.R. 822 and credited Rep. Stearns with introducing the bill. In October 2011, the NRA-ILA issued a press release providing a progress update on H.R. 822 that referred to the legislation as "Stearns' gun bill." In November 2011, H.R. 822 was passed by the House.
The NRA and Rep. Stearns were clearly on the same page, but he lost anyways. According to Waldman the NRA simply doesn't give its candidates enough money to have a meaningful impact on their elections.
The truth, however, is that while the NRA spends a good deal of money in total, that money is spread over so many races -- well over 200 House races alone every election - that it has little more than symbolic effect. The typical NRA contribution to a House candidate is around $2,500, including both primary and general election contributions. At a time when a candidate in a competitive House race can expect to spend at least a million dollars and sometimes much more, this amount is insignificant - on average, less than two-tenths of one percent of an NRA recipient's budget comes from the group. That may be enough to keep the volunteers in donuts, but it won't swing any races.
Waldman also found that the advantage of a NRA endorsement is highly overrated. He conducted a regression analysis to determine whether "holding constant the key measurable factors that should influence the outcome, an NRA endorsement is associated with better results for the endorsee." The result for Republican incumbents was a wash; they fared no better or worse with or without an NRA endorsement.