Despite heavy spending from the National Rifle Association, Terry McAuliffe was elected Virginia governor on a platform that included strengthening gun laws, in direct contradiction to the media myth that the NRA can determine election outcomes at will.
Conventional media wisdom outsizes the NRA's scope of influence by suggesting that the gun rights group has the ability to punish any politician who opposes its absolutist Second Amendment agenda. Following the September recall of two Colorado state senators who had supported stronger gun laws, media hyped this narrative -- ignoring low voter turnout and other factors -- to suggest that the outcome should serve as a warning to politicians who would advocate for stronger gun laws.
According to the Associated Press, these elections represented "for some, a warning to lawmakers in swing states who might contemplate gun restrictions in the future." MSNBC host Chuck Todd said the lesson of the recall elections was that "every Democrat south of the Mason-Dixon Line" should stay away from the gun issue. At The Atlantic, Molly Ball wrote that the recall meant "The Death of Gun Control."
The recall elections in Colorado did not shift the balance of power in the Colorado state senate. McAuliffe's election, however, means that for the first time since 1973, Virginians elected a governor who shares the same political affiliation as the sitting president. Here are three ways in which gun policy played an important role in the governor's race.
Organizations At The Center Of The Gun Debate Spent Heavily In The Race. Like the Colorado recall elections, the Virginia governor's race saw heavy spending from the NRA and from a PAC backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that supported candidates who took a stand on stronger gun laws. According to press reports, the NRA spent "upwards of $500,000" for McAufliffe's opponent Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli while Independence USA PAC spent more than $1.7 million supporting McAuliffe.
Gun Policy Positions Sharply Divided The Candidates. Differences over background checks on gun sales and how the NRA rated each candidate became a flashpoint in the gubernatorial election. As The Washington Post summarized in a November 1 article, "After months of inattention, Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) have drawn the polarizing issue of guns into the spotlight of the Virginia governor's race. For once, a Democrat is talking tough about gun control, as if daring the National Rifle Association to take him on. And gun-rights advocates are all too happy to take him up on the challenge."
During the final debate at Virginia Tech -- the site of a 2007 mass shooting that left 32 dead -- Cuccinelli highlighted his "A" rating from the NRA while pointing out that McAuliffe was the only statewide candidate with an "F" rating. McAuliffe responded to this charge, stating, "I don't care what grade I got from the NRA. As governor I want to make sure our communities are safe." He also expressed support for expanded background checks on firearms purchases, pointing out that private gun sales without a background check are "a gigantic loophole in Virginia" law adding that, "As governor, I'm gonna push" in that area.
In his response, Cuccinelli highlighted his NRA backing and promised to "support the Second Amendment." Cuccinelli opposes expanding background checks and supported the repeal of a Virginia law limiting handgun purchases to one a month, two positions advocated by the NRA.
Cuccinelli Used NRA Media Arm To Advance His Campaign. Beyond spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf, the NRA's media arm NRA News allowed Cuccinelli to use its radio and TV programming to ask for the votes of NRA members and as a platform to make false attacks on McAuliffe.
During a November 1 appearance on the NRA News show Cam & Company, Cuccinelli suggested that Independence USA ads were helping his candidacy by highlighting his role as a "defender" of the Second Amendment and misstated McAuliffe's Virginia Tech debate answer on guns. Cuccinelli claimed that McAuliffe stopped touting his background as gun owner and hunter after Independence USA began running ads in his favor. In fact, a transcript of the debate shows McAuliffe referenced that he was a gun owner and hunter and said he was "for responsible gun ownership" and "a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," before his statement that he didn't care what rating he received from the NRA in a follow-up response.
It should come as no surprise that the NRA's preferred candidate lost, except to media who endorse the myth of NRA electoral dominance and who continue to insist that the gun rights group can use spending, endorsements, and get-out-the-vote efforts to determine the outcome of elections. This theory, however, is contradicted by an analysis of actual elections.
A regression analysis of U.S. House races for the 2004 through 2010 election cycles by The American Prospect's Paul Waldman found that NRA endorsements and spending had almost no impact on congressional election outcomes.
The NRA's ineffectual spending was in display during the 2012 federal elections where the group spent more than $100,000 on seven Senate races, backing the losing candidate in six instances. Of $18 million spent on all federal elections in 2012, including $12 million spent against President Obama, more than 95 percent was spent on races where the NRA-favored candidate lost.