NRA power in elections grows as ranks swell

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff, 8/7/2000

Second in a series of occasional articles on the impact of interest groups on the presidential campaign.

MELBOURNE, Fla. - Virginia Robertson is a great-grandmother who doesn't frighten easily, not with her fireball personality and her .38 pistol.

''Everyone,'' Robertson said of this God-and-guns region of central Florida, ''knows I have a gun.''

There is one thing that scares the 66-year-old, slightly built woman: that the government might take away her weapon. And that threat, so passionately and relentlessly invoked by the National Rifle Association, has turned the gray-haired Robertson into a loyal foot soldier for the NRA and its approved candidates.

The NRA can use people like Robertson, and it does.

Trained at professionally run grass-roots seminars, the NRA's activist army will knock on doors, handle the phones for NRA-backed candidates, put signs in their yards and bumper stickers on their cars. They are registering voters in their neighborhoods, and at gun shows and firearms clubs.

They will warn fellow gun owners that any kind of gun control will result, ultimately, in the confiscation of their weapons, and they will threaten to oust lawmakers who vote for those gun restrictions.

The NRA has four to five grass-roots organizers traversing the country between now and November, each averaging about a training seminar a day, NRA spokesman Bill Powers said.

While the heavy political influence of the NRA is often attributed to its financial strength - the group reported nearly $122 million in revenue on its 1998 income tax return - the NRA's power is in the volunteer work of its 3.8 million loyal members. The most valuable currency, supporters and detractors alike agree, is fear.

''Fear motivates people,'' said James Jay Baker, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action and the group's chief Washington lobbyist. ''There are a lot of people who are scared of Al Gore becoming president.''

The NRA has turned the national campaign into ''a culture war, between the people who know and love guns, and everybody else,'' said Josh Sugarman, head of the Violence Policy Center based in Washington, one of the NRA's biggest foes. ''They really do believe this is a battle for their lives.''

For candidates who end up on the NRA's hit list, gun control can provoke a battle for their political lives.

Members of Congress work in dread of receiving the hundreds, even thousands, of postcards, letters, and phone calls from NRA members disappointed by their votes on a gun-control measure. When Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, voted in favor of a relatively minor piece of gun-control legislation, ''we got hundreds of postcards overnight,'' said a Leahy aide.

For the November elections, the NRA has dedicated its forces to defeating Gore and a host of other congressional candidates. Gore is considered the biggest threat, but the group is meticulous about keeping track of the voting records and public statements of candidates for lower office.

Baker won't say who is on the hit list, but he points to five states - Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida - as critical. All are potential swing states in the presidential election, and each has at least one congressional or US Senate campaign of NRA interest, he said.

With the Democrats just six seats away from taking back the House of Representatives, the NRA is making its biggest election-year push ever, Powers said.

The lobby's election apparatus can rarely move the vote by more than 5 percentage points, Baker admitted - meaning the NRA doesn't even bother trying to defeat such gun-control stalwarts as Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who don't face close races.

But the old-style politicking the NRA employs can rattle a campaign, and even defeat it.

Tom Ridge, now the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, had been a solid pro-gun vote when he was a House member. But when he voted in favor of a ban on assault weapons in May 1994, the NRA ''mailed hundreds of thousands of orange postcards'' urging people to vote for Ridge's gubernatorial primary opponent, Mike Fisher, said Bill McInturff, a partner with Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies. Fisher went from 5 percent in the polls to 14 percent in five days. He did not win the primary.

The late Representative Mike Synar, Democrat of Oklahoma, was among the NRA's targets who were defeated in 1994, observers note. ''They really just went after him,'' said Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based campaign-finance watchdog group. ''They really do put the fear into candidates' hearts.''

There aren't many lobbies that draw the level of both devotion and vitriol the NRA attracts. But the NRA has more than mere status in the nation's capital; it has a mystique. It has been credited - or blamed, depending on one's politics - for the Republican sweep of the House of Representatives in 1994, putting the GOP in control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

Fortune magazine, which conducts an annual survey of federal lawmakers, lobbyists, and political aides to rank Washington lobbies, placed the NRA in a tie for the number two spot this year, up from fourth place and after the American Association of Retired Persons.

Membership is climbing steadily, Powers said. Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive director, predicted in May that the count would reach 4 million by Election Day. ''Now, it looks like we might hit that by Labor Day,'' Powers said.

The strategy is based on a simple credo: Money doesn't win elections. Votes do.

Of the well over $100 million the NRA spends annually to fight for gun rights, a tiny fraction goes toward direct contributions to political campaigns. In the 1998 election cycle, the group spent about $1.6 million on political contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the current election cycle, the NRA has given less than $800,000 so far.

The bulk of the NRA's efforts are focused on a massive member education effort, followed by a volunteer get-out-the-vote push that awes even its enemies.

Every NRA member will receive at least one piece of direct mail from the organization, Baker said. That's in addition to the newsletters and bulletins NRA members get. Mailings to members are tailored to each state, informing gun owners of the records of their elected representatives. The group's federal tax return does not list direct mail as a separate expense. The NRA spent about $25 million on ''member communication,'' bulletins, and newsletters in 1998.

The NRA follows the organizing tactics of a national political party: Drum up membership, assign grass-roots organizers, mobilize the more active members, and register sympathizers to vote.

An official from the Republican National Committee who attended one of the grass-roots training seminars went promptly to the national committee chairman, Joe Nicholson, and said, ''why aren't we doing this?'' Powers recounted.

The NRA is ''the best at what they do,'' said Sugarman. ''It's not just the money. They have a hard-core group of activists who are the ultimate single-issue voters.''

The gun group operates an extensive, easy-to-navigate Internet site that includes everything from gun safety tips to detailed run-downs on the gun-related voting records of members of Congress. The Web site has perhaps the most comprehensive account of pending gun-related legislation at both the state and federal levels. A toll-free hot line aids those without computers.

At a recent training seminar in Melbourne, eager members of the NRA rank and file were given their marching orders: Man the phones and pound the pavement to help out the campaign of Representative Dave Weldon, Republican of Florida. The incumbent is in a competitive race against challenger Patsy Furth, a Democratic state senator who also happens to be a cousin of House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri.

''Two things will work for us: shoe leather and votes,'' an NRA lobbyist, ebullient as a professional motivational speaker, told about 200 NRA members attending the training session. The lobbyist urged them to ''utilize their natural resources'' - gun shows, shops, clubs, and ranges.

''You have to hunt where the ducks are,'' he said.

Other NRA leaders help members write letters to the editor trumpeting gun rights. Some members offer to drive voters to the polls or to register gun owners to vote.

Tips are offered by organizers and members alike: Call voters from home, a member advised, in case they have caller ID and won't answer a call from a campaign office. Blanket congressional offices with paper, since a printed letter is harder to ignore than an e-mail.

By the end of the three-hour meeting, the group is mobilized and excited.

''This is the first one I've ever attended,'' said Jackie Warzecha, fingering her necklace, a silver bullet engraved with the signature of the NRA president, Charlton Heston.

''I didn't realize how many of my rights were about to be taken away,'' Warzecha added, lining up to chat with Weldon's deputy campaign manager, Brian Chase, who was on hand to gather volunteers.

The curious thing is, Furth said, that she's not antigun. The state senator approves of trigger locks and of some restrictions on semiautomatic weapons. But Furth opposes registration of guns, on the theory that only law-abiding gun owners would comply anyway. ''I have a husband and brothers who hunt. I support the Second Amendment,'' she said.

Furth figures that the hostility stems from an NRA questionnaire she answered when she was running for state office in 1996. ''They sent it back with a big `F' on it. I had failed,'' she said.

Furth's transgression is that she favors trigger locks and controls on assault weapons, the NRA lobbyist said, adding that Weldon has been a reliable, pro-gun vote.

Neither candidate in that congressional race expects guns to be a substantial issue in the campaign. But that doesn't matter to the NRA, which wants to keep out of office advocates of even the mildest kind of gun control.

The NRA will sometimes run a campaign ad against a candidate that has nothing to do with guns, but strikes at an issue that could leave the candidate more vulnerable. ''We do it with some trepidation,'' Baker said, declining to specify races in which the NRA used the strategy.

And Baker admitted that openly allying with the NRA may not benefit some candidates in certain parts of the country. Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush took some heat when an NRA official bragged that if Bush were elected, ''we'll have a president ... where we work out of their office.'' Soon afterward, Bush proposed giving away trigger locks in Texas to heighten gun safety.

Even in gun-friendly districts like central Florida, members were urged not to wear NRA caps or sweat shirts when canvassing neighborhoods on behalf of a candidate, because the voter might not be sympathetic to the NRA.

''We're not talking about promoting the NRA here. We're talking about electing candidates,'' the lobbyist warned the group.

Still, the NRA takes some delight in being demonized. Every attack, Baker said, just ups the membership. Gun-control activists ''think they're going to attract the suburban female vote,'' Baker said. ''But in the process, they're just attracting more gun votes.''