- - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The 2014 Senate elections were among the most expensive in history because so much was at stake. The Republicans were fighting for control of the Senate, and the Democrats were doing everything they could to hold on to that control. The battle raged in more than 10 swing states.

The National Rifle Association was determined to elect as many friendly senators as possible, but was stopped from really going into states where Democrats who had voted with the NRA to defeat the Obama administration’s post-Sandy Hook “reforms” were vulnerable to even friendlier Republicans. The NRA position had always been and remained that legislators who voted with them would not be abandoned even if facing a challenger who might arguably be even better on Second Amendment issues.

The final vote in the 2014 Senate battle over gun rights was on an amendment sponsored by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey that was defeated with the support of several Democratic senators running for re-election. These included senators from Alaska and Arkansas who later lost to Republican challengers in races in which the NRA could do little.

In other races, however, the organization went “all in.” NRA’s Chris Cox’s strategists had found in the past that while the NRA could claim some 5 million formal members across the country, there are another 50 million voters who look to the organization for leadership on Second Amendment issues and who will often, if they perceive one of the candidates to be better than the others on these issues, cast their vote for the better candidate. In targeted states, therefore, the NRA focuses on identifying and reaching the 90 percent of potential Second Amendment-friendly voters who are not NRA members.

Colorado was at the center of the 2014 battle between gun owners and the Obama administration. A revolt occurred among Colorado voters in the aftermath of a successful effort by Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Democratic state legislature to force unwanted restrictions on gun ownership and sales in the state. As a result, two key Democratic legislative leaders lost recall elections and gun owners were as energized. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall was up and had been throughout his career a supporter of gun control measures such as those favored by President Obama. He was opposed by Republican Rep. Corey Gardner, and if the GOP had any hope of taking control of the Senate, Colorado was a “must win” race.

As a congressman who supported the Second Amendment, Mr. Gardner was assured of strong NRA backing.

The NRA spent less than some of the so-called outside groups that supported Mr. Gardner. But when the smoke cleared, none could claim to have generated close to the number of votes moved by the NRA’s effort. The postelection survey told the story in terms no one could refute.

As in other races, the first question the NRA pollster asked of voters leaving the polls was whether they support the “goal and objectives of the NRA.” In Colorado, 51 percent of all voters answered that simple question in the affirmative and 55 percent of all voters said they “trust” the information they hear or see from the NRA. Those are remarkable numbers.

What’s more, Colorado voters paid attention and remembered seeing NRA ads. In addition to the money spent by the candidates themselves, many “outside groups” on both the right and left urged support for the candidates running in Colorado. Mr. Gardner enjoyed the support and benefited from spending not just by the NRA, but from organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, GOP organizations like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. All of these groups helped Mr. Gardner, but some were more effective than others both because they were more trusted than others and because they delivered their message in a more targeted manner.

The exit poll data is telling. The NRA spent a little over $2.1 million supporting Mr. Gardner on television, radio and Internet advertising as well as on mail and telephone calls to Second Amendment-friendly voters. The voters who said they had seen NRA ads on television broke for Mr. Gardner over Mr. Udall by 57 percent to 40 percent, and of the 51 percent who said that they agreed with the values and goals of the NRA, 78 percent said seeing the ads made them more likely to vote for Mr. Gardner as opposed to only 8 percent who were turned off by them.

These are impactful numbers, especially when compared with the efforts of other groups supporting Mr. Gardner. American Crossroads, for example, spent slightly more than $11 million running television ads in support of the GOP candidate. This was more than five times as much as the NRA spent, but only 38 percent of voters could remember seeing the ads and among those who did see them, Mr. Udall won over Mr. Gardner by a 54 percent to 44 percent margin.

The Chamber of Commerce and National Republican Senatorial Committee efforts yielded similar results. No ads were either as well received or remembered as those run by the NRA, and their impact on the final vote was traceable to the overall number of voters who share NRA’s values and the overall trustworthiness of the NRA message.

Exit pollsters asked voters who remembered seeing the ads run by these groups whether they felt they could trust the information from them. By a margin of 55 percent to 37 percent, voters said they could trust the NRA information while the Chamber was trusted by a slightly smaller 42 percent to 31 percent margin. The Republican Senatorial Committee (35 percent to 45 percent) and American Crossroads (21 percent to 32 percent) were actually distrusted by more voters than those who felt they could trust them.

The effectiveness of any such effort turns on whether voters who might have stayed home or voted for the candidate the NRA opposed actually responded by voting for Mr. Gardner. If they were going to do so anyway, the NRA spending, while helping a little, could be dismissed as nice but not determinative. The data suggests, however, that a significant number of voters cast their votes for Mr. Gardner because of the NRA message.

Exit pollsters asked Second Amendment-friendly Gardner voters if they cast their votes as they did because they thought overall that Mr. Gardner was a better candidate or choice than the incumbent or as a way of demonstrating their opposition “to President Obama and Mark Udall’s gun control agenda.”

While 55 percent said they voted for Mr. Gardner because he was a better candidate, 38 percent added they cast their votes to demonstrate their opposition to Mr. Obama’s gun control agenda. That’s about 20 percent of all of those who voted: an incredible indicator of one organization’s impact.

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