NRA cash sparse in Florida politics
Since 2005, no candidate has received any money
In Florida, a state with a reputation for gun-friendliness, the National Rifle Association hasn’t given money to any state candidate for 13 years.
A review of campaign finance records for the NRA Political Victory Fund, the gun-rights group’s political arm in Florida, shows it donated regularly to candidates from 1996 until 2002, then just a handful over the following three years. The last two candidates to get money from the NRA — $500 each in 2005 — were Florida House candidate Marti Coley and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.
After that, the NRA still regularly donated $10,000 once or twice a year to the Republican Party of Florida and campaign committees tied to maintaining House and Senate majorities for Republicans. But after 2010, those checks stopped as well.
As the campaign contributions fizzled out, spending on mailers and ads skyrocketed, up to a high of about $1.6 million for television, radio, Internet and mail ads independent of any political campaign in just the five weeks prior to the 2014 midterm and governor elections. Since then, the numbers have been less stratospheric — about $400,000 in 2016.
“In all my career, I have never seen a dollar bill walk into a voting booth and vote, but people do,” said Marion Hammer, the NRA’s lobbyist in Tallahassee. “The NRA has people and we vote.”
It’s those votes, not donations, that the NRA counts on for its political clout. The group lets members know where politicians stand through a rating system, published annually, based on their votes, public statements and responses to a questionnaire.
The NRA’s national political committee continues to give to federal elected officials from Florida, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and at least a dozen of the state’s Republican congressmen. And the NRA Foundation gives in other ways, including $126,000 to the Broward County School District for its JROTC program, an Associated Press report found. After the Stoneman Douglas shooting, the district said it would no longer accept money from the group. According to Hammer, donations at the state level stopped for pragmatic reasons.
“We stopped giving cash contributions because every time we gave a contribution to a candidate, the media accused NRA of buying legislators,” Hammer said. “Of course, when the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Association of Realtors, the Florida Medical Association, Teachers Union, or the AFL-CIO gave the same amount or more, they were never accused of buying anybody.”
That’s not the case in other states. Campaign finance records from states with a strong NRA presence, including its headquarters in Virginia and the gun-friendly state of Texas, show state political committees affiliated with the NRA making contributions as recently as 2017, the latest year for which data are available.
Hammer has been an outsized presence in Tallahassee since 1974, when she began a four-year run as a volunteer lobbyist for the NRA before going pro in 1978. She has remained the group’s implacable defender in Florida since then, along with serving as the NRA’s first female president, from 1995 to 1998. She has been a constant presence in the capital and has pushed the state to adopt gun-rights protections that have become models in other states guided by Republican legislatures and governors, including 2005’s Stand Your Ground law.
The NRA — and the politicians who take money from the organization — have been the focus of #NeverAgain students’ activism ahead of the November election.
During debate over the school safety and gun access bill passed by the Florida Legislature this year, Hammer appeared before every committee that heard the bill. Surrounded by guncontrol advocates who had turned up to the Capitol en masse for the debates, Hammer would walk to the podium through boos and catcalls, telling lawmakers that the NRA “supports protecting our kids” but that “We do not support the gun control provisions of this bill,” calling them “nothing more than an attack on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding people.”
The bill passed, and the NRA is now suing in federal court over a portion of the bill that restricts gun sales to people under 21 years of age.
The day after the school safety bill passed the Florida House and was sent to Gov. Rick Scott for a signature, Hammer sent an email blast to Florida NRA members.
“Yesterday, in one of the most despicable displays of bullying and coercion, the Florida House voted 67 to 50 to pass an unconstitutional bill that violates Second Amendment rights and punishes law [abiding] citizens for the actions of a mentally ill teenager who murdered 17 people after Florida officials repeatedly refused to get him the help he needed,” she wrote. “Only 19 House Republicans stayed faithful to their oath of office and upheld their sworn duty to ‘support, protect, and defend the Constitution.’ ”
She listed all 19 state representatives before adding, “Fifty-five (55) Republicans betrayed their oath, broke their word to constituents and caved to bullying and coercion. We will share their names with you later. Now, you must contact the Governor and tell him to veto the bill and force the Legislature to do it right — remove the gun control and focus on making our schools safe.”
The NRA has had success in Florida at hindering the careers of politicians it sees as traitors. Former state Rep. Charles McBurney, a Jacksonville Republican, had an A rating from the NRA as of 2014, according to Vote Smart, a nonpartisan research organization that compiles information on political candidates. Termlimited out of office in 2016, McBurney tried for a judgeship. But as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that year, he had killed a bill that made a change to the state’s Stand Your Ground law that was favored by the NRA but not by state prosecutors.
A letter-writing campaign to Scott ensued after Hammer sent another email to NRA members, writing that McBurney had “arrogantly put his blind ambition to become a judge ahead of your constitutional right of self-defense and your basic fundamental right to the presumption of innocence.”
Scott passed over McBurney for the judgeship.
Although it no longer donates to politicians, the NRA Political Victory Fund, the committee that Hammer serves as treasurer of, has not shut its doors. Since stopping political donations in 2010, the committee has continued to make regular payments to direct-mail companies, most frequently the Frederick, Marylandbased vendor ProList.
ProList does not offer the name of clients on its website, but among the four success stories discussed in the “case studies” section of its website is “The lobbying arm of a leading civil rights association [that] has historically faced major challenges to the constitutionally protected freedoms of its members.”
“Recently in one month, we completed nearly 100 projects with this client without making a single error,” the site reports. “We believe that everyone has certain inalienable rights — most important of all, the right to high performance direct mail.”
The NRA does not give out official membership numbers. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has touted five million members at conferences in the past, but stateby-state breakdowns are unavailable. But given the amount of gun owners in Florida — there were more than 1.8 million concealed carry permits issued as of March 31 — the reach of Hammer’s emails could be considerable.
And a lot is at stake. Democrats are trying to reach a majority in the Florida Senate, which has been in Republican hands since the 1994 election. At the federal level, Gov. Rick Scott is now running for U.S. Senate after signing the school-safety bill the NRA opposed. And several U.S. House seats are in play due to the retirement of Republican representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Dennis Ross and the vulnerability of Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican in a district that leans Democratic.
Asked whether she would use direct mail and email blasts against Scott or any of the state legislators who voted for age limits on gun sales, Hammer responded, “We don’t reveal our strategy to the media or anyone. … We don’t talk about who we are and what we will do. We just do the right thing.”