Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has his eye on an enemy this election cycle: the National Rifle Association.
Since announcing his gun control initiative, Proposition 63, a year ago, Newsom has repeatedly talked in speeches and fundraising pitches about sending a “powerful message” to the gun rights group with a fearsome reputation for its influence in Washington, D.C.
A recent email warned: “Friends, the NRA has already spent more than $11 million this year pushing its deadly agenda – and is doing whatever it takes to buy off politicians and stop any action to save lives from gun violence.”
But despite being a favorite boogeyman of California liberals, the NRA is actually a relatively minor political player in the Golden State, where the voice of gun rights has traditionally been represented by state groups like Gun Owners of California. The NRA has contributed just $95,000 to the campaign against Proposition 63, a mere fraction of the nearly $5 million it has poured into neighboring Nevada to fight a background check proposal.
And it has reported only $120,000 so far in direct contributions, outside spending and communication costs in California legislative and congressional races, according to state campaign finance filings and federal data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. The organization has spent more than $4 million in North Carolina alone trying to prevent Democrat Deborah Ross from winning a U.S. Senate seat.
“The NRA is the Coca-Cola of the gun rights movement,” said Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition. “They’ve been around for 100 years, and they have brand recognition. Why not attack the thing that everybody knows?”
It is perhaps only logical that the NRA would be cautious in a state as deep blue as California. Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law, suggested the organization may also be staying out of the Proposition 63 fight because several similar laws passed this summer already accomplish Newsom’s major goals, including instituting background checks for ammunition purchases.
“Why spend a ton of money to defeat a ballot initiative that is largely symbolic?” said Winkler, who has written about the legal battle over the right to bear arms.
It is worth emphasizing, however, just how much the NRA has receded from California elections: The group hasn’t made a significant play here since 2010, when it spent about $571,000 trying to help Carly Fiorina oust Sen. Barbara Boxer and in several competitive congressional seats amid the tea party wave.
Meanwhile, it has devoted considerable resources in recent years to competitive governor races in Wisconsin and Virginia, a recall effort against Colorado lawmakers who pursued gun control laws, and legislative candidates in states like Washington that attempted bold new firearms regulations.
It wasn’t always this way. When California had a more moderate balance of power between Democrats and Republicans, the NRA could be a lethal foe.
The defeat of Assemblyman Winfield Shoemaker, a Santa Barbara Democrat targeted in 1968 after he introduced the state’s first comprehensive gun control bill in the wake of several high-profile political assassinations, set a chilling precedent for lawmakers for decades.
When advocates tried to circumvent that threat by qualifying a handgun registration initiative on the 1982 ballot, it backfired. The campaign drew more than $5 million from the NRA to squash the measure and registered a surge of new voters that likely contributed to Democrat Tom Bradley’s narrow loss in the governor’s race. The organization later played a crucial role in funding the campaign for California’s “three strikes” law, which voters passed in 1994.
That same year, the NRA politically crippled former Senate leader David Roberti, sponsor of the state’s assault weapons ban. An ultimately unsuccessful recall effort nevertheless depleted him of resources for future campaigns and helped chase him out of office.
But a shocking massacre outside a Stockton elementary school in 1989, which catalyzed support for the controversial ban on assault weapons, began to turn the tide.
“I strategized like I had never strategized before,” said former Assemblyman Mike Roos, a Los Angeles Democrat who co-sponsored the measure with Roberti. After receiving hundreds of angry letters per day, and a last-minute visit from a Republican colleague who tearfully told him that she could no longer support the bill as she had promised, Roos managed to get the proposed ban through the Assembly with the minimum 41 votes.
He said he never worried about political blowback in his safe district, but his constituents began to receive nasty mailers that he speculated were from the NRA, and there were a few threats of violence.
“That’s what they really were good at: generating tons of responses,” Roos said.
In the 1990s, gun control became a winning campaign issue for California Democrats, including former Gov. Gray Davis and Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who were both elected in 1998. The following year, Davis signed four new laws, including a requirement for trigger locks, the state’s first significant momentum on firearm regulations in a decade.
The NRA’s direct contributions to legislative candidates that election cycle totaled nearly $260,000, according to data maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, plus an additional $135,000 to the California Republican Party. They have steadily dwindled ever since, reaching no contribution this year, though the group has separately reported about $37,000 in independent spending for 11 legislative races.
California gun groups leading the campaign against Proposition 63, such as the Firearms Policy Coalition and Gun Owners of California, said they are proud to be associated with the NRA and appreciate what it has done to help them. The NRA put about $116,000 into a joint lobbying effort at the Capitol this session.
But its priority is on the presidential race, where it has spent more than $26 million trying to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and elect Republican nominee Donald Trump.
In a strange campaign cycle that saw the usual major Republican donors fall away from Trump, the NRA has already doubled its outside spending compared to the 2012 presidential race, blanketing the airwaves with ads slamming Clinton as an “out-of-touch hypocrite” who will “leave you defenseless.”
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, said the NRA doesn’t have extra money to dump into California because it would take away from “critically important” races to elect a president that will nominate pro-Second Amendment judges and a U.S. Senate that will confirm them.
The NRA has pumped millions more into crucial Senate races in North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada, Missouri and Wisconsin that could determine which party controls the chamber.
Acknowledging that gun rights advocates have been unable to halt the vast majority of bills moving through the Capitol, Paredes said their best bet to stop a Legislature that “couldn’t pass a pro-gun Mother’s Day resolution” is by challenging these laws they believe are unconstitutional in a more sympathetic court system.
“We’re looking at this as a matrix, as a long-term battle,” Paredes said. “We can’t expect anything more or less from them.”
In an e-mail, NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter referred questions about Proposition 63 to the campaign. She did not respond to follow-up questions about the organization’s other political activities in California.
Combs, of the Firearms Policy Coalition, pointed out that national groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety have not stepped in, either, to support Newsom’s initiative. The biggest donors include the California Democratic Party and wealthy individuals like former Facebook President Sean Parker and real estate mogul Nicholas Pritzker.
He criticized Newsom for using the NRA as a “straw man” to drum up support for his measure without having to educate voters about what it really does.
Newsom defends his invocations of the NRA, which he dismisses as “a bit of a paper tiger.”
He said a victory for the initiative would be a “devastating counter-narrative” to its “perceived dominance” and provide an example to other states on how they could defeat the NRA through the ballot box rather than the Legislature.
“I guess the reason I emphasize this is because I want to expose them,” he said.