National Rifle Association Responds to Democratic Victory in Virginia, Warns of "Life Under a Distant Tycoon's Thumb"

The National Rifle Association (NRA) on Wednesday issued its first public response to the Democratic sweep of Virginia's General Assembly the night before, invoking former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the unusually prominent influence of gun-control groups.

"As if [Virginia] Gov. Northam's legacy of ineptitude wasn't enough, Virginians are about to experience life under a distant tycoon's thumb," the organization said, referring to Bloomberg and the group he founded, Everytown for Gun Safety. "Candidates who proudly accepted Bloomberg's cash—and every voter they misled—will soon realize the cost of being beholden to a Manhattan billionaire who despises Virginians' right to self-defense."

The NRA found itself outmatched in Virginia in one of the first public tests of its political clout amid a pervasive governance scandal and the rise of favorable public attitudes towards some basic gun control measures.

The group was also outspent by organizations such as Everytown and Giffords, which invested heavily in the Virginia legislative races. The Virginia Public Access Project has calculated that Everytown contributed over $1 million this election cycle to Democratic candidates and committees. The NRA's comparable spending in this domain was only around $300,000.

The NRA says despite the losses it will continue to promote the "defense of the Second Amendment rights of all Americans."

Almost immediately after returns Tuesday night suggested Democrats would control both chambers of the General Assembly, gun-control groups released celebratory statements of their own.

Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the founder of the organization which bears her name, said that "we sent a message to the NRA in their own backyard." The gun-rights group is headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.

Despite being outmatched financially, the NRA mobilized a grassroots campaign to turn out the gun-rights vote in the state. This mirrored a similar effort the group had undertaken months earlier when it, successfully, helped quash a special legislative session convened to address gun violence.

This time around, however, groups like Everytown implemented a rival strategy to galvanize the state's nascent gun control supporters, newly invigorated due to the mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May. Everytown invested over $2.5 million in the election, which included efforts supporting advertising, mailers and direct contributions.

Also working in favor of the progressive challengers was a 2018 federal court order to redraw the state's legislative map, citing alleged efforts in 2011 to gerrymander districts along racial lines, which is unconstitutional.

NRA Convenes For Annual Meeting In Indianapolis
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre speaks during the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting Leadership Forum on April 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. John Gress/Getty

What could this mean for the NRA's political muscle moving forward?

The NRA's political influence has most recently been questioned due to the high-profile ouster of Chris Cox, the group's former top lobbyist, and David Lehman, Cox's deputy. The NRA accused Cox of participating in a "coup" attempt against its CEO, Wayne LaPierre. But his institutional knowledge and relationships on Capitol Hill were an asset that could not easily be replaced.

Jason Ouimet, the current head of the lobbying arm, was previously its director of federal affairs.

On Saturday, grassroots gun-rights supporters descended onto Capitol Hill to rally for the Second Amendment. The gathering notably did not include the sponsorship of major gun-rights groups such as the NRA, which is the movement's most fervent backer.

Whether or not the NRA will be able to maintain its longstanding status as an electoral gatekeeper, and whether the group will maintain the confidence of its own members, will be most severely tested in 2020, when President Donald Trump will appear on the general election ballot. The NRA spent a record amount on the 2016 race. Four years later, it remains to be seen whether the group can mount a comparable effort once more.