The National Rifle Association dropped a $200,000 donation into House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert’s political action committee this week, a departure from its usual practice in Virginia of relying on grassroots support to stop gun law changes.
Before this week’s donation, the Fairfax-based NRA had donated less than a million dollars total to state lawmakers since 1996, the earliest year available through the Virginia Public Access Project. New gun restrictions have typically died in small committees in the GOP-controlled legislature.
“The NRA is fully engaged in this election to protect the self-defense rights of every law-abiding Virginian,” NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortenson said in an email. “We are focused on educating and mobilizing our members in support of candidates who will protect our fundamental rights.”
The influence of the NRA and other gun-rights groups has been more strongly exerted through voters who support the organization’s mission.
Party leader PACs typically use money to support other candidates in the same party. Gilbert’s PAC gave $5,000 to Del. Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield earlier this year and $10,000 to Del. Bob Thomas of Fredericksburg in 2018.
“(The donation) means the Republicans are worried about losing their majorities and are bringing out the financial big guns, so to speak,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
In response to the donation, House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn donated $200,000 to the House Democratic Caucus. It’s common for party leaders to donate money from their established PAC in election years.
“Democratic control of the Virginia House of Delegates is my top priority,” she said in a release. “We will work on behalf of all Virginians and get to work on gun violence prevention and other important issues across our Commonwealth.”
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for reelection this November and Republicans hold a small majority in both chambers.
The Republican party is likely willing to take large donations from whoever is offering it, Farnsworth said, even if lawmakers have been accused of being “bought and sold” by the organization.
“It’s really shocking to see how blatantly the NRA controls the House Republican leadership,” Filler-Corn said in a release before announcing her donation to the Democratic Caucus. “Less than two months after blocking any discussion or allowing us to do our work to keep Virginians safe, it is disappointing the Republican leadership now receives this large donation.”
“Issues like guns tend to have pretty polarized public views,” he said. “The people who would be bothered by the NRA donation probably wouldn’t be voting Republican anyway.”
The NRA’s donation pales in comparison to money pro-gun control groups have pumped into the state and still plan on contributing: Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization created by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said it plans to spend $2.5 million in Virginia legislative races.
“Big city financiers seeking to buy this election have committed more than $2.5 million to gun control groups,” Mortenson said. “The Bloomberg and Everytown/Moms Demand lobbyists may outspend the NRA, but they will never outwork us.”
Update: This post has been updated with statements from the NRA and House Democrats.