The N.R.A. has been assigning fewer A’s and more F’s to Democrats elected to Congress each cycle.
The National Rifle Association has significantly fewer allies in Congress than it did a decade ago, a decline driven by the near-total fraying of the group’s ties to Democrats in the House and the Senate, according to a New York Times analysis of the group’s letter grades and endorsements.
The N.R.A. still has considerable clout with Republicans, including President Trump and Senate leaders, and it is now flexing its muscles in the debate over background checks. Yet for many years, the group’s influence was broader and deeper because of its large numbers of friends in both parties. These political allies received “A” ratings from the N.R.A. and often feared grade reductions if they crossed it.
Now, the number of Democrats in the House with “A” ratings has fallen from 63 after the 2008 elections to three after the 2018 midterms.
This makes the N.R.A.’s political position more precarious. The group was once largely insulated from shifts in partisan control: It could block gun restrictions no matter which party controlled Congress and the White House. In the long term, the loss of the N.R.A.’s Democratic buffer poses a threat to the group’s influence no matter what happens in the current gun control debate.
Change in N.R.A. Grades for Members of the House
Note: There are six representatives elected in 2008 and one in 2018 who did not receive grades.
Voters, meanwhile, are generally not punishing members of Congress who turn away from the N.R.A., making it a less threatening force in elections.
The Times analysis looked at complete data on N.R.A. ratings and endorsements for six election cycles, from 2008 through 2018. The group uses “A” ratings to signify consistent support for gun rights and opposition to restrictions; “F” ratings signify the opposite. The group advertises its grades to supporters, who use them to guide their votes. Many A-rated candidates receive an endorsement, which can bring support like money, mailers and campaign ads.
The N.R.A. has denied losing clout and says it has more members than ever. An N.R.A. spokesman, Lars Dalseide, gave a brief statement in response to The Times’s detailed explanation of its findings.
“The N.R.A. alerts our members on races where candidates have been identified as supporters or opponents of the Second Amendment. Our focus has never been on party affiliation but rather on which candidates will best defend the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” he said.
Pressed on specific data points, Mr. Dalseide did not respond.
The N.R.A.’s Democratic allies are nearly extinct.
Support for the N.R.A. has always been much stronger among Republicans than Democrats, both in Congress and in the electorate. But until recently, a significant minority of Democrats were on board with the group.
In 2008, voters elected 67 A-rated Democrats to Congress, where they accounted for about a quarter of the party’s caucus. Another 13 Democrats were elected with B ratings, meaning the N.R.A. considered them “generally pro-gun” despite some past disagreements.
Now, only three congressional Democrats — Representatives Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Henry Cuellar of Texas — have A grades. Just two more, Representatives Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, have B’s. There is not a single A- or B-rated Democrat left in the Senate.
F ratings are now the norm for Democrats, and many of them treat it as a badge of honor.
A small handful of Republicans have broken publicly with the N.R.A. in recent years. But even if the shift has mostly been one-sided among Democrats, it has big implications. When Democrats had a large House majority and a near-supermajority in the Senate a decade ago, there were so many N.R.A. allies within the party that more than half of Congress had A’s, and only a third had F’s.
Percentage of Congress With A and F Grades
(Party controlling each chamber)
Note: Chart shows only those members up for election each cycle. All House members and a third of senators are up for re-election every two years.
In the current Congress, slightly more than half of all members have F’s. Each of the past four congressional elections has brought in more F-rated legislators than the last.
It is clear that the N.R.A.’s alliances with Democrats in the past — a point of contention with some of the group’s members — were essential in opposing gun control. In September 2010, as Democratic control of both chambers of Congress was about to end without any significant gun restrictions, Chris Cox, then executive director of the N.R.A.’s Institute for Legislative Action, spoke to a National Review interviewer.
“The political reality is that we have President Obama, who had at one point 60 Democratic votes in the Senate and a 39-vote margin in the House,” Mr. Cox said. “If it weren’t for our pro-gun Democrats, we would be having a very different conversation.”
It’s not just new members. Incumbents’ grades have dropped, too.
The decline in “A” ratings is partly a result of the broader polarization of American politics, which has driven Republicans to the right, Democrats to the left and moderates in both parties to the curb.
Of the 229 Democrats newly elected in the past decade, only 19 arrived with A ratings, and none have done so since 2012.
But while many moderate Democrats have been replaced by liberals, that is only part of the story. In the same period, the N.R.A. lowered the grades of 83 incumbents: 65 Democrats and 18 Republicans. Only 31 incumbents had their grades raised.
Many of those downgraded legislators dropped by three or more letter grades — including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, two presidential candidates now running vocally on gun control.
Among Democrats, the downgrading started in earnest in 2012 and was basically complete within four years. But it was easy to overlook until recently, because Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and could stop gun control legislation on their own.
Members of Congress Whose Grades Were Lowered by the N.R.A.
A surprise in 2018 came on the other side: Eight Republicans had their grades reduced, compared with four in 2016 and zero in 2010. Three House Republicans — Brian Mast of Florida, Peter King of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — now have F’s. All three were re-elected last year, and Mr. Fitzpatrick’s greatest liability in his race may have been the perception that he didn’t support gun control strongly enough.
Just in the last three weeks, since the deadly shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Representatives Michael R. Turner of Ohio and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — both Republicans — have come out in support of some gun restrictions.
Voters aren’t punishing N.R.A. defectors.
For years, one of the N.R.A.’s most powerful tools was lawmakers’ belief that defying it would be political suicide. And because so many politicians believed crossing it would hurt them, they didn’t.
But The Times’s analysis showed very little electoral backlash over the past 10 years.
Of the 25 lawmakers who dropped three or more letter grades, only two — Senator Joe Donnelly, Democrat of Indiana, and Representative Carlos Curbelo, Republican of Florida — lost re-election, and Mr. Curbelo lost to a Democrat who also had an F rating. He faced no serious opposition in the Republican primary.
In fact, of the 83 members of Congress downgraded by any amount between 2008 and 2018, only 11 lost re-election. By contrast, 14 of the 31 members who were upgraded lost.
Members of Congress Who Lost a Re-election From 2008 to 2018
Each line represents a member. Each arrow segment represents an election cycle. Some members were downgraded or upgraded more than once.
Note: Several members appear in both charts because they were downgraded and upgraded separately in different election cycles.
In other words, legislators who moved away from the N.R.A. did better electorally than legislators who moved toward it.
This pattern was driven by Democrats: Just 9 percent of those downgraded lost re-election, while 59 percent of those upgraded lost.
Republicans were more likely to lose re-election if they were downgraded, though most of them still won: 28 percent of downgraded Republicans lost, compared with 11 percent of those upgraded. And The Times found no cases in which a Republican who broke from the N.R.A. was replaced with someone the group rated better.
Mr. Mast of Florida became a case study when he endorsed an assault weapons ban after the Parkland massacre in 2018. The N.R.A. lowered his grade from A to F, and some constituents called for a primary challenge. But he won his primary overwhelmingly, then won again in November.
More candidates have begun running against the N.R.A. from the get-go. Many Democratic challengers, especially in conservative states, used to side with the group; in 2008, there were 90 House and Senate races in which both candidates had A’s. Last year, there were only seven.
The trend is particularly striking in the total number of A’s and F’s the N.R.A. assigns to congressional candidates.
In 2008, the group assigned 447 A ratings to House and Senate candidates, and only 174 F ratings. But in 2018, only 351 candidates received A’s, and 416 received F’s. It was the first time in at least 10 years that F’s exceeded A’s.
The N.R.A. is endorsing mostly in safe races.
One data point the N.R.A. often cites as evidence of its influence is the percentage of endorsed candidates who win. It was 77 percent in 2018.
High as that is, it used to be higher. In 2014 and 2016, more than 90 percent of N.R.A.-endorsed candidates won.
That the group’s success rate has fallen is all the more striking because it has been confining most of its endorsements to relatively safe races.
In 2010, the N.R.A. made 35 percent of its House endorsements in the most competitive districts. In 2018, that number was 22 percent. Safe districts accounted for 36 percent of endorsements in 2010, but 55 percent in 2018.
In other words, based on whom it chose to endorse, the N.R.A. essentially guaranteed itself a success rate above 50 percent no matter how badly the midterms went.