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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Meet the Last NRA Democrat

The gun lobby's support for congressional Democrats has plunged. So far in 2016, the NRA has given just $1,000 to a single candidate.

by Dan Friedman
May 20 2016, 11:25pm

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is the only Democratic congressional candidate to get money from the NRA in 2016. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

The article was originally published by The Trace.

In his 11 years in Congress, Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, Texas, has made a habit of vexing his political party. Cuellar, one of eight children born to migrant worker parents, endorsed George W. Bush in 2000, voted against abortion funding, and called for sped-up deportation of undocumented children who cross the Mexican border.

This year, Cuellar achieved another unusual distinction: He was, at least for now, the lone Democratic congressional candidate, incumbent or otherwise, who has received a campaign donation this election cycle from the National Rifle Association, according to data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics. Cuellar did not respond to a request for comment.

It is not too late for the NRA to back other candidates in the 2016 elections, of course, but an analysis of the recent history of the gun group's election spending suggests that the NRA will donate few, if any, other Democrats.

The NRA has leaned Republican since at least the early 1990s, but as recently as 2010, halfwaythrough President Barack Obama's first term, it still supported many Democrats standing for election to Congress, especially in the South and West. For the 2010 campaign cycle, the gun group gave more than $350,000 in direct contributions to 65 Democratic House candidates. By 2014, almost all that support had disappeared: The gun group donated just $38,000 to only 12 Democratic campaigns.

Representative Filemon Vela, another Democratic Texan, received his only NRA donation in 2012, $1,000, during his first congressional campaign. In an interview, he said that he didn't recall the contribution. NRA lobbyists visited him after his election, but, he says, "I never heard from them again."

NRA giving to Senate Democrats has also disappeared. The last Democratic Senate candidate to receive an NRA donation was West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who received $6,500 from the group in 2012. That contribution was made before the Sandy Hook massacre, and before Manchin, along with Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, introduced legislation to close the so-called background check loophole. (The bill failed in the Senate amid fierce NRA opposition.)

A recent analysis by The Trace and the New York Daily News of so-called independent expenditures—money spent attacking or supporting candidates—showed that the primary political spending objective of the NRA is now to target and defeat Democrats. From 2010 to 2016, the NRA spent at least $33.4 million on attack ads, mostly in an effort to defeat Democrats.

Democratic House members who have received financial support of any kind from the NRA are now the political equivalent of the black rhino—a once-common African mammal now at the brink of extinction.

Of 21 congressional Democrats who were beneficiaries of independent NRA expenditures in 2010 and 2012, just one—Tim Walz, from southern Minnesota—remains in office. Of the 30 Democrats who received direct support from the NRA in 2012, a dozen still hold their House seats. They include Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, and Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

The plummet in the NRA's support for Democrats highlights the group's increasingly partisan posture, which is at odds with its past attempts to avoid party allegiances. It also highlights a bigger political shift, reflecting the consolidation of both major parties into more clearly defined ideological and regional groupings.

In the 2010 election, 30 conservative Democrats, many of them members Blue Dog Coalition who tended to oppose gun regulation, lost to Republicans as the Tea Party won congressional seats for the first time. The result has left fewer Democrats representing voters who put a premium on gun rights, and fewer Republicans whose constituents focus on issues such as abortion rights.

"Most organizations that have an ideological bent have become partisan organizations as the parties have become more homogenous," David Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report, told The Trace. "It's not exclusive to the NRA. We see it with Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. They have become Democratic organizations almost exclusively."

Manchin said he thinks the gun lobby has erred by not trying to work with him on background check legislation. "You would think the NRA would be reaching out to people like me that really believe staunchly in defending the Second Amendment, but also in trying to find a balance with just some common sense," he said.

He added that the NRA no longer resembles the group he "grew up in ... that taught gun safety and responsibility."

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