WASHINGTON — Gun control groups say this is the year they finally go toe-to-toe with the National Rifle Association and match their foe’s imposing campaign spending for congressional candidates.
Their long-awaited financial parity with the gun lobby, however, underscores the importance of timing in politics. Firearms violence has faded as a top tier public concern, a turnabout from the issue’s high profile immediately following the December 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six aides at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The subject barely registers in polling that shows voters far more focused on the economy and terrorism. This week’s Associated Press-GfK poll showed fewer than 1 percent of likely voters named guns as the nation’s top issue — a view that many House and Senate contests reflect.
“I can’t think of one race where the gun issue has been prominent in any way,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who is involved in two dozen congressional campaigns.
That isn’t stopping each side in the gun debate from planning to pump tens of millions of dollars into this fall’s races. There are numerous close contests, particularly for seats in a Senate that both parties hope to control next year.
“It’s an important issue to segments of voters on both sides” of the gun issue, said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “You don’t need to make a huge difference, you just need to make a little difference because these races are all so close.”
Few doubt that organizations led by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and the wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., will unleash huge sums in the campaigns’ closing weeks to back candidates favoring firearms curbs. They’re off to modest starts — unlike the NRA.
Barely a month from Election Day, the nation’s most powerful gun rights group has so far reported spending over $10 million for ads and other efforts either for or against more than 60 congressional candidates. The efforts include sending NRA field representatives to gun shows to tout favored candidates.
That spending — which is supposed to be done independently and not coordinated with candidates — makes the NRA the ninth highest spender of more than 300 groups tracked by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors political spending.
Virtually all NRA spending has been to help Republicans. As of Aug. 31 it reported having $18.5 million banked and was still raising money.
NRA expenditures include over $1 million in each of five states — North Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa, Colorado and Louisiana —to help GOP hopefuls capture Senate seats held by Democrats. All those races seem tight.
Some NRA ads have targeted Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is bankrolling two groups that back gun curbs.
In one recent NRA spot, a Colorado woman, Kimberly Weeks, describes an assault she survived in her home and says, “Michael Bloomberg wants to take away my gun rights for self-defense while he surrounds himself with armed guards” at his New York home.
The NRA’s early spending advantage could be short-lived.
Bloomberg has pledged to spend $50 million this year to advance his gun control goals. Some of that is to support his Everytown for Gun Safety, which is focusing largely on state contests, including backing a Washington state ballot initiative to require background checks for private sales of firearms.
Bloomberg’s separate political committee, Independence USA PAC, has reported no significant campaign spending since helping two Democrats win special congressional elections last year. Bloomberg has reported contributing $11.4 million since January 2013 to several committees, mostly to Independence USA.
“We tend to spend late and heavy,” said Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson, referring to 2012, when the then-new Independence USA spent virtually all of its $8.2 million on ads in that campaign’s closing days. “It’s a strategy that we think is effective.”
Americans for Responsible Solutions, headed by Giffords and husband Mark Kelly, the one-time astronaut, has said it will at least match the $20 million the NRA spent during the entire 2012 campaign, which included a presidential race.
Giffords and Kelly plan getting involved in at least a dozen congressional races this month, including backing incumbent Democratic senators in Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina.
Their group reported having $9 million in cash this summer and spending $2.5 million so far this year for candidates favoring gun control. That has included support for the re-election of both Democratic congresswomen from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican gun control backer.
They’ve also helped Democratic Rep. Ron Barber battle a challenge by Republican Martha McSally for Giffords’ old House seat. Barber, Giffords’ former chief of staff, was wounded in the 2011 mass shooting that injured her.
The group ran a TV spot featuring the crying mother of a shooting victim and that accused McSally of opposing efforts to keep stalkers from getting firearms.
“I don’t think she really understands how important that is to a lot of women,” the tearful woman said.
Giffords’ group pulled that ad after McSally said she’s always backed barring stalkers from having guns. Giffords’ senior adviser Pia Carusone said they dropped the ad after McSally “changed her mind” on the issue.