October brought more donations to candidates and more knocks on constituent doors from both sides of the gun lobby.
Democratic coffers -- which have reached historic levels of reported fundraising -- swelled with October donations from Everytown for Gun Safety, a lobby group focused on reducing gun violence. Everytown contributed $938,238 to the Democratic party in 2019 according to The Virginia Public Access Project. Over $600,000 of that total was given in September.
Everytown outspent the National Rifle Association this year, which donated $273,000 to Republican candidates. In September, based on campaign finance reports, the NRA donated a little over $54,000.
“The politics of guns in Virginia has changed dramatically over the last few years,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the University of Mary Washington's Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
Everytown received a study in late August about voter concerns that was conducted and published by Schoen Consulting. The firm interviewed 1,247 voters in swing districts across three regions of the state. Candidates’ positions on gun control was important for voters, according to the study. In Northern Virginia, 82% of voters prioritized a candidate’s stance on gun issues as important. In Richmond suburbs, 87% of voters found it important, and in the Hampton Roads area 83% of voters found it important.
The study also concluded that Republican opposition to red flag laws -- laws to remove guns from some people considered a risk to themselves or others -- was the most convincing reason across all three regions to vote against Republicans in the November General Assembly elections, when respondents were given choices that included health care, education, the environment, guns and taxes.
Everytown, according to communication associate Mariah McGough, pledged to spend $2.5 million in this year’s state elections. The lobby group also endorsed 25 candidates and contributed to media and digital ad campaigns. A $550,000 digital ad offensive launched in 15 Republican-held House and Senate districts.
Everytown, according to VPAP, has given the most to Missy Cotter Smasal ($160,675) who is vying for the Virginia Beach area Senate District 8 seat held by incumbent Sen. Bill DeSteph, a Republican. Sheila Bynum-Coleman, running against incumbent House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-66th, of Colonial Heights, received $126,000.
“Democrats are much more willing to emphasize gun control in their campaign, and gun control money has become increasingly visible in Virginia politics,” Farnsworth said.
The ‘Moms Demand Action,’ NRA factors
Everytown has injected cash support for Democrats, but Moms Demand Action, a grassroots organization working to end gun violence, has been drumming up constituent support in neighborhoods.
Heather Soglio, Moms Demand Action volunteer, said her group has been knocking on doors since July. She said the biggest concern is “lax gun laws in Virginia.”
“We’re not anti-Second Amendment, we’re not anti-gun, we support the Second Amendment and believe it can go hand-in-hand with public safety and strong gun laws,” Soglio said.
The NRA also has been busy. The bulk of its donations ($201,500) went to the political action committee of House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-15th, of the Shenandoah area. The next largest contributions by the NRA were $25,000 each to incumbent Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-4thDistrict, of Hanover, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-26th, of Rockingham.
In early August, top NRA leadership resigned after board members raised a concern about reports of reckless spending and mismanagement by the group’s leadership.
“Perhaps part of the reason why we haven’t heard or seen more from the NRA in Virginia this election cycle has to do with the challenges the organization itself is facing at the moment,” Farnsworth said.
The NRA has also been busy encouraging voter turnout this election. NRA grassroots activists knocked on 100,000 doors of targeted voters in recent months, according to Catherine Mortensen, NRA media liaison. Also, the NRA rallied members at the State Capitol during the July special session that adjourned quickly with no action taken.
Linda Eastman, a volunteer for the NRA, said the organization is “not trying to force guns into people’s hands, we’re trying to protect their Second Amendment rights.” She says that’s a misconception people have about the NRA.
“We’re all about gun safety not just gun violence and ‘everyone needs to have a gun.’ That’s not what the NRA is about,” Eastman said.
Glen Caroline, head of the NRA’s Grassroots Programs and Campaign Field Operations Division, said he believes engaged citizens can swing elections.
“I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years and I’ve seen time and again our voters swing key elections,” Caroline said. “I am aware of all the money our opponents are spending, but I’m not intimidated.”