RICHMOND, Va. - National groups on both sides of the gun control issue are pouring money into Virginia legislative races, with the NRA making an unusually large donation to a Republican leader and Everytown for Gun Safety escalating its contributions to Democrats.
Everytown's Action Fund said Thursday morning that it was spending another $438,000 to help turn the Virginia legislature blue in November, on top of $135,000 in digital ad buys it announced last month. The gun control group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised to spend $2.5 million this year in Virginia, where all 140 seats in the GOP-conrolled state legislature are on the November ballot and the balance of power is at stake.
The announcement came two days after the National Rifle Association donated $200,000 to the political action committee of House majority leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. That's by far the NRA's largest onetime contribution in Virginia in at least the past 20 years, according to the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project. The NRA has contributed a total of about $800,000 directly to candidates over that same time frame, according to VPAP.
The NRA traditionally wields power by mobilizing its network of members rather than through large donations. It also makes relatively small independent expenditures, advocating for or against candidates without going through a candidate's campaign. So far in 2019, the NRA has reported just over $12,000 in such expenditures, according to VPAP.
Virginia's races are drawing national attention as the only elections in the country this year that will determine control of a state legislature. Republicans are defending thin majorities of 51-48 in the House of Delegates and 20-19 in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.
Guns became a focal point of the races after a shooter killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly in July to take up gun safety bills, but Republican leadership adjourned the session after 90 minutes without debating a single piece of legislation. All bills were referred to a state crime commission, which met last month and is studying the proposed legislation but is not scheduled to report back to the legislature until after the election.
"It's really shocking how blatantly the NRA controls the House Republican leadership," House minority leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said via email. She and other Democrats have criticized Gilbert and House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, for consulting with the NRA and allowing the group to coordinate gun rights protesters from Cox's conference room during the special legislative session.
"It couldn't be clearer - the NRA is rewarding Virginia Republicans for standing with them instead of their constituents," Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee president Jessica Post said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
Cox has countered that Republicans are taking a deliberative approach to gun safety measures. The crime commission spent two full days last month hearing testimony from experts and lawmakers.
The NRA's campaign contribution "pales in comparison to the millions that Mayor Bloomberg has already pledged to bring New York-style gun control to Virginia. It's less than one tenth," Gilbert said Wednesday via email.
Gilbert, running in a heavily Republican district, traditionally distributes money from his coffers to other GOP candidates around the state.
Everytown is being strategic with its donations so far, generally targeting candidates in suburban swing districts that could determine the balance of power in the legislature.
On Thursday, the gun control group said it would donate $100,000 to the House Democratic caucus, $125,000 to the Senate Democratic caucus, $100,000 to a state Democratic political action committee and $113,000 to candidates running in particular General Assembly races.
Everytown said the money was aimed at boosting candidates it was endorsing in 22 key legislative races, including several in suburban districts in Richmond and Hampton Roads. In Northern Virginia, the group is boosting Democrat Dan Helmer in his challenge to Republican incumbent Del. Tim Hugo of Fairfax; Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, in her contest against former Republican Del. Randy Minchew; Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, in her race against Kelly McGinn; Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, in her race against former Del. Rich Anderson; and Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, in her contest with Republican D.J. Jordan.
The group is also backing Del. John Bell in his bid for the Loudoun County state Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Dick Black. His opponent is Republican Geary Higgins.
Everytown also said it would hold grassroots "weekends of action" in partnership with its sister group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, on Sept. 21-22 and Oct. 19-20.
"The mass shooting in Virginia Beach should have spurred state lawmakers to take action to protect Commonwealth families - but the Republican-led General Assembly decided to protect the gun lobby instead," John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said via email. "Everytown is going all-in on the November elections."
Even before Everytown's announcement, a spokesperson for the NRA downplayed the group's effectiveness in Virginia.
"The NRA is fully engaged in this election to protect the self-defense rights of every law-abiding Virginian," NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said. "We are focused on educating and mobilizing our members in support of candidates who will protect our fundamental rights...The Bloomberg and Everytown/Moms Demand lobbyists may outspend the NRA, but they will never outwork us."