The NRA told the Federal Election Commission it spent $55 million during the 2016 election cycle. But according to two insiders at the powerful gun lobby, the total was far greater.
The group — which broke with longstanding practice Thursday by coming out in favor of a measure to clamp down on a device that can make rifles more deadly — has long been a major campaign contributor, particularly, in recent years, to Republicans. In 2016, the group’s reports filed with the Federal Election Commission showed it shelled out a record-setting $55 million combined on independent political spending and direct contributions to candidates in federal races.
But two NRA sources told McClatchy that the group spent even more -- close to $70 million, and perhaps much more. One source, a prominent NRA committee member, told McClatchy in several interviews that the gun group’s chieftain Wayne LaPierre informed him of the higher number. And the second, a leading conservative with strong ties to the NRA, said he was told that the number was actually higher. Both sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information, which was not required to be public.
Even the reported figures show that the group doubled down, literally, on its previous spending in a presidential election cycle. The $55 million is more than twice the $22 million the NRA spent overall in 2012 and more than four times what it spent in 2008 and 2004, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The bulk of the 2016 spending came in the presidential race, where the group spent more than $30 million to support President Donald Trump's candidacy. That's nearly three times what the group spent in 2012 supporting GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
TV ads accounted for much of the NRA's spending in the 2016 presidential contest, and were most heavily concentrated in Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina -- three states that helped tilt the election in Trump's favor -- according to data from the Center for Public Integrity.
Spending by the NRA heavily favors Republicans. In the last four presidential cycles, only 1 percent of the group’s reported political spending has benefited Democrats.
Campaign finance experts attribute the disparity between what the NRA reported spending and the higher number to some gaps in election reporting rules.
For one thing, there’s no requirement that internet ads be reported. Ditto the mobilization of a group’s membership network -- and the NRA claims to have five million members.
"The NRA is not as well known for its grass roots organizing and field work as for its direct mail and TV ads,” said Charlie Black, a veteran GOP operative and lobbyist. “But these field operations may be even more important than the ads, and the field work doesn't have to be reported under campaign finance laws."
"We've known for a long time that a lot of election activity goes unreported," added Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group. Specifically Noble pointed out that the NRA's spending on "field operations, internet activity...and sham issue ads that effectively attack candidates," could account for at least some of the difference.
The NRA had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Stone is special correspondent