To many of its opponents, that decades-long string of victories is proof that the N.R.A. has bought its political support. But the numbers tell a more complicated story: The organization’s political action committee over the last decade has not made a single direct contribution to any current member of the Florida House or Senate, according to campaign finance records.
In Florida and other states across the country, as well as on Capitol Hill, the N.R.A. derives its political influence instead from a muscular electioneering machine, fueled by tens of millions of dollars’ worth of campaign ads and voter-guide mailings, that scrutinizes candidates for their views on guns and propels members to the polls.
“It’s really not the contributions,” said Cleta Mitchell, a former N.R.A. board member. “It’s the ability of the N.R.A. to tell its members: Here’s who’s good on the Second Amendment.”
Far more than any check the N.R.A. could write, it is this mobilization operation that has made the organization such a challenging adversary for Democrats and gun control advocates — one that, after the massacre at a school in Parkland, Fla., is struggling to confront an emotional student-led push for new restrictions.
The N.R.A.’s impact comes, in large part, from the simplicity of the incentives it presents to political candidates: letter grades, based on their record on the Second Amendment, that guide the N.R.A.’s involvement in elections. Lawmakers who earn an “A” rating can count on the group not to oppose them when they run for re-election or higher office.
For candidates who earn lower grades, the group deploys a range of blunt-force methods against them. The N.R.A. mails the voter guides to its five million members, displaying images of favored candidates on the front, and some state chapters bombard supporters with emails about coming elections.
The organization’s calculation is that its money is better spent on maintaining a motivated base of gun rights supporters than on bankrolling candidates directly.