Local zillionaires Bill Gates and Nick Hanauer kicked in another $1 million each to Initiative 594’s coffers late last week, on top of the half million dollars each recently contributed by Paul Allen and the Ballmers. That’s $3 million in recent weeks, from four of the wealthiest households in the state, towards closing Washington State’s dangerous “gun show loophole.” And if past performance is any indication of future results, there’s a lot more money where that came from.
Hanauer’s total contributions to I-594 now stand at $1,470,000, the Gates at $1,050,000, the Ballmers at $600,000, and Allen at $500,000. Altogether, the I-594 campaign has now raised over $5.8 million from about 7,500 donors (an indication of strong grassroots support as well), compared to just $1.1 million for competing pro-guns Initiative 591 and a mere $25,000 for the National Rifle Association’s official “No on 594” campaign.
It’s not like the NRA to bring a knife to a gun-control fight. But given the circumstances, it may be their only choice.
I-594’s universal background checks on all gun sales enjoys extraordinarily strong, broad, and steady support from Washington voters: 70 percent in a July Elway Poll, down only slightly from 72 percent in April. I-594 enjoys majority support from Republicans and Democrats alike, and surprisingly strong support in parts of Eastern Washington were you’d expect opposition to be fierce.
Given these numbers, it might not be impossible for the NRA to undermine I-594’s popularity, but with little more than two months to go before the election, it would take an awful lot of money. And I’m not talking dollar-to-dollar parity. The grocery industry spent over $22 million last year to defeat the far less popular GMO-labeling Initiative 522. But the No campaign’s nearly three-to-one spending advantage only bought it a narrow victory, with I-522 ultimately going down to a 49 percent to 51 percent defeat.
And the NRA can’t count on even that sort of spending advantage.
Many of the same local zillionaires behind I-594 were also principal backers of 2012’s odious charter schools Initiative 1240; and they gave both early and often. Bill and Melinda Gates gave a total of $3.15 million to I-1240, Allen $1.6 million, Hanauer $1.05 million, Connie Ballmer $500,000. The Yes on I-1240 campaign ultimate spent $11.4 million to pass charter schools, against a token opposition campaign of a little more than $700,000, a 16-to-1 advantage.
Did Gates and company need to spend that much money on I-1240? No. But they play to win.
And that’s the dilemma facing the NRA. If they want a shot at defeating I-594 they’re going to have to substantially outspend a handful of really motivated zillionaires who are willing and able to up the stakes dramatically. Twenty million dollars isn’t going to do it. Maybe not $30 million. Hell, $40 million may not even be enough, and that’s significantly more than the NRA typically spends on all of its political advertising and lobbying nationally in an given year!
Spend $30 to $40 million on defeating I-594, and the NRA won’t have a penny to defeat anything else. Spend $30-plus million and lose, and that would be political disaster, sending a clear message to legislators and congressmen that no amount of NRA money is enough to stem the popular tide of support in favor of stricter gun control. Better to spend nothing, and just write off this initiative as a wacky political outlier from the pot-smoking, gay-marrying, socialist-electing, $15-minimum-wage-paying Soviet of Washington.
No wonder NRA chief lobbyist and No on I-594 campaign manager Chris Cox has been refusing to return reporters’ phone calls. Indeed, it’s been almost a month since an NRA official publicly commented on I-594, and that didn’t go too well for the NRA, did it?
This is one confrontation where the NRA would be well advised not to stand their ground. And I’ve got an inkling that they won’t.