Editorials

Burr, NRA appear to be even tighter than we thought

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., defeated Democrat Deborah Ross in 2016 in a race infused with $55 million in outside money.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., defeated Democrat Deborah Ross in 2016 in a race infused with $55 million in outside money. AP

We already knew North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Richard Burr, was awash in NRA cash. We already knew the pro-gun group spent $5.6 million in 2016 against his Democratic opponent, Deborah Ross — twice as much as it spent on any other House or Senate candidate.

But only now do we know that Burr and the National Rifle Association may have broken the law by coordinating their advertising campaigns. Documents from the Federal Communications Commission show that the NRA’s ads in Burr’s race were authorized by the same media consultant working for Burr’s campaign, Mother Jones and The Trace reported on Friday.

That would appear to break federal law that requires candidates and outside groups to be independent of each other. Outside groups can make “independent expenditures” on so-called “issue ads,” which typically back or attack one candidate or the other. But the spending can’t be coordinated with an individual’s campaign. That law is designed in part to keep advocacy groups from exceeding contribution limits to individual candidates.

In a series of TV ads in 2016, the NRA attacked Ross for her record as a state legislator on gun control, saying she voted against gun rights and “personal liberty.” It was part of an avalanche of outside money dumped into the swing-state race with control of the U.S. Senate at stake.

Mother Jones and The Trace report that Jon Ferrell, CFO of a company called National Media Research, Planning and Placement, authorized ad purchases both for Burr’s campaign and for NRA ads in Burr’s race. He placed some TV ads in the closing weeks of the campaign as an “agent for Richard Burr Committee” and others at around the same time for the NRA against Ross. Mother Jones found similar activity in 2018 Senate races in Missouri and Montana.

Campaigns and outside groups can hire the same vendors but those vendors must have strict firewalls to prevent collaboration. A Burr campaign official suggested to the Observer editorial board that such a firewall was in place. But it’s hard to see how that’s so since Ferrell was involved with both sets of ads.

Perhaps the NRA backs Burr because of his consistent opposition to reasonable gun regulations, or perhaps Burr opposes certain gun reforms because the NRA fills his campaign coffers. Either way, the new evidence showing how closely the two are intertwined is just further fodder for voters who believe politicians are owned by special interests.

There’s something about North Carolina and NRA money. Sen. Thom Tillis ranks fourth in the nation for benefiting from NRA money. Last summer, a report in Politico raised questions about possible illegal coordination between a vendor for Tillis’s campaign and the NRA.

The NRA’s grip on lawmakers helps make America an outlier for gun violence. The Federal Elections Commission, usually split on partisan lines, rarely enforces the law requiring campaigns to be independent from outside groups. The evidence from Mother Jones, though, is convincing, and points to the kind of activity the FEC should not allow in the five-alarm fire that the 2020 election will be.

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