WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. French Hill is currently the top "recipient of National Rifle Association funding" in the entire U.S. House of Representatives, according to The New York Times, but he barely registers on The Washington Post's list of NRA beneficiaries.
The Democrats trying to unseat Hill are stressing the Times' tally: $1,089,477 over the past four years, much of it coming in 2014.
The Little Rock Republican's campaign, on the other hand, points to the Post's total: $3,000.
Why are the figures so different? Because the papers are scrutinizing separate piles of cash, according to Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks money in politics.
NRA dollars help Arkansas congressional delegation
The center, which analyzed years of federal campaign finance reports, compiled the figures that the Times cited.
"When dealing with NRA money, some reporters like to focus entirely on donations that the NRA gives directly to the candidate. These are campaign funds. They can be spent by the candidate like any other donation from any individual, but they are limited in amount, so they can only give a certain amount in each election cycle," she said.
Typically, that amount is $10,000 or less.
"Other organizations and reporters focus on another type of spending that the NRA does, which is called independent spending," Bryner said.
With independent expenditures, "they can spend as much as they want," Bryner said. "They just can't do it in coordination with the candidate."
"The money spent in that way can be in the order of millions of dollars and certainly benefits the candidate -- even though the candidate isn't directly getting that money," she added.
The list generated by the Post, based on Federal Election Commission documents, focused solely on direct donations over the years; the Times included the independent contributions, as well.
"The $3,000 number is the more important number because that's a direct contribution to a campaign," said Hill spokesman Mike Siegel.
That is "significantly less than some Democratic members in Congress" have received, he said.
Hill's Democratic challengers, on the other hand, emphasize the seven-figure sum.
"It's just much harder to approach an issue as complex as gun violence with a clear mind if you've received more than a million dollars from a single organization," said state Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock. Tucker is one of four Democrats seeking the 2nd Congressional District seat that Hill now holds. Terms are two years.
A second Democratic candidate, Gwen Combs of Little Rock, called the spending "unconscionable."
"I think it's deplorable to accept funding from the NRA," she said.
Paul Spencer of Scott, a third Democratic challenger, called the NRA dollars "unfortunate."
"When you have any special interest that exerts so much power and places so much fear over the heads of our elected officials, it just makes you question who they represent," he said.
The fourth Democratic candidate, Jonathan Dunkley of Little Rock, wouldn't speak about Hill's past NRA support but said his own campaign won't be accepting NRA donations.
In an interview, Hill said Americans, including supporters of the Second Amendment, are free to exercise their First Amendment rights.
"I think, across the country, political speech is protected," he said. "We have external groups representing all kinds of different aspects in our public debate spending money in political campaigns to educate voters about issues or candidates."
This type of activism is "a long-standing part of our national political debate and the political system," Hill said. "You have labor unions. ... You have environmental groups and business groups and people who are for Second Amendment rights [and] people who are against Second Amendment rights. This is equal opportunity, First Amendment expression, across our whole country on an incredibly wide breadth of issues."
Hill isn't Arkansas' biggest beneficiary of NRA aid.
The organization spent $1,968,714 to help elect Tom Cotton to the U.S. Senate, the center said.
Cotton received $9,900 in direct support; the rest was independent support, the center said.
A spokesman for Cotton declined to comment.
Among all NRA beneficiaries across the country, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., finished first among senators with $7,755,701. Cotton was 12th, according to center totals that were last updated at the end of March.
In 2016, the NRA made $1,085,100 in contributions, including donations to 214 House Republican members, 23 Senate Republican members, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as four House Democratic members, according to the center's analysis of election commission filings.
The NRA's independent expenditures were far larger -- $54,398,558, the center said.
That was a sharp increase from 2014, when it made $981,152 in contributions with another $27,024,898 in independent expenditures, the center reported.
Nearly all of the NRA spending in Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District occurred during the 2014 election. The gun-rights group spent $540,612 independently to bolster Hill and $545,865 to undermine his Democratic opponent, former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays, the center said.
A lot of the money was spent during the campaign's final week as Hill and Hays fought to replace then-U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, a Republican from Little Rock.
Why did the NRA spend so much money to sway voters in central Arkansas?
"You'd probably have to ask them," Bryner said.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sought answers from the NRA on March 27-30 and again Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday and Friday.
A number of requests for comment, delivered electronically and by telephone, were received, an NRA staff member confirmed, but the spokesmen never replied.
Although he benefited from substantial NRA support in 2014, Hill hadn't been the Fairfax, Va.-based group's first choice.
The NRA Political Victory Fund had endorsed his opponent in the Republican primary, then-state Rep. Ann Clemmer of Benton. But it embraced Hill in the general election, branding him a "true Second Amendment supporter" and donating $1,000 to his campaign.
Passing out grades that year, it gave Hill an "AQ" -- indicating that Hill's answers on the NRA questionnaire merited a top score but that the first-time candidate had no voting record yet to back it up.
Hill, the group said, opposed a ban on semi-automatic weapons, universal background checks on gun purchasers and a national gun database.
The NRA handed Hays an "F," pointing to his past support for gun restrictions.
As a municipal leader, Hays had embraced the agenda of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Among other things, it advocated criminal background checks for all gun buyers, a ban on "high capacity rifles and ammunition magazines," and fewer restrictions on "access to federal gun data."
Under criticism from the Second Amendment group, Hays ran ads touting his longtime NRA membership.
A campaign mailer also played up Hays' NRA ties, highlighting a 2014 fundraising appeal the group had sent him.
Signed by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, the form letter stated: "Mr. Hays: You've stood by me in some of the toughest battles ever fought by the NRA. ... Your friendship has meant the world to me. Your support has given me strength when I needed it most."
"America's gun owners owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude," LaPierre had written, shortly before encouraging Hays to send the organization $200.
The purported LaPierre-Hays friendship would soon be strained.
After learning that Hays was using LaPierre's words and photo to bolster his campaign, the NRA struck back, sending the candidate a "cease and desist" letter and attacking him in the media.
"Patrick Henry Hays is a liar," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told the Democrat-Gazette days before the election.
For the remainder of the campaign, Hays would find himself in the NRA's cross hairs.
"I was not surprised they responded to my opponent's advertising," Hill said. "But the scope was, you know, significant."
The NRA announced that it would spend more than $1 million to stop Hays -- using radio, television, telephones, the Internet and the postal service to defeat the Democrat.
Hays' use of LaPierre's words and likeness were portrayed as particularly dastardly.
"I've been with the NRA for 20 years, and I've never seen a more despicable politician than Pat Hays," said NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox. "If he's willing to lie about this, he's willing to lie about anything."
At least one poll, in mid-October, had shown Hays with a narrow lead. On election day, however, Hill won 52 percent to 44 percent.
In a recent interview, Hays said he hadn't seen the NRA barrage coming.
"'Shocked' may be too strong a word, but [I] was surprised that they considered me as much of a foe as apparently they did," he said. "I thought I was advocating responsible gun legislation."
The flood of NRA dollars didn't change the outcome of the race, he said.
"You look at the entire slate. I mean, we all got wiped out. If you had a 'D' by your name, stick a fork in you; you were done," he said. "In terms of win or loss, I don't think there was any single thing that I could've done other than, you know, been a Republican."
Hays, 71, expressed no hard feelings toward the NRA.
In fact, his membership hasn't lapsed.
"I keep it because they do a lot of good things," he said, referring to its gun safety programs and activities for youths.
Since the 2014 race, NRA money has been scarce in the 2nd District: it contributed $2,000 to the Hill campaign the last time he ran, in 2016.
No NRA contributions to Hill have been reported yet in 2018.
Since taking office, Hill has stood shoulder to shoulder with other members of the Arkansas congressional delegation when it comes to the right to keep and bear arms, his spokesman said.
"He's your typical Republican member on these issues. He believes in the Second Amendment. He believes strongly in the Second Amendment. But ... there's no evidence of him being any different from any other [Republican] member of Congress," Siegel said.
The campaign isn't disputing the center's dollar count. Siegel said any differences would be "very, very small" and "fairly insignificant."
Hill's spokesman did criticize Spencer's campaign for erroneously claiming on Twitter that the NRA had spent more than $3 million to support Hill over the years.
A spokesman for the Democrat said the Spencer campaign had accidentally conflated the NRA's pro-Cotton spending with its pro-Hill/anti-Hays expenditures. The tweet was subsequently deleted.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline and Hunter Field of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
SundayMonday on 04/08/2018
CORRECTION: As mayor of North Little Rock, Patrick Henry Hays had embraced the agenda of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. An earlier version of this story misstated the municipal leader’s name.
Print Headline: Reports put NRA funds to Hill at $3,000 or $1M