The Yes on 676 campaign was captained by two respected and experienced Washington State political consultants: Diane McDade, who had worked on the gun issue for a number of years and who coordinated the strategy and media team; and Blair Butterworth, a Democrat whose firm, FDR Services, had handled Locke’s successful gubernatorial campaign. Tom Wales, an assistant U.S. Attorney from Seattle, served as spokesperson for Washington Citizens for Handgun Safety.
The anti-676 campaign was spearheaded by the NRA’s Tanya Metaksa, a tough political operator and seasoned campaign strategist, who commands the organization’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). She also directs the Political Victory Fund, the NRA’s political action committee. The campaign was managed by Fred Myers, a political consultant based in Mississippi. Doing the media was Tom Edmonds, of the Washington, DC-based firm Edmonds Associates, and Ackerman-McQueen, an ad agency located in Oklahoma City. Bob Moore, of Moore information, Inc., a national Republican survey research firm, did the polling. Joe Waldron chaired the pro-gun rights coalition, which sponsored campaign activity through the statewide committee set up by opponents called Washington Citizens Against Regulatory Excess, or WeCARE. Another key organizational and fundraising player was Allen Gottlieb, who chairs Citizens for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and is based in Washington state.
Clear the Goal Post
Early in ’97, proponents of 676 decided they would go for it in November. According to Butterworth, this represented a decision “to prospect the state” to determine the extent to which they could use the initiative and referendum process to make gun laws that the legislature had refused to pass. “From the get-go,” he admits, “it was clear that our side would be mismatched against the NRA’s organization in terms of field and ground people.”
The first step was to secure the required 180,000 valid signatures to put the issue on the ballot. To make sure they cleared the goal post, they aimed for 230,000 signatures, which they eventually exceeded by nearly 20,000 names. It is estimated that about 110,000 signatures were gathered by volunteers and the rest, 140,000, were collected through paid petition circulators.
After getting the measure on the ballot in July, Butterworth says, “reality began to sink in that, despite the enthusiasm the issue generated and despite the efforts of many dedicated supporters, it would be tough to maintain a high level of voter support.” He said news coverage surrounding “tragic situations” – such as publicized shootings and gun accidents by children – would produce “flurries of voter interest” that would quickly diminish once the stories were off the front pages.
Nevertheless, polls at the time were still showing that over 60 percent of the state’s electorate supported the proposition, at least in general terms.
“The big unknown was to what extent the NRA would play. If they spent a million or two, we figured we could still win. But if they spent four or five or six million, it would be too much to overcome,” says Butterworth who, along with McDade, prepared a campaign plan which included that harsh assessment. “There was no way we could match a four to six million dollar campaign. The NRA was successful at tapping vast resources across the country, we weren’t. Our side does not have the kind of organization in place that the NRA has.”
While proponents were pleased with the number of volunteers and big-name political endorsements they received, many of them expressed disappointment at the lack of deeply committed, emotional support they were able to find. “Polls show most voters favor gun controls. But they also show that they don’t think gun controls really work,” says one Democratic pollster who did not participate in the 676 campaign. “It’s easier for the pro-gun people to stir up money and activism.”
Proponents had hoped that gun controllers from nearby California, who planned to push for a similar proposition in their state, would provide help as a way to spark momentum. But for a few exceptions, that help never came.
Butterworth, regarded as a skilled strategist who has worked in a wide variety of campaigns, said it was difficult to find productive lists to use to mine money and volunteers. He said his side targeted lists of people who had supported prominent, pro-gun control Democrats – such as Sen. Patty Murray and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, a former gubernatorial candidate – but with meager results. They found that it was difficult to translate party and candidate propensities into activism for 676.
Even a fundraising letter signed by the governor’s father, which provided a personal account of how he had been shot by a robber while working in his store, did not produce substantial gain. Their best list, Butterworth says, was the membership roster of Handgun Control, Inc. “Voters got involved based on personal experiences, not on the basis of past partisan involvement. And that made it harder for our side to build a support base with the resources we had. We just didn’t have the juice.”
Proponents estimate that their side spent about $1.2 million (opponents say it was closer to $1.5 million), of which $350,000 was used during the petition-gathering process with the remainder for the referendum campaign phase. Most of their money went to pay for TV spots, although small amounts were put into newspaper and radio ads. Their spending strategy stressed persuasion as opposed to mobilization of grassroots support for election day. Though they mailed out 200,000 tabloids to voters they targeted as the most favorable, and made extensive use of volunteer phone banks, the pro-side was clearly out-organized and out-worked by the anti-effort.
Estimates of opposition campaign spending range between $2.5 million to $4 million. Proponents further claim that these anti-676 spending estimates, high or low, do not fully take into account all of the in-kind resources generated by the NRA’s vast membership and grassroots contact network.
Apart from money for advertising, Metaksa says the primary chore of the NRA’s campaign was the activation of their 80,000 members across the state. Their mobilization was a model of grassroots politics at its most effective. They put up 100,000 yard signs, raised thousands of small contributions in the $10 to $20 range, deluged newspapers with letters to the editor and made a million phone calls. Yard signs were in such demand, NRA members would compete with one another to grab them. With obvious satisfaction, Metaksa heaps extravagant praise on her group’s membership: “The winning NRA team has never done it this well, this massively and this creatively – ever.”
The strategy behind the anti-676 ad campaign, says consultant Tom Edmonds, was to drive home the message that “this election is not about safety.” Targeting specific pitches to women, farmers and gun owners in various parts of the state, their strategy was to “expose the details of the proposal” and to use its complexity and length to raise public doubt about what it would do.
One of their tactics was heavy use of talk radio. “The more discussion, the more debate, the better we did,” says Edmonds.
The timing of the pro-676 effort was determined, in large measure, by state election law. It was difficult for any November ballot measure to attract much attention before the late September primary was over. The primary campaign centered on a number of important local races including Mayor of Seattle. The state’s large number of “permanent absentee” voters were also a factor. In fact, more people voted by mail in the Seattle mayoral primary than did at the polls on election day.
Because absentee ballots were mailed out in mid-October, issue campaigners would have to reach most voters before that time. So, both sides began their advertising around October 1st, much of it targeted to older, more conservative voters who tend to vote absentee.
The pro-676 side aired TV ads first. Their initial media flight targeted the Spokane market, an area expected to be one of the least favorable to the proposition. “When they went up in Spokane,” remembers Edmonds, “that sent a signal to us that they were conceding nothing, that they were running a Pickett’s charge and coming at us in our strong areas.”
Though the NRA fielded a far superior ground effort and had more money to spend on ads and billboards, proponents were able to draw heavy-duty support from a wide array of powerful politicians – including Gov. Locke – as well as all of the state’s living First Ladies, Democrats and Republicans. Even software billionaire Bill Gates, who lives and works in Washington State, contributed $35,000. Gates’ father, a Republican who has long championed gun control issues, coughed up $150,000.
While supporters of 676 said it would save the lives of children by preventing accidental shootings, the NRA drove home the message that it was an unconstitutional attempt to expand government power and would create a licensing bureaucracy that would not be effective in terms of child safety or reducing crime. Parents, not government, should protect the safety of their children in their own homes.
Opponents of 676 argued that law-abiding citizens need accessible guns for protection and, therefore, would have to keep keys to trigger locks accessible. If a child can find a gun that’s been put away, they could also find a trigger lock key, they explained. They also said that passage of 676 would mean stalking victims would lose special protections because of the measure’s licensing provisions, and that gun owners would give up confidentiality of some of their medical records. The specter of gun registration and confiscation was raised.
Butterworth called it a “classic NRA campaign – they keep throwing out messages, true or untrue, until something sticks.” Metaksa, of course, has a different view: “Our advertising message succeeded only because it resonated with the voices of our grassroots membership – that gun owner licensing meant no safety, no self-defense and no privacy.”
Edmonds was critical of the tone of the pro-676 media. “It was snotty and over the edge. They overreached on the facts and overplayed their basic premise that children were being killed right and left in gun accidents.”
According to most surveys, voters often look to law enforcement authorities for information and opinions about public safety and gun issues. That meant the endorsement of police groups would be prized possessions. As you’d expect, both sides went after those endorsements with fierce determination.
After a bloody meeting, the state troopers’ association voted for neutrality. The organization representing sheriffs and police chiefs officially kept out, though the NRA was able to win over most of their individual leaders. That left the rank-and-file local police officers’ associations. Proponents knew there was little chance to get their endorsements, so they fought hard to neutralize them. They failed.
“The turning point in the campaign was when the cops went against us,” says Butterworth. “Even though quite a few of their leaders wanted to stay neutral, the NRA did a great job whipping up the rank-and-file. That made the difference – and it gave opponents credible spokespersons for their ads and in the media.”
Anti-676 signs would proclaim: “Vote NO…7,539 police officers can’t be wrong.” That number represented about 80 percent of the state’s law enforcement community.
Nearing election day, 33 of the state’s 39 sheriffs had also climbed aboard the increasingly rapid anti-676 train.
By mid-October, according to polls, opposition nibbling had whittled support for the initiative from 67 percent down to 46 percent and had driven up opposition to 49 percent.
Not taking any chances, anti-676 forces under Fred Myers’ direction mobilized a sophisticated, computer-driven turnout operation that tracked friendly voters to the polls. Their phone, mail and personal contacts with “favorables” during the mail-in ballot period and on election day were ceaseless.
Like a Rock
On November 4th, Initiative 676, the hope of gun control advocates nationwide, went down in a fiery blaze: 71 percent of the voters, 899,176 to 371,914, said no. In the end, reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, it “sank like a rock,” losing every county in the state.
Opposition to the referendum motivated election day turnout to an extent unusual for a single ballot proposition. Many people only cast one vote against 676. “Some 100,000 Washington voters went to the polls Tuesday, drew the curtain, voted ‘no’ on 676 and left the voting booth, declining to vote on any other issue or any other candidate,” said John Carlson, a radio talk show host at KIRO in Seattle.
Ballots cast on 676 exceeded those on other controversial measures voted on the same day such as legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, homosexual job discrimination and health insurance potability. It was reported in the local press that opposition to 676 had “lured droves of conservatives out to vote, which helped defeat a number of other liberal proposals.”
According to polls, the turnaround brought about by the NRA’s campaign was stunning, especially among women. Reportedly, a month before the election, Seattle females supported the proposition 85-15 percent. On election day, they voted against it 60-40 percent.
Proponents of 676 attributed the magnitude of their loss to the amount of money spent by their enemies. But NRA executives were quick to dispute that claim. “Money alone cannot achieve that measure of trust. Only people can. And people did,” says Metaksa.
Tom Wyld, spokesperson for the NRA, pointed out that his side attracted 11,000 small donors. He chided the pro-676 campaign for raising “their million from about 1,000 people, with the bulk coming from about 50 wealthy individuals, such as Bill Gates.” To sharpen his populist point, Wyld went on to say that the largest group of anti-676 donors came from the Microsoft Gun Club, a none-too-subtle shot at Gates, Microsoft’s chief executive.
Standing in front of a banner that read “Fight For It,” Metaksa toasted her troops on election night and called their victory “the political story of the year.” Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO and executive vice president, said it was the group’s biggest win since it defeated a similar California referendum in 1982.
“The Washington drama was more than the rejection of a particular licensing proposal,” says Metaksa. “It was the rejection of the gun ban movement’s theory that NRA influence is limited to legislatures. In fact, our influence only ends there; it begins in grassroots America.”
“I hope this doesn’t make people give up,” lamented gun control advocate Daniel Gross to the press after defeat of 676 became apparent on November 4th.