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NRA goes after Democrats in contested Senate races

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Until recently, the National Rifle Association’s primary involvement in the 2012 election has been limited to renting booths at state fairs and circulating flyers and bumper stickers, plus the occasional low-budget TV or radio buy.

But thanks to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, the powerful gun rights group has stepped up its game. A $420,000 ad buy last week followed by a $358,000 buy reported Tuesday shows the NRA is ready to invest in more than just convincing fair- and rodeo-goers to vote against President Barack Obama.

The NRA Institute for Legislative Action’s new ads, released Monday, attack the records of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who are both running for U.S. Senate — and Federal Election Commission filings indicate Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is the next target.

Bill Nelson Needs to Go” notes the Florida senator’s approval of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said in a 2004 ruling that gun ownership is “not a fundamental right.”

“You can’t be a pro-gun senator when you back anti-gun judges,” the ad says.

Stand for Freedom, Stand against Tim Kaine” says that Kaine received a grade of “F” from the NRA for making gun control part of the Democratic National Committee’s agenda when he was chairman.

The NRA Institute for Legislative Action is the lobbying arm of the NRA, according to its website. The institute was established in 1975 both to pursue the group’s legislative agenda and to educate the public.

The organization is a nonprofit and does not reveal its donors. However, the Center for Responsive Politics discovered that conservative nonprofit Crossroads GPS, founded by Republican operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, contributed $600,000.

Because Crossroads GPS is itself a nonprofit, the source of the donation is unknown. The Institute operates primarily on contributions, not membership dues, according to its brochure.

The group is not to be confused with the NRA Political Victory Fund, a traditional political action committee operated by the Institute. The PAC has been making the more modest campaign expenditures. Unlike the Institute, the Political Victory Fund is subject to contribution limits.

The maximum allowable contribution to the PAC is $5,000. The NRA’s PAC has taken in some $11.1 million in the 2012 election cycle and spent $5 million, according to FEC records.

In other outside spending news:

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