Blue Dog Democrats group accepted NRA money. Now they’re giving it back.

Charlie Crist and Stephanie Murphy, two Florida Democrats, called for Blue Dog PAC to give back thousands of dollars in NRA donations.
CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
Charlie Crist throws a fist bump to supporters as he and wife Carole leave the stage after his concession speech at the The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club Tuesday, 11/04/2014.
CHERIE DIEZ | Times Charlie Crist throws a fist bump to supporters as he and wife Carole leave the stage after his concession speech at the The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club Tuesday, 11/04/2014.
Published April 3, 2018|Updated April 3, 2018

WASHINGTON — A political fundraising group that seeks to elect moderate Democrats to the House of Representatives is giving back a donation from the National Rifle Association after the Miami Herald questioned the transaction.

The Blue Dog PAC, which has doled out campaign cash to Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist during the 2018 election cycle, said Tuesday it would return a $4,950 contribution from the National Rifle Association's political arm in July 2017. The PAC will also not cash a $5,000 check from the National Rifle Association given to the Blue Dogs in January 2018, about two weeks before the nation's deadliest high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Murphy and Crist, who were both in favor of gun-control measures like a ban on assault-style weapons before the Parkland shooting, said they were not aware that the Blue Dogs' PAC received NRA money during the 2018 election cycle. Murphy and Crist have both received $7,000 in direct campaign contributions from the Blue Dog PAC this election cycle, making it possible that their campaigns received NRA money.

"I am disappointed to learn that the Blue Dogs' political arm accepted a contribution from the NRA, and I strongly urge them to return the contribution," Murphy said in an email. "I am proud of the 'F' rating I've earned from the NRA. In recent weeks, we have seen historic progress and a major shift in the national conversation about how to prevent senseless gun violence, yet the NRA has continued to put the interests of corporate gun manufacturers above keeping our schools and communities safe."

Read more: NRA influential in Florida, but not through campaign money

Crist echoed Murphy's call for the PAC to return the NRA money.

"In keeping with the Blue Dog PAC's decision not to accept NRA money, it would be prudent and correct that they return any contributions received this cycle," Crist said in an email.

Two hours after the Miami Herald asked the Blue Dog PAC to explain why they accepted political contributions from the NRA, an organization that some of its members have publicly denounced, the Blue Dog PAC said it would return the money.

The NRA's political activity has come under increased scrutiny after the Parkland shooting on Valentine's Day. Pro-gun control student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have hammered Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for accepting contributions from the NRA, and organized marches around the world with the intent of changing the nation's gun laws to include policies like universal background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons.

The Blue Dogs are a group of 18 House Democrats who generally have more conservative voting records compared to other Democrats in Congress. Their ranks include the three Democrats who have received direct NRA contributions during the 2018 election cycle — Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop, Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson.

Read more: Rick Scott's A-plus NRA rating, and what it means now

Blue Dogs once controlled 54 House seats and many of their members were also among the 64 House Democrats who received direct NRA contributions as recently as 2010. But a Republican wave election in 2010 wiped out many Blue Dog Democrats and the National Rifle Association stopped giving money to many Democrats when the party generally embraced more pro-gun-control positions after events like the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.

Conservative Democrats scored a political win last month when Illinois Blue Dog Rep. Dan Lipinski, a rare Democrat who opposes abortion, fended off a primary challenge from a Democrat embraced by the liberal wing of the party.

Crist, a former Republican and governor of Florida, and Murphy were both elected to Congress in 2016 and helped grow the Blue Dog coalition from 14 to 18 members. Murphy scored an upset victory over longtime Rep. John Mica in 2016, and she told Vanity Fair that Mica's decision to accept a $1,000 NRA donation two days after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June 2016 was the moment she decided to enter the race.

"I never imagined running for public office, because I'm a fairly private person," Murphy told Vanity Fair. "But I felt like if you wanted to change the way Washington operated, you had to change the type of people you were sending to Washington."

Murphy gained the support of prominent gun-control groups like the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, an organization formed after the Pulse shooting to push for gun control, while the NRA spent $90,000 on television ads to defeat Murphy. Murphy has also led efforts in the House of Representatives to repeal a ban on funding for federal gun-violence research, which was included in a massive $1.3 trillion spending bill that recently became law.

Crist once enjoyed the support of the NRA, though his relationship with the nation's largest gun lobby soured after he left the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent before switching his party affiliation to Democrat.

Both Murphy and Crist face potentially competitive reelection bids this year after knocking off Republican incumbents in 2016. Murphy, who represents areas north of Orlando, will likely face Republican state Rep. Mike Miller or Republican businessman Scott Sturgill in the general election. Crist, who represents a St. Petersburg-based district, hasn't received a credible Republican challenger yet, though election prognosticators rate Murphy and Crist's seats as "likely Democratic."

"Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I called for a common sense assault weapons ban," Crist said in an email. "It earned me an 'F' grade and an onslaught of attack mailers from the NRA. But we needed an assault weapons ban then, and we need it now."

Read more: NRA sues Florida over new gun law

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