Hand over your email address to a political campaign, and typically all you can expect in return is an endless stream of solicitations for money.
But one supporter of Colorado state Sen. Greg Brophy, who was running for governor, got something else: a Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle. It was the top prize in "Greg Brophy's Gun Club Giveaway," an online contest last month in which people handed over personal data that is the currency of modern political campaigns -- first and last names, email addresses and phone numbers -- and in exchange, one lucky winner would get the gun.
"I tricked this baby out," said Mr. Brophy, a Republican, boasting about how he had added all manner of accessories -- extra grips, a backup sight and a strap so it could be slung easily over the shoulder.
Online gun sweepstakes have become one of the most useful tools for campaign outreach in the 2014 Republican primaries. Across the nation, from a California race for sheriff to the U.S. Senate primary in South Carolina, candidates are using high-powered pistols and rifles as a lure to build up their donor lists and expand their base of support.
The method may be new, but the concept is actually a durable campaign device. Take a group of possible supporters who are highly motivated around an issue -- in this case, gun ownership and Second Amendment rights -- and pique their interest with good marketing. Then, once you have their attention, solicit their personal information and follow up to ask for support and money.
For Mr. Brophy, entries came pouring in. "Thousands of people," he said. "It was awesome."
For the drawing, he used a website that generated a random number. It stopped on No. 775, and the winner was a county sheriff's office deputy. Once he passed a background check, the gun was his.
The National Rifle Association, which has been doing Publishers Clearinghouse-style gun sweepstakes since the 1980s, figured out the allure of free guns years ago. Back then, it used direct mail. Now, it employs a range of online campaigns, including Facebook-based contests that provide the organization not just with people's names, but also with their information-rich public profiles and lists of their friends. Millions of people have entered these contests, the group said.
In a GOP primary, there are few constituencies more politically motivated, and thus more important to reach, than passionate gun owners. And with today's campaigns making critical contact with voters online, free guns seemed to be one of the easiest ways to cut through the noise.
"This is just a more aggressive version of things campaigns are already doing," said Zac Moffatt, who oversaw Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney's digital strategy in 2012 and founded the firm Targeted Victory, which develops online campaigns.
South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright, who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham in the Republican primary, has given away two guns, one online and one by direct mail. In the online drawing, the prize was an AR-15 rifle. "We thought it was right in our wheelhouse," Mr. Bright said. "We're as strong Second Amendmentists as they come. And we wanted to reach out to like-minded folks."
As a lot of candidates have learned, giving a gun away is not easy. First, the campaign must make sure the winner is legally allowed to own a firearm. All those interviewed said background checks were being conducted through proper channels, such as licensed firearms dealers, so a weapon did not fall into the wrong hands. "You definitely don't want to do that, not in the middle of the campaign," Mr. Bright said.
There is the issue of acquiring the gun, and if bought, making sure it is done through proper channels. In Mr. Brophy's case, the Smith & Wesson was donated by a firearms dealer who backs him. Under the law, Mr. Brophy must report it on his campaign finance disclosure as an in-kind contribution. Other campaigns just buy the weapons. For its drawings, the NRA said it relied on a combination of donated and purchased guns.
Sometimes gun sweepstakes have drawn outrage, such as when Arizona's Pima County Republican Party announced a raffle for a new Glock in 2011. The problem, as many saw it, was that former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., had been shot in the head with a Glock early that year in a Tucson rampage that left six dead. And the sweepstakes do not always work; Mr. Brophy failed to make the ballot.