Illinois gun owners and supporters fill out NRA applications while participating in an Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day convention. Seth Perlman/AP
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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:

  • Americans for Prosperity, another conservative nonprofit, released its second ad in two weeks critical of Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Indiana. “Stop Spending Away Our Future,” released Tuesday, follows “Washington-Style Reform,” released last week. According to a press release, the pair of ads is running for two weeks at a cost of $700,000. Donnelly faces tea party candidate Richard Mourdock, who ousted longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the state’s first competitive GOP primary in decades.
  • Americans for Prosperity also reported spending $2.5 million on Web, radio and TV placement for its anti- Obama ads “Tick Tock” (posted as “A One Term Proposition”) and “New Ideas,” which were released earlier this month.
  • A super PAC opposing Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from the state, reported spending $215,000 on TV and radio advertising. End the Gridlock has raised a total $252,000, but only 10 percent of that has come from within Nebraska. The super PAC’s biggest contributor is billionaire film producer Sidney Kimmel, who gave $100,000.
  • The Susan B. Anthony List Inc., an anti-abortion nonprofit, reported spending $165,000 on TV ads opposing Obama. Tuesday the group released an ad critical of then-Illinois state Sen. Obama’s votes on “born alive” bills, the Daily Disclosure reported.
  • The Susan B. Anthony List Inc. also reported five independent expenditures for… parking tickets? According to the FEC reports, the group paid $100 for tickets related to its opposition of Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Rep. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Tim Kaine in Virginia, Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, U.S. House candidate Christie Vilsack in Iowa and the president.
  • The union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees released an online ad called “Wisconsin Workers Say ‘We’re More Than Just Paul Ryan and Scott Walker.’” The ad opposes Rep. Paul Ryan, the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
  • New super PACs: America Forever in Chatham, N.J.

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