The National Rifle Association aired an avalanche of TV ads and pushed its 5 million-plus members to the polls for Donald Trump in 2016, propelling him in the Rust Belt states that delivered him the presidency.
Now, the gun rights group is in total meltdown — and senior Republicans and Trump 2020 officials are alarmed.
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In recent weeks, the NRA has seen everything from a failed coup attempt to the departure of its longtime political architect to embarrassing tales of self-dealing by top leaders. The turmoil is fueling fears that the organization will be profoundly diminished heading into the election, leaving the Republican Party with a gaping hole in its political machinery.
With the Chamber of Commerce and Koch political network withdrawing from their once-dominant roles in electing conservatives, Republicans worry that three organizations that have long formed the core of their electoral infrastructure will be effectively on the sidelines.
The predicament has so troubled some Republicans that they are calling on the famously secretive NRA to address its 2020 plans. Within the past week, senators have privately expressed concerns about the group to National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young.
“No organization has been more important to conservative voter education and engagement than the NRA. We all hope they’re able to mount the kind of effort in the 2020 cycle they have in the past,” said Gregg Keller, a former American Conservative Union executive director. “But in case they can’t, given their current situation, I hope they’re being forthright about that within the movement so others can pick up the slack.”
“The situation,” he added, “has folks nervous.”
What makes the NRA such a potent force for Republicans, party officials said, are its reach into battlegrounds — such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio — and the sway it holds with its members. The NRA’s appeals play a critical role in turning out sportsmen, many of whom have paid dues to the organization for years and regard it as an important part of their lives.
Chris LaCivita, a national GOP strategist who’s waged congressional and statewide campaigns in North Carolina, said he remains confident gun advocates will turn out to vote in 2020. But he said the NRA’s problems could hobble its mobilization efforts.
“Infighting and accusations playing out almost daily in the national media regarding the NRA have not been helpful. Clearly it will have an impact in the NRA’s ability to raise money, which would be used in elections to turn out its membership,” LaCivita said.
With the organization mired in palace intrigue and confronting a daily barrage of negative publicity, some NRA officials are skeptical a 2020 plan will emerge. Many Republicans are convinced the job of turning out Second Amendment supporters will fall to the cash-flush Republican National Committee, which is constructing a massive get-out-the-vote and data machine devoted to turning out conservatives.
Jane Timken, chairwoman of the Ohio GOP, said her organization would work closely with the RNC to microtarget firearm owners. The national party, Timken noted, has compiled extensive voter data through sources ranging from gun licenses to gun magazine subscriptions.
Concerns over the NRA intensified last week after the resignation of Chris Cox, who had been the head of its lobbying arm since 2002. Cox was well-liked by NRA staff and board members and had deep relationships with major donors and many of the party’s top strategists. He recently participated in 2020 planning meetings with the pro-Trump America First Action super PAC and the anti-tax Club for Growth. The groups discussed polling and opposition research, voter registration efforts, and ensuring smooth coordination.
With Cox gone, it’s an open question who will oversee the NRA’s 2020 strategy.
“Chris Cox is the guy everybody dealt with,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Jason Ouimet, a director of federal affairs at the organization, is expected to assume Cox’s role on an interim basis, a person familiar with the move confirmed. Ouimet’s appointment, NRA officials said, is designed to temporarily stave off a mass staff exodus and calm both the organization’s members and the broader conservative world.
NRA spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
The organization’s troubles are hard to overstate. The most serious threat is an investigation by New York state attorney general’s office into its tax-exempt status. In April, NRA President Oliver North was ousted in an ugly public spectacle in which he declared the group was in a “clear crisis.” News organizations have also reported that NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre used $275,000 of the group’s money to buy luxury clothes at Zegna in Beverly Hills, Calif., and that the organization logged tens of thousands of dollars in other expenses that benefited its officials.
Trump weighed in on the NRA’s problems Tuesday morning, tweeting that the group is a “victim” of “political harassment by New York State and Governor Cuomo.”
Ken Blackwell, an NRA board member who is active with an array of conservative groups, disputed the idea that Cox’s departure and the subsequent turmoil would sideline the group in 2020. The NRA’s turnout efforts, he said, were largely orchestrated at the state and local levels.
“Chris was good at what he did, but he was not the reservoir of ground action,” Blackwell said. “This notion that there was someone sitting behind the green curtain in Washington driving the base turnout, it was a misnomer.”
Others argued that with Democratic presidential candidates vowing to enact stricter gun control laws, firearm owners will be sufficiently motivated to keep Trump in office.
Issues surrounding the Republican Party’s outside infrastructure go beyond the NRA. The Chamber of Commerce, a key player in Republican politics over the past decade, spent just $10 million during the 2018 cycle, about a third of what it spent during the previous election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The scale back has led many to believe the organization, a staple of the business community, is preparing to play a diminished role in 2020.
Other clues have emerged. In April, Chamber leaders told The Washington Post they were seeking to rebrand the organization as a bipartisan outfit. And in January, Rob Engstrom stepped down as national political director, a role the Chamber is in the process of filling. People familiar with the arrangement said Engstrom remains a consultant with the organization.
Scott Reed, the group’s chief political strategist, denied the group is retrenching. This fall, he said, the Chamber would launch a multimillion-dollar effort to defend the Republican Senate majority.
“We will be spending money earlier this cycle on the Senate than we’ve ever spent in the 100-year history of the Chamber,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Koch network is gradually shifting away from partisanship and toward policy issues like addressing poverty and drug addiction. The network, which like the Chamber has at times found itself at odds with the president, plans to sit out the 2020 presidential race and is recasting itself in a nonpartisan fashion.
Emily Seidel, chief executive of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, penned a memo last month in which she announced the outfit is open to backing candidates from either party.
The new approach has rankled some longtime Koch donors, who complain the powerful network — which played a pivotal role in helping Republicans capture the Senate majority — is abandoning the GOP.
Koch officials dispute that they are pulling back, noting they’ve endorsed a handful of GOP senators who align with the network’s goals. When the network gathered in Colorado Springs, Colo., over the weekend, its members were joined by a small group of Republicans facing reelection, including Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Georgia Sen. David Perdue.
The uncertainty surrounding all three groups is likely to increase pressure on America First Action, a super PAC devoted to backing Trump.
“If a void needs to be filled in 2020, we will fill it and continue to work with those allies that are willing to step into the breach to help reelect Donald Trump,” America first spokeswoman Kelly Sadler said..
To others, though, the developments are a potential sign of danger ahead. David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth and a former Republican congressman, said he was particularly troubled by the Koch network’s decision to refocus its efforts. After Barack Obama’s 2008 election, he noted, the network filled a vacuum by providing the devastated party with much-needed infrastructure.
“Right now, the party is functioning,” McIntosh said. “But if you see another collapse or if we lose the White House, I think you’re going to see Republicans frankly in a world of hurt without a major funding group like that.”