The National Rifle Association, after shedding its president and top lobbyist this year amid a string of internal disputes and legal battles, finds itself at a 2020 crossroads with Republican politicos wondering if the group is still high powered or a campaign dud.
The cloud of doubts over the NRA is a stunning development just four years after the gun group was instrumental in helping elect President Trump.
The NRA says it plans to play a pivotal role — as always — in next year’s elections, especially because gun-rights advocates are rallying against the gun control platforms of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.
It’s an open question, however, whether Mr. Trump and like-minded political candidates can expect to see the same level of financial and organizational support amid the group’s troubles.
“Perhaps really for the first time in modern history, I think it’s hurt with gun owners questioning why NRA does what it’s doing,” said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who challenged the group’s leadership structure in recent years.
The NRA’s most pressing fight is with New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office recently issued a wide-ranging subpoena as it investigates the group’s coveted nonprofit status.
The subpoena deals with campaign finance issues, payments made to board members and tax compliance, according to multiple reports.
William A. Brewer III, a lawyer for the NRA, said the group will supply the necessary information and that the financial records of the group and its affiliates were already audited and reported in tax filings.
“It is easy to understand why the NRA believes that the NYAG’s zeal with respect to this inquiry reflects the investigation’s partisan purpose — not an actual concern that the NRA is not effectively using its assets to pursue its members’ interests,” Mr. Brewer said. “Regrettably, the NYAG seems to credit hollow rants by a handful of actors who are no longer associated with the NRA.”
The NRA already had been fighting a high-profile legal battle with the state of New York. The group sued the state last year, saying it had illegally discouraged banks and insurance companies from doing business with it.
In April, former NRA President Oliver North left the group after an apparent failed coup against Wayne LaPierre, the group’s longtime executive vice president and CEO.
In June, Chris W. Cox, the longtime head of the NRA’s legislative-lobbying arm, also resigned after he was accused of taking part in the coup. Mr. Cox denied the allegations but had been suspended as the group looked into the issue.
In a rare public interview, Mr. LaPierre acknowledged that the swirling issues have taken their toll on him.
“It’s the most painful period of my life,” he told the New York Times. “Somebody asked me in a deposition how you feel about all of it … I said I feel sad.”
The NRA also went through a messy public break-up this year with Ackerman McQueen, its former longtime advertising and public relations firm that helped turn the gun-rights group into a political and cultural force over the past few decades.
Some of the 76-member board of directors have stepped down amid reports of financial mismanagement and lavish spending on the part of board members — presenting an opportunity for those in the rank-and-file to try to step in and make changes.
“I think it’s an organization at a crossroads,” said Frank Tait, an NRA member who is running to win a seat on the board. “There’s an impact that they need to be making and because of the internal challenges, they’re not meeting it and I think as a whole the membership is negatively affected by that.”
Mr. Tait had pushed a no-confidence resolution for Mr. LaPierre at the group’s annual meeting of members in April.
“I think there’s a little bit too much focus on lawyering and lawsuits and appeals, and not enough on the grassroots and stopping these things before they even get started,” he said.
The NRA also has been facing questions from Congress over its ties to Russia, adding to the cornucopia of problems it is dealing with at the same time it’s gearing up to try to re-elect Mr. Trump next year.
“They can do what they can do as long as they have the money to do it. But even if they have the money to do it, the question is … their impact amongst gun owners,” Mr. Feldman said. “There’s no question it’s been hurt — how much has it been hurt?”
The NRA is vowing to press forward and said next year will be like any other in terms of its influence and reach.
“The NRA has always — and will always — play a pivotal role in presidential elections,” said spokeswoman Amy Hunter. “This year is no different.”
But gun-control groups are sensing weakness after they helped propel several congressional Democrats into office in the 2018 midterm elections.
“I think the NRA is at very diminished strength, but not just because of their internal problems and misdealings, but because the American people have rejected them and their agenda is deeply unpopular,” said Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel and vice president, legal, at Brady. “So the NRA’s got a lot of problems, but the fact that the American people have rejected them is the biggest one.”
Perhaps emboldened by the NRA’s internal issues, 2020 Democratic presidential contenders have campaigned aggressively on new gun controls.
Before he left the race for the White House, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas went as far as proposing an Australian-style mandatory buyback of semi-automatic “assault” rifles and helped prod other major contenders into expressing at least qualified support for the idea.
“Our five million members know what’s at stake in 2020 with a field of democratic contenders pushing for radical gun control schemes like confiscation and registration,” said Ms. Hunter, the NRA spokeswoman. “Our members will be out in force leading to 2020, and the NRA will make sure their voices are heard.”
Gun-rights activists are also using the ongoing impeachment proceedings as a rallying cry for Second Amendment supporters to continue to stand with Mr. Trump next year.
“The president’s court appointments have frustrated and infuriated congressional liberals and their gun control supporters,” said Alan Gottlieb, president of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “Imagine what the president could do in one more year, much less over the next five years. His appointments will become his greatest legacy, and make the Second Amendment great again.”
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