Democrats look to capitalize on turmoil inside NRA

Democrats look to capitalize on turmoil inside NRA
© Greg Nash

Democrats and allies are looking to capitalize on turmoil at the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s most powerful gun rights lobby, ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The NRA, an important ally for pro-gun rights candidates, has been hit by a number of high-profile departures and a power struggle among its leaders, leading to questions about its role in the upcoming election.

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“Their power is certainly diminished, and we see candidates reflecting that back,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the grass-roots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, told The Hill. 

“For a long time, Democrats and Republicans alike were cowed by the gun lobby,” she said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

The stakes are high for both sides. The NRA spent $36 million in the 2016 cycle, backing President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE. Since then, the group has seen its fortunes shift, losing members and revenue. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group’s membership dues fell from $163 million in 2016 to $128 million in 2017, the most recent year with data.

And the organization has been plagued by infighting. Its top lobbyist since 2002, Chris Cox, stepped down in June after The New York Times reported the group accused him of trying to extort chief executive Wayne LaPierre, allegations Cox denied as “offensive and patently false.”

“Mr. Cox resigned on June 24, 2019, a few days after he was placed on administrative leave. He was placed on administrative leave after documents implicated him in an alleged extortion scheme against Mr. LaPierre and the Association,” Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s managing director of public affairs, told The Hill.

NRA President Oliver NorthOliver Laurence NorthNRA paid for flights for chief executive's relatives: report Trump called NRA chief to tell him universal background checks are off the table: report Three more NRA officials reportedly step down MORE also left after alleging financial improprieties by LaPierre, top spokeswoman Jennifer Baker left last week, and the NRA cut ties with longtime advertising firm Ackerman McQueen, with the two now in a contentious court fight.

“The NRA has full confidence that its political activities were in full compliance with the law,” Arulanandam said.

The NRA has long dominated the gun control debate in the country and showered its favored candidates with coveted endorsements and funding. But with the organization in transition, Democrats see it is a prime opportunity to push back on the issue of gun violence.

The NRA’s critics have become emboldened, particularly after the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., which saw student activists garner new attention for addressing gun violence.

“You now have the combination of this powerful array of citizen lobbyists, moms, kids, families, all of whom are sick and tired of seeing people die in their communities,” Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchGun epidemic is personal for lawmakers touched by violence House panel advances anti-gun violence legislation Gun debate to shape 2020 races MORE (D-Fla.) said. “It’s little wonder that the NRA is weakening, that they’ve got so many internal problems, that they’re plagued by investigations.”

“Now’s the time to capitalize on that,” he added.

Groups pushing for tougher gun rules say they will ramp up their own spending in 2020, building on the midterms, which saw a number of gun control candidates elected. 

“The NRA was outspent and outmaneuvered by gun safety groups in the 2018 midterms,” Watts said.” In 2020, we’ll prove the strength of the gun safety movement once again.”

A spokesperson for Brady, another gun control group, said they also intend to boost their 2020 efforts.

“Brady made its largest electoral investment in 2018 than the organization had in years, and is expecting to increase those efforts in 2019 and 2020,” the spokesperson said.

The 2018 midterms was the first election cycle in which gun control groups outspent the NRA and its allies. Everytown spent $30 million in support of candidates at the state and federal level, Giffords PAC spent nearly $7 million and the Brady PAC spent nearly $500,000, with the NRA’s spending estimated at $20 million.

Outside the campaign trail, Democrats are also looking to ramp up scrutiny. Earlier this month, Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine (D) subpoenaed the NRA and the NRA Foundation Inc., seeking financial records as he investigates compliance with the city’s Nonprofit Act. New York state Attorney General Letitia James (D) has also been investigating the NRA’s finances.

Congressional Democrats also want answers on the group’s activities.

In February, Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Senate GOP pledges to oppose any efforts to 'pack' Supreme Court MORE (D-R.I.) and Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats bicker over strategy on impeachment Overnight Defense: Trump says he has 'many options' on Iran | Hostage negotiator chosen for national security adviser | Senate Dems block funding bill | Documents show Pentagon spent at least 4K at Trump's Scotland resort Top Oversight Democrat demands immigration brass testify MORE (D-Md.) wrote to LaPierre asking about reports the NRA “made illegal, excessive, and unreported in-kind donations to Donald J. Trump for President and various Republican congressional candidates in the form of coordinated communications.” 

They asked for guidance on compliance with state and federal campaign finance laws and the NRA’s work with a number of media consulting firms.

A Virginia law firm responded on behalf of the NRA and all six subsidiaries and told lawmakers they could not provide those materials because they were being reviewed by the Federal Election Commission.

But Whitehouse and Raskin said the response raised new questions about the entities coordinating their response through common counsel. Coordination between official campaigns and outside groups are prohibited.

“I have a general interest in the phony tricks that are used to dodge around what’s left of our campaign finance requirements,” Whitehouse told The Hill.

The NRA’s Arulanandam reiterated his response that the group “has full confidence that its political activities were in full compliance with the law.”

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There have been signs of worry among conservatives. NRA allies have rallied behind the group, urging its leaders to move past internal divisions and focus on 2020. Trump spoke at the NRA’s April meeting and has told the group to “get its act together.”

“The NRA is under siege by Cuomo and the New York State A.G.,” he tweeted in April. “It must get its act together quickly, stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS — FAST!”  

So far, the NRA has remained quiet about its plans for 2020. Publicly, Republicans say the group will still be an essential ally in 2020.

“The NRA is a valued teammate standing up to the radical socialist Democrats hell-bent on taking away all of our constitutionally mandated individual freedoms,” National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Chris Pack told The Hill.

“President Trump has proven he’s a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment, and the RNC is going to make sure every gun owner knows what’s at stake and turns out to reelect him in 2020,” Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest said. 

Supporters note the NRA still has formidable resources and its endorsement will be sought by conservative candidates in many races. It has also repeatedly shown its clout, particularly with Trump.

NRA opponents, though, see the playing field tilting against the group.

“Given the series of self-inflicted wounds that they have, which are draining significantly diminished resources at a significant rate, yes, it’s obviously a time for us really to focus on pushing candidates and pushing this issue,” said Kris Brown, president of Brady.

Candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary have been highlighting how they will address gun violence if elected, and advocates and lawmakers say the issue should get even more prominence in the primary contest.

“It ought to be at the forefront of the debate,” said Deutch. 

“I think that all Democrats will continue to show contrast between how we want to make sure that our children are safe in schools, that communities are safe, versus what the NRA is doing,” Democratic National Committee communications director Xochitl Hinojosa told The Hill.

Groups pushing for gun reforms believe there has been a sea change in their fight with the NRA.

“It’s true, the NRA is in turmoil,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights GOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Trump administration floats background check proposal to Senate GOP MORE (D-Conn.) said. “What really matters is that the anti-gun violence movement has gotten to the point where it has eclipsed the gun lobby in its power, scope, reach, and funding. That was going to happen regardless of whether the NRA board of directors melted down.”