It might seem hard to believe now, but this time two years ago, as the field of potential 2016 presidential candidates was just taking shape, Rand Paul was considered a leading Republican contender. According to a CNN/ORC International survey conducted around that time, almost 20 percent of Republicans and Republican-oriented independents were likely to support him, placing the Kentucky Senator at the front of the pack. In January 2014, a story in The Atlantic ran under the headline, “Rand Paul is the 2016 Republican Frontrunner.” Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, was quoted as saying, “If you whited out his name, and you looked at his numbers, you’d think he was a strong mainstream candidate.”

In both 2008 and 2012, Paul’s dad, Ron, a Texas Congressman and libertarian, ran as an insurgent candidate in the Republican primary, effectively spawning a nationwide liberty movement while laying the groundwork for his son’s bid. A libertarian-leaning lawmaker, Paul inherited much of his father’s countercultural cache, which resonated with hordes of young people who believe the federal government has no right to restrict freedom in any form. But Paul also inherited ties to certain radical groups, who were already working in his dad’s corner. One of them was the National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR), which had been busy the last few years waging war against the Republican establishment and the National Rifle Association (NRA). A strong showing by Paul in 2016 might have validated NAGR as an ascendant force in the gun rights movement. Instead, its scorched-earth tactics foretold a Paul campaign that never managed to transcend its fringe origins.

Established in 2000, NAGR bills itself as the hardline alternative to the NRA. It regularly attacks the more established gun lobbying organization for not being radical enough. In a 2013 interview with Buzzfeed, the group’s strident executive director, Dudley Brown, asked, “When’s the last time the NRA talked about repeal[ing] the Brady check?” referring to the national background check system that prevents dangerous people from purchasing firearms. He then answered his own question: “They haven’t.”

NAGR, in other words, considers itself the libertarian clarion on gun control, claiming that no government entity has any authority to regulate firearms. In policy circles, the group is known for its opposition to the Patriot Act, which it believes contained provisions that allegedly allowed “unconstitutional” gun searches. Its listserv has several million subscribers, many of whom constitute a portion of Paul’s base. They routinely receive fundraising emails, which arrive in their inboxes bearing imaginative conspiracy theories or rage-filled broadsides against anyone who appears to equivocate on gun control. A typical missive reads, “It’s clear the gun grabbers are looking to ‘cash-in’ on President Obama’s last year in office.” Frequently, these emails are signed with Rand Paul’s name.

This spring, NAGR’s feud with the NRA took center stage. On April 7, 2015, Paul announced his candidacy for president. The same day, The Tennessean reported that he would not be included in the speaking lineup at the NRA’s annual convention, set for Nashville later that week. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ben Carson also were not invited, but Paul’s omission was conspicuous. At the time he was polling the strongest of all the GOP candidates against Hillary Clinton, and was unquestionably a defender of the Second Amendment. The NRA claimed it was the result of a scheduling mishap, but two days later The Wall Street Journal reported that top NRA officials were “unhappy that Mr. Paul has for years lent his name to fundraising solicitations for the National Association for Gun Rights.”

Dudley Brown told the Journal that the two groups have always had “tension,” and that his organization is “hungrier.” Unlike the NRA, he said, “we care less about the cocktail parties in Washington, D.C.”

“Despite their rhetoric,” retorted Chris Cox, the NRA’s principal political strategist, “they haven’t moved a single vote in Congress.”

Cox’s dismissiveness wasn’t entirely misplaced. Compared to his organization, NAGR is tiny. Its annual revenue is less than $10 million, while the NRA’s hovers around $300 million. NAGR didn’t even have its first federal lobbyist until 2013.

It also hasn’t needed one to exert its influence, instead getting lawmakers attention through guerrilla tactics. When Eric Cantor, the popular — and NRA endorsed — Republican House Majority Leader from Virginia was up for re-election in 2014, NAGR went on the offensive. His transgression, in the eyes of NAGR, was the suggestion that the national background check system could better incorporate mental health records, a contention that has become popular among Republicans. The comment prompted NAGR to run an ad in which a narrator said, “Eric Cantor sounds like someone else,” as a picture of his face morphed into President Barack Obama’s.

In one of the most surprising electoral upsets of the last decade, Cantor lost the primary to an academic who had never held public office. The day after his defeat, Brown sent an email to NAGR supporters saying, “Maybe the elitist goons in the beltway were shocked by the news, but dedicated members and supporters like you know their answer to their simple question. Voting for gun control in Congress is unacceptable. Period.”

Rand Paul seemed to give NAGR another rabble-rouser to rally behind. But now the Cantor episode looks like it may prove to be the group’s high watermark. According to the Sunlight Foundation, it spent $6.8 million on lobbying in 2013 — about twice as much as the NRA did that year — while only further alienating itself from other pro-gun and conservative groups. Its other targets have include Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Organization, whom NAGR attacked for supposedly backing the creation of a federal gun registry. He did not; he had indicated support for legislation that would have expanded some background checks, but explicitly prohibited the creation of a registry. He told The Washington Times NAGR did it for fundraising purposes. Then he singled out Senator Paul. “Lots of people have complained to Rand that [NAGR] officials are raising money and doing nothing with [it] but attacking other Republicans and Second Amendment groups for not being ‘pure enough.’”

Though it boasts “3.5 million grassroots activists”— just 1.5 million shy of the NRA — and says it is the “fastest growing gun rights group in America,” its incessant email blasts on behalf of Paul did not appear to help him. One that was sent in April began, “I must admit — I’m a tad worried.” Around the same time, Brown told the Journal, “It was no secret Senator Paul was more pro-gun than the NRA.”

On Monday, Paul finished fifth in Iowa, capturing just one delegate. Two days later, he dropped out of the race.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]