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Donald Trump speaks during an appearance at the 144th NRA Annual Meeting in 2015.

National Rifle Association

A Former NRA President on Why It Didn’t Join the Conservative War on Trump

For all its perceived influence, the gun rights group could not, would not, did not join the effort to derail the party's unwelcome frontrunner.

Earlier this month, when Mitt Romney called Donald Trump a “phony” and a “fraud,” he was expressing the point of view of the Republican elite, who had for the last six months been working haphazardly to torpedo the real estate mogul’s White House campaign. A Trump nomination, they agreed, would be the GOP’s Chernobyl, decimating the party in this November’s election and rendering it radioactive to broad swaths of the electorate for many cycles to come.

The frontal attack by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee marked the most prominent sortie yet in an anti-insurgency effort building in desperate intensity. This fall, two GOP campaign veterans, Alex Castellanos and Gail Gitcho, tried to create a super PAC that would focus exclusively on defeating Trump, as reported by the New York Times. In January, the National Review, a leading intellectual outlet for the conservative movement, devoted an entire issue to attacking the candidate, calling him “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist.” Last month, at a D.C. luncheon for Republican governors and benefactors, top GOP strategist Karl Rove tried to rally the audience to mount a last-ditch push to halt the Trump juggernaut. 

Amid the anti-Trump backlash from the right, gun advocates have their own, specific grievances. “He has no principles when it comes to the gun issue,” Tim Miller, the former communications director of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, tells The Trace. “He’s criticized Republicans for being too beholden to the NRA [National Rifle Association]. And there’s no reason to believe, if it benefited own interests, that he wouldn’t completely flip on those who value Second Amendment rights.”

Bob Owens, who runs the influential pro-firearm website Bearing Arms, has claimed the candidate “will be the death of the Second Amendment.” A similar site, The Truth About Guns, has asked if Trump is an “anti-gun rights dictator.”

And here’s Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America (GOA), a no-compromise organization that has given its 2016 endorsement to Senator Ted Cruz: “Trump is not at all satisfactory. He’s not consistent. Sometimes he’s conservative, and sometimes he’s not.”

The Stop Trump movement is an unprecedented inversion of the political process. Normally, Republican elites and conservative kingmakers coalesce around a runaway leader in a presidential primary. Now they are doing the opposite, marshaling some of the best resources at their disposal to upend the reality TV star’s candidacy. 

Given the NRA’s participation in past conservative coalitions (such as those arrayed against President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees), and given the doubts about Trump’s fealty to gun rights, there would seem to have been an important role for the gun group to play in the anti-Trump effort, had it been interested in having one. The organization, after all, is known for its ability to turn out passionate single-issue voters. In the past, it has given candidates an edge in states that in 2016 lined up with crucial dates on the Republican primary calendar. But its voice remained conspicuously absent from the conservative chorus calling for Trump’s defeat. 

The explanation for the NRA’s decision not to jump into the fray begins (but does not end) with its strict policy of not involving itself in presidential primary elections. “The NRA has to stay out of it,” says David Keene, a former president of the NRA who has voiced personal concerns about Trump’s candidacy. “Unlike other groups, we don’t play those games.”

When the NRA has veered from that practice, it’s been in down-ballot primary elections involving unique circumstances. In 2012, for instance, it came out against Richard Lugar, a powerful moderate Republican whose voting record on guns during his run as Indiana’s longest serving Senator earned him an F from the NRA. Lugar wound up losing the primary to the state’s arch-conservative state treasurer, Richard Mourdock — and as influential Republicans feared, the party wound up losing the seat to Democrats.

Two years later, the NRA showed that it’s equally willing to protect an establishment favorite, at least when its own place in the conservative firmament is being challenged. In a 2014 House primary, the group endorsed Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader from Virginia who was facing a Tea Party challenge from a largely unknown candidate named David Brat. The latter had the support of an NRA rival that, like GOA, stood far to its right — the National Association for Gun Rights. Brat won the election in a major upset.

“We endorsed Cantor because he had supported a number of NRA proposals and positions,” says Keene. “And we went against Lugar because he was perhaps one of the most anti-gun lawmakers in the Senate.”

Keene adds, “The NRA has never required perfection, but it does expect candidates to be with them on major issues. If you had someone up there saying, ‘I oppose the Second Amendment,’ then that would be a reason to oppose that candidate in a primary.”

As Cruz has noted, a candidate in this year’s Republican primary would have to be “clinically insane” to take such a stance, which would seem to settle matter. But a deeper look at the record shows that the NRA can find other reasons to give or withhold its support from an otherwise simpatico candidate. In 2003, Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, ran for governor in Mississippi. According to Keene, he was “a personal friend of almost the entire NRA leadership.” But in the general election, the organization endorsed Ronnie Musgrove, Democratic incumbent. Ronnie Musgrove had an A-rating from the NRA. Barbour, meanwhile, had said all the right things, without ever having had those positions tested by actual legislation crossing his desk. 

“He had a record, as governor, of supporting gun rights,” Keene explains. “Haley didn’t have a record yet.”

Like Barbour, Trump lacks a legislative history. And therein could have been an opening for the NRA, had it wanted to wade into the fight. After Trump’s rout in New Hampshire erased any doubts about the potency of his message, there remained plenty of Republican contenders — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich — who had both the favor of the establishment and top marks for their pro-gun voting records. Even when Bush tanked in South Carolina, the NRA had an opening. On March 1, Super Tuesday (Part I), voters went to the polls in states where the NRA had allegedly helped topple candidates in the past. In Tennessee, the group supposedly steered voters away from Al Gore in 2000, causing him to lose his home state in the general election, and thus the presidency. It did the same in Arkansas in 2014 to veteran Democratic Senator Mark Pryor and loyal pro-gun vote, who lost his seat to a virtually unknown Congressman named Tom Cotton. Virginia, where Rubio had his best runner-up finish, is literally the NRA’s backyard. Georgia is a state where the gun lobby has been known to get its way. If those states hadn’t gone for Trump, the whole nominating contest might now look very different. 

The NRA has to stay out of it,” says David Keene, a former president of the NRA who has voiced personal concerns about Trump’s candidacy. “Unlike other groups, we don’t play those games.”

And here we arrive at the next, decisive node in our thought experiment. If the NRA had opted to make an endorsement in this historic Republican primary, who would have had the strongest case for its blessing? The answer, as we know, is that no clear choice would have existed. With the politics of guns now aligned cleanly on partisan lines, this year’s potential nominees — like every national Republican these days — have so completely absorbed the organization’s platform that its opportunities to influence a close GOP primary have been diminished. “If one gets endorsed, the others who have the same record will want to know why they weren’t,” explains Keene.

Once the Republican nominee for president is selected, the organization has always fallen behind him. In 2008, after John McCain attained the nomination, the NRA endorsed the Arizona senator, even though he only had a B rating. In 2012, it backed Mitt Romney, despite an earlier gaffe in which he awkwardly recalled his happy memories of hunting “small varmints.” 

Trump, for his part, has positioned himself as a vocal advocate for gun rights, stating that he’ll abolish gun-free zones on his first day in office. He was a featured speaker at the NRA’s Leadership Forum in 2015, and is slated to speak at the event again in May.

“The unfortunate thing,” Keene says, “is you can’t tell how someone will act as president until they’re sworn in. Recently, this guy from Alaska called and said, ‘Trump’s gonna sell us out. We need to do something.’

“I asked, ‘What’s your evidence?’ We can’t read people’s hearts and minds.”

[Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images]