Controversy clouds NRA’s 2020 election outlook

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NRA President Oliver North speaks at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The National Rifle Association (NRA) hit sizeable road bumps last weekend as leadership and financial strife struck the upper echelons of the 147-year-old gun rights group.

The continuing turmoil calls into question the group’s influence in 2020, after an anemic effort in the 2018 midterms.

NRA President Oliver North stepped down Saturday after chief executive Wayne LaPierre issued a letter, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, to the board accusing North of threatening to extort him. LaPierre was already at odds with North’s lack of support for the NRA’s lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen, one of the group’s longtime public relations contractors of 30 years — and employer of North.

The board unanimously re-elected LaPierre as CEO and executive vice president, the NRA announced Monday. Carolyn Meadows will succeed North as president of the NRA.

The executive turnover comes as New York Attorney General Letitia James launched an investigation into the NRA’s 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status.

The NRA wielded sizeable influence in the 2016 elections, with the gun rights group reporting more than $54 million in political spending to support Republican candidates during the election cycle and the vast majority of that supporting Donald Trump or opposing Hillary Clinton. The NRA dedicated $31 million to boost Trump’s presidential campaign.

Chartbuster election year

Even when Trump lost support from many other donors and financial backers after controversial revelations surfaced before the election, the NRA continued backing him with big money — ultimately breaking their election spending record.

But the group’s financial picture moving into the 2020 election doesn’t look so rosy. A third-party audit confirmed by tax records obtained by CRP revealed that the NRA’s unlimited 2016 campaign spending may have come at a cost.

As campaign season heats up, the historic influence of the gun rights group may be on the line.

After 2016’s record-breaking spending revenue coming in from NRA members dropped. The NRA’s main 501(c)(4) arm reported a $55 million revenue drop for fiscal year 2017 in its most recent tax return. That’s despite an unprecedented cutback in spending since the Center for Responsive Politics began tracking the nonprofit’s Form 990 tax returns in 2011. Nevertheless, spending went into the red in 2017 for the second consecutive year with an $18 million deficit.

The group reported an even greater loss in 2016, accruing a whopping $46 million deficit. The prior year, in 2015, the NRA came out $27.8 million ahead.

Still, some 80,000 members turned out to the NRA’s annual convention in Indianapolis over the weekend. And since May 2018, the NRA has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook advertisements, including ads against 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.

The NRA spent $9.4 million in the 2018 election cycle to support Republican candidates. While it isn’t an inconsequential amount, the NRA’s 2018 outside spending represents a significant drop from previous cycles, making it the first election in recent history where gun control groups outspent their pro-gun counterparts.

NRA lobbying efforts in 2018 hardly slowed, though. The NRA pumped $5.08 million into lobbying, slightly less from the record-high of $5.12 million in 2017.

According to first quarter filings, the NRA already has spent at least $860,000 on its lobbying efforts in 2019. Notably, the NRA went on the offensive to lobby against the Democrats’ Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill, which includes a provision to confiscate guns from domestic abusers. The bill passed in the Democrat-controlled House, despite 157 Republicans voting against reauthorization. The GOP-led Senate has not yet voted on the measure.

How much the group will be able to devote to the upcoming election remains to be seen. Mounting pressure from gun control groups and high-profile mass shootings continue to put the NRA’s activities in the spotlight.

Possible legal trouble ahead

Uncertainty about the NRA’s financial state going into the 2020 election cycle is compounded by a surge of legal scrutiny and increasingly public infighting within the NRA.

Following a report by The Trace and New Yorker alleging self-dealing based on findings that a small group of NRA leaders and vendors “extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget,” the New York attorney general’s office investigation reportedly centers around the NRA’s financial and disclosure issues.

While the scope of the probe is not yet clear, the gravity of allegations made against the NRA and potential consequences are.

The New York attorney general’s office has shown an appetite and ability to shut down high-profile nonprofits for alleged illegal coordination. Last year, the office’s investigation of the Donald J. Trump Foundation found “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation — including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing” that ultimately led to it shutting down.

Earlier in April 2019, gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety filed a complaint with the IRS building on the Trace report and accusing the NRA of violating its tax-exempt status by using income for personal enrichment and for-profit business activities.

Ackerman McQueen, whose recent drama with the NRA has been central to many of the allegations due to their close ties with NRA leadership and longstanding relationship with the NRA, is not the only NRA vendor that has attracted recent scrutiny.

Tax records obtained by CRP have shown the NRA directing millions of dollars to people with close ties to the gun rights group, including former top officials and their families.

The NRA’s top contractor for its most recent tax year available was InfoCision, which kept more than half of the $10 million it raised for them. That company has been subject to criticism for misleading donors about money it skimmed off fundraising.

Allegations swirling around the NRA’s vendors go beyond suspiciously close ties to NRA leadership.

The main 501(c)(4) nonprofit arm of the NRA’s entanglements with its foundation and investigations stemming from information in FCC political ad records uncovered a potential illegal coordination scheme, raising questions about whether the NRA may have violated federal election law.

Most recently, in April, Campaign Legal Center Action filed a lawsuit on behalf of Giffords Law Center against the FEC for failing to act against the NRA for using shell corporations to coordinate campaign spending with federal candidates over the course of three election cycles spanning from 2014 to 2018.

In response to a 2018 congressional inquiry exploring whether the NRA may have acted as a passthrough for illegal Kremlin-linked money to flow in support of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the group’s close ties to convicted Russian foreign agent Maria Butina, the gun rights group admitted to at least some funding from Russian sources.

Because the NRA’s main arm operates as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the group is not required to disclose its funders. That makes it difficult to determine who might be bankrolling the NRA’s activities, how much they are giving, and even the true nature of the group’s financial state going into the 2020 election cycle.

CRP reached out to the NRA, but the organization’s representatives did not respond.

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