As more than a dozen possible 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls take the stage to address the National Rifle Association’s Leadership Forum on Friday, one name will notably be missing from the lineup: Sen. Rand Paul.
Mr. Paul, a strong gun rights advocate who formally announced his bid for the presidency this week, has not received any formal endorsements or money from the nation’s largest and most politically potent gun lobby despite his “A” voting record rating from the NRA.
“We did not extend an invitation to Sen. Rand Paul, and he didn’t request to be invited,” said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker, blaming the packed lineup and scheduling restraints for Mr. Paul’s absence. Mr. Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are two of the only top-tier GOP 2016 hopefuls not speaking at the NRA function.
Insiders, however, say it’s because of Mr. Paul’s association with the National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR), a rival pro-gun rights umbrella group, that has angered other gun rights advocates, who accuse the group of misleading mailings and headline-stealing tactics.
NAGR was founded by Mike Rothfeld, a direct mail prodigy and owner of Virginia-based Saber Communications, to which Mr. Paul and his political action committees paid $2.6 million for services during the 2014 election cycle. The Kentucky senator’s father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, paid Saber about $7.7 million for work it did for his 2012 presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Saber also handles the direct mail of NAGR and such other conservative groups as National Right to Work and National Pro-Life Alliance, maintaining all of their contact lists.
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More recently, the younger Mr. Paul’s Reinventing a New Direction (RAND) political action committee paid Saber $7,400 last Dec. 23 to rent its mailing lists and contact names, according to FEC filings. Last election cycle, RAND PAC spent $216,452 to maintain access to Saber’s database.
“I am a professional junk mailer,” Mr. Rothfeld said at a lecture entitled “The Real Nature of Politics,” which was posted on YouTube two years ago. “I am a professional telemarketer. I’m a professional spammer — like, a hundred million pieces of emails a month. And I’m a professional negative campaigner. And I’m damn proud of all four.”
Mr. Rothfeld declined to discuss his business with The Washington Times, but NAGR officials portray the group as more conservative and effective than the NRA, which it claims is too connected to the official power structure in Washington.
All of Mr. Rothfeld’s mailings cast a wide net, reaching as many conservatives as possible, and critics say the company then aims to draw the recipient into the campaign by frightening them on issues or legislation that establishment figures don’t entertain as threats.
NAGR has branded itself as the conservative alternative to the NRA, one not beholden to Washington insiders. But some Second Amendment advocates think the group’s main claim to fame is stoking the fears of the less-informed for-profit.
Last month, the group’s affiliate in Mississippi, as labeled on NAGR’s website, sent a letter to pro-gun advocates urging them to donate money so they could help fight a state bill to mark ammunition. The only problem was there was no bill.
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“Just recently, the Mississippi Registration Ammo Bill (S.B. 2030) was introduced,” wrote Mississippi Gun Rights in a letter dated March 16 and obtained by The Washington Times. “This is nothing more than an underhanded attempt to GUT our gun rights here in Mississippi!”
The bill NAGR’s letter was referring to — S.B. 2030 — was actually legislation dealing with the education reform program Common Core, and the ammunition bill the group was referencing (S.B. 2219) had died in committee a month before the mailing was sent.
“Sometimes there’s a legitimate need to sound the alarm bells when there’s actual danger on the horizon,” said George Whitten Jr., who received the letter from the group. “But this was just deceiving — making up a danger and deceiving people on their mailing list so they would send more money to help defeat a bill that was already dead.”
Rival to the NRA
NAGR, run by Executive Vice President Dudley Brown with Mr. Rothfeld being named a director-at-large, was established in 2000 and claims to be the “fastest growing gun-rights group in America” on its website, serving as an umbrella group for a number of state-based gun rights groups.
The NAGR rose to fame when it outspent the NRA in terms of lobbying. However, the majority of its budget is spent on promotional materials.
According to the group’s most recent financial disclosures, in 2013 it raised $16.4 million. It spent $1.47 million on lobbying, but then paid out $5.97 million in direct mail; $3.21 million in Internet promotion; $334,694 in tour promotion; and $344,629 in telemarketing expenses, altogether constituting 60 percent of its budget — its single largest expense.
“In the year the NRA claimed to be the biggest watershed moment in gun control, 2013, federal records showed we spent twice as much as they did lobbying,” said Mr. Brown in an interview with The Washington Times. “They kept their spending the same, but we went way over and above.”
Mr. Brown said most of his mailers call for people to sign a petition or phone their representatives to protest a bill, but also include a way to donate to the organization if they wish, which drives up what they have to report in promotional spending.
As for the ammunition bill in Mississippi, he blamed it on a printing error.
He said his group was more aggressive and effective than the much larger NRA.
“We’re younger, we’re hungrier, and we care less about the cocktail parties in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Brown recently told The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Paul’s image is used on NAGR’s fundraising materials, and the group consistently sends out both emails and letters credited to Mr. Paul on gun rights issues. Before the 2014 midterms the senator hosted a telemarketing call with about 6,000 NAGR supporters requesting $100 donations to help win political races, and in January he appeared at a NAGR-sponsored event in New Hampshire.
“Senator Paul is happy to work with pro-2nd Amendment groups and will always make the issue a top priority,” said Doug Stafford, the executive director of RAND PAC in an emailed statement to The Washington Times. “Senator Paul signs letters for many groups promoting issues he believes in. He does not have any role in the strategy of those groups.”
Mr. Stafford was asked if Mr. Paul was willing to distance himself from NAGR because of its reputation among other Second Amendment groups and he didn’t provide any substantive response.
Regarding the absence from the NRA conference slight, Mr. Stafford wrote: “Sen. Paul is a champion of the Second Amendment and the strongest voice for freedom in the U.S. Senate. He has an unblemished record of support for gun rights. He is on the road announcing his run for president all week.”
And, as political experts know, running for president is expensive and fundraising crucial.
“Political campaigns are all startup companies; they’ve got to build a base from the ground up,” said Bruce Newman, a marketing professor at DePaul University and author of “The Marketing of the President.”
The aggregating of voter data through the multiple mailing lists of different organizations allows candidates to customize their message and microtarget certain people who have historically shown a propensity to get involved in issues they care about, either in an online setting or by going door-to-door — information that is extremely valuable to first-time presidential candidates for both turnout and fundraising, Mr. Newman said.
“The aggregating of big data from multiple lists is extremely important in that it allows you to raise hundreds of millions of dollars by knowing who your audience is, how active in campaigns they’ve been, what they like to watch visually, words they respond to, what they like and how to inspire them,” said Mr. Newman, noting President Obama’s election campaigns were the masters of big data and the aggregation of lists.
So far, Mr. Paul has been successful at motivating this grass-roots base, raising $1.2 million since announcing his presidency on Tuesday.
Still, some in the gun rights community don’t care for Mr. Paul extending his name and reputation to an organization like NAGR, which has been known to attack other Republicans and Second Amendment activists on grounds they consider specious.
“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,’” said Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, which filed and won a landmark suit overturning Chicago’s handgun ban and made it clear that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms applied to states and localities.
Last year, the NAGR attacked Mr. Gottlieb for supporting a national gun registry.
Mr. Gottlieb said he never advocated for such a position. He did, however, support a Senate bill that expanded background checks some but prohibited any registry. According to Mr. Gottlieb, NAGR misconstrued the bill and his position on it and orchestrated attacks only to raise discontent and mistrust among gun rights supporters.
NAGR also likes to take credit for filing an amicus brief for the McDonald case that they neither had anything to do with nor coordinated with Mr. Gottlieb’s team, he said.
“I wish Rand wouldn’t sign their letters, but they use Rand’s lists, and there’s a fundraising synergy between the two of them, and I guess Rand’s just not willing to let it go,” Mr. Gottlieb said.