Indianapolis, Indiana — Former president Donald Trump (R.) spoke to the NRA in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday, four years after the group’s last gathering down the road from the country’s most famous speedway. Both have suffered significant setbacks since the 2019 Annual Meeting, but both appear to be–at least momentarily–resurgent at this year’s event.
Trump, as he spent several minutes documenting during his speech, saw a surge in support for his third Presidential primary campaign headed into the NRA convention and extended his lead over potential Republican rivals. His fundraising experienced a boon too.
Evidence of an NRA upswing was evident to everyone in attendance by both the increase in spectators at Trump’s speech and members pursuing the exhibit floor. The NRA reported attendance was up from 61,254 last year to 77,246 this year–a 26 percent increase.
The resurgence for each presents an opportunity to build back toward the kind of political power they wielded only a few years ago. But tremendous obstacles, both legal and political, remain ahead and could sink either or both.
The fates of the two have been tied since the NRA was among the first major groups to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential primary. The gun-rights group spent more than $30 million to help the reality-TV-star-turned-politician pull off an upset win over its longtime nemesis Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. The pair have ridden the same rollercoaster ever since. And they remain inexorably entwined, with Trump being both the keynote and the only speaker to receive a customized NRA jacket, even as other Republican primary candidates spoke to NRA members this year.
Trump and the NRA’s fortunes have been far more down than up in recent times. Trump, after being twice impeached and losing the 2020 election, became the first ex-president to be indicted earlier this month–the apparent source of his support bump as many of his backers fume at the charges. He faces several other civil and criminal investigations, including a fraud case against the Trump Organization brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D.). The AG filed a similar fraud case against Wayne LaPierre and other members of NRA leadership. Trump noted the connection in his speech.
“The very same raging radical left lunatic attorney general that is coming after me in New York state is also waging war on the NRA, shamefully trying to destroy this legendary organization that’s been an American institution since 1871,” he said.
The suits could well end Trump’s re-election and drive the NRA back into bankruptcy. Trump faces potential jail time as a result of multiple felony charges over alleged hush money payments made to a porn star he had an affair with and may soon have to deal with several more charges related to his actions surrounding the January 6th riot and attempts to persuade Georgia election officials to “find” enough votes to overturn the results of the state’s election. While a judge denied James’ requested punishment of completely dissolving the gun-rights group, removing and sanctioning LaPierre and other leadership members remains a possibility.
The NRA’s legal costs in defending against corruption suits have ballooned to become the single largest line item in the group’s entire budget, according to a copy of its 2022 annual report obtained by The Reload. The rising legal costs, which contributed to an overall increase in expenses, come at the same time membership in the organization has cratered, with a million members fleeing the group since 2018. That’s caused membership dues, which drive most of the organization’s revenue, to freefall. The diverging path of outlays and income has led former-board-member, and LaPierre critic, Rocky Marshall to warn the NRA may end up back in bankruptcy before long.
The increased attendance at the 2023 Annual Meeting will likely provide some financial relief to the NRA’s balance sheet as it aggressively slashed the price of some memberships and upgrades. But the rebound over last year’s performance in Houston still doesn’t compare to the group’s 2019 Indianapolis meeting. That event saw 81,283 attendees and, whereas Trump’s speech was held in a conference hall this year, the 2019 political speeches were held at Lucas Oil Field–the home of the Indianapolis Colts.
At the same time, Trump’s polling bump is already showing signs of fading. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll found Trump’s lead over Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R.), who has yet to announce his campaign, receded by ten points since last month. And an ABC News poll found his approval rating among Americans shrank to just 25 percent in the wake of his indictment.
Still, the NRA event shows Trump and the gun-rights group remain formidable and may even be on the upswing. Whether either can carry the momentum back to the top of American political life remains to be seen.