The National Rifle Association’s annual convention gets underway Friday afternoon in Houston with a schedule that promises an “Antique Guns and Gold Showcase, a “Wall of Guns,” and a “Stand and Fight Rally” to oppose gun safety measures, planned for the confab’s Saturday night culmination. But there’s one thing it doesn’t have: a lineup of political heavyweight speakers that comes anywhere close to rivaling last year’s meeting.
At the NRA’s 2012 convention, held in St. Louis, the leading Republican candidates for the highest office in the land—Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum—lined up to tout their gun-rights bona fides and woo the group’s members.
Fast forward to this year, and the speakers list relies far more on has-beens and fringe figures.
Even with Congress out of session, the only member in attendance is the right-wing firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Santorum is back, but the ex-senator’s star power is much diminished, while Gingrich and Romney are nowhere to be found. Gov. Rick Perry, in whose state the meeting is taking place, will be there, as will Gov. Bobby Jindal of neighboring Louisiana—whose state has the highest rate of gun homicides in the country. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and John Bolton—a former one-term governor, a former Fox News host, and a former U.S. ambassador—round out the bold-face names on the lineup.
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its convention speakers.
“This is a far-right-wing organization and I think it speaks volumes that their featured speaker is Glenn Beck,” said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Everitt noted that Beck responded to a shooting at the Houston airport Thursday by suggesting that it was a government-run “set up” aimed at undermining the NRA, akin to the Reichstag fire perpetrated by the Nazis. ”If you’re trying to reach out to mainstream Americans you don’t have Glenn Beck as your featured speaker,” Everitt said.
The convention is always likely to be more of a big-name draw in presidential years. But in the current political climate, it’s hardly surprising that few mainstream Republican lawmakers are eager to appear. Since December’s Newtown shooting, polls have shown strong public support for gun control, as well as anger at Congress for failing to pass popular legislation on background checks last month. (One Republican senator, Jeff Flake of Arizona, even acknowledged this week that his opposition to the measure was likely the cause of a sharp drop in his approval rating.)
Nor has the NRA itself burnished its image of late. After executive director Wayne LaPierre’s notoriously snarling, bizarre December press conference, the gun-rights group saw a 10-point decline in its favorability rating, according to Public Policy Polling. Since Newtown, the group has been the target of organized protests by gun-control advocates.
Of course, the decline in star power doesn’t mean the NRA has lost much clout. The background checks vote was a massive win for the group, with all but four Republican senators rejecting the measure.
Republican lawmakers in Washington, it seems, are wary of standing up on stage and putting their arms around Wayne LaPierre. But when the rubber meets the road, they’re still glad to toe the NRA line.