Trouble began for Rigell in late February when he received an invitation from the White House to fly on Air Force One and attend an event in his district. President Obama planned to discuss the effects of so-called sequestration cuts, his latest attempt to blame the budget standoff on Rigell's party.
"Please tell the president I accept with gratitude," Rigell told the White House aide.
Rigell knew he would be criticized by fellow conservatives for giving Obama political cover. Right-wing ideologues were already skeptical of the second-term lawmaker because he had disavowed an antitax pledge, voted to raise the debt ceiling, and opposed holding Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt (one of only two Republicans to do so). Rigell represents one of the dwindling few swing districts left.
But he agreed to travel with Obama for two reasons. First, he wanted to tell the president to his face that the White House had failed to lead on budget negotiations. Obama needs to honestly embrace spending cuts and entitlement reforms, Rigell insisted, to extract any new revenue from Republicans.
Secondly, Rigell holds a quaint view that, until the recent past, was universally accepted in Washington. "He is," Rigell said, "my president."
Conservative commentators, their numbers and power dramatically increased in the past decade or so, derided Rigell as a sap, a sellout, and a "RINO" or "Republican in name only." Negative calls and e-mails poured into his office. Still, Rigell was confident he could reason with his constituents, aided by a detailed chart on the federal budget that he carted to town halls and local media interviews.
Then, a second shoe dropped. Coincidentally or not, two days after his trip with Obama, the gun lobby launched a harsh, effective, and factually bogus attack on Rigell. The National Association for Gun Rights aired radio ads and sent direct-mail fliers that falsely accused Rigell of backing a federal registry system and working hand in hand with Obama to seize guns.
Rigell's great crime, other than riding Air Force One, was to sponsor a benign antitrafficking bill that would outlaw "straw purchasing," the act of providing firearms to those who are unable to legally purchase weapons themselves. He is, after all, a lifelong NRA member with an A-minus rating from the group.
The NAGR positions itself to the right of the NRA, uncompromising on any gun regulation. Like many left- and right-wing interest groups, it operates in the dark and feeds on fear: Voters in Rigell's district do not know who funds the organization.
Rigell soon learned that one source of revenue was Paul, at least indirectly. The NAGR sent an e-mail to potential donors that opened with a note from the Kentucky senator urging recipients to support the "fine folks" at NAGR.