For Republicans’ Rising Stars, CPAC Is Losing Its Pull
For decades, the Conservative Political Action Conference occupied a center ring in Republican politics.
In 1974, Ronald Reagan used the inaugural event to unveil his brand of optimistic conservatism, describing a “city on the hill” to the conservative activists. In 2010, libertarian supporters of Ron Paul lifted their candidate to victory at the event’s presidential straw poll, an early harbinger of the Tea Party upheaval that would soon shake the party. And in 2011, a Manhattan businessman walked onto the stage to the tune of “For the Love of Money,” declared himself an opponent of abortion and began a yearslong takeover of the Republican Party.
That businessman, Donald J. Trump, will be back at the four-day conservative gathering known as CPAC this week near Washington. He’ll be joined by a long list of right-wing media provocateurs, culture-war activists and a smattering of senators. Missing from the agenda: many of the Republicans seen as the future of the party.
When Mr. Trump became leader of the Republican Party, he remade the conference in his political image. Now, as the party’s voters, donors and officials consider a future that may not include Mr. Trump as their leader, some Republicans say the decades-old CPAC gathering has increasingly become more like a sideshow than a featured act, one that seems made almost exclusively for conservative media.
“It’s a content machine for the right-wing media ecosystem,” said David Kochel, a strategist on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, who noted that many of the catchiest lines from speeches will be replayed on Breitbart, Newsmax and the radio show hosted by Stephen K. Bannon. “But I don’t think it makes any difference in the 2024 run-up to the primary. You’ve got a couple people who aren’t going and a couple people who will go. It has faded in its importance.”
Some of that fade, Mr. Kochel said, is directly linked to the allegations against Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the conference. He was accused of groping an aide to Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign last year. Mr. Schlapp has denied the accusations. The campaign aide filed a lawsuit against Mr. Schlapp in January.
Those accusations were cited by some Republicans as one of the reasons they were steering clear of the conference, including Mike Pence, the former vice president who is considering a run for the White House. He passed on accepting an invitation, according to a person briefed on his decision. Instead, Mr. Pence is spending his week being hosted by other conservatives, including at a Club for Growth donor retreat to which Mr. Trump was not invited.
Who’s Running for President in 2024?
The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:
Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.
Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Mr. Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Mr. Trump.
Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author entered the Republican presidential race with an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and a video centered on opposition to social justice activism. He has made a name for himself in right-wing circles by opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes.
President Biden. While Mr. Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, and there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age, he is widely expected to run. If he does, Mr. Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.
Others who are likely to run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House. The self-help author Marianne Williamson said she will join the race on the Democratic side.
Other Republican stars plan to skip the event, which starts on Wednesday and ends on Saturday. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who polls show is the main alternative to Mr. Trump for the presidential nomination and who last addressed the event two years ago, does not plan to appear. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, whose 2021 victory was heralded as a general election model for Republicans, and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who is often cited as another possible contender for the party’s nomination, also are not expected to address the gathering.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy; Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee; all of the other Republican governors; and all of the members of the party’s leadership in the Senate are not listed on the agenda. The only other well-known presidential candidate attending is Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador who is considered a long shot for the White House. A lesser-known presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, is also speaking.
Even Fox News, long the media engine of the Republican Party, has distanced itself in many ways from the event. The network’s streaming service is not returning as a sponsor. And unlike in previous years, when top-tier talent including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham addressed the delegates, no major network personalities are listed on the agenda, although some of its contributors are.
Instead, attendees will hear from conservative-media stars such as Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow and a prominent promoter of election conspiracy theories; Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state who is considering a presidential campaign; Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado; and the former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose supporters stormed government buildings after he lost re-election last year.
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Kari Lake, the Arizona Republican who refused to concede after she lost the governor’s race last year, will be the featured speaker at CPAC’s annual Reagan dinner, at a ticket price of $375 a person. A recent addition to the schedule is James O’Keefe, the ousted leader of Project Veritas, the group of conservative provocateurs.
Aides to Mr. Trump rejected the notion that CPAC has lost its luster, arguing that it was one of the major public events for the presidential field until primary debates begin in the summer.
“CPAC is the embodiment of the conservative movement as well as the Republican Party, and the undisputed political leader here is President Trump,” said Jason Miller, a Trump senior adviser. “The conference has always represented the ‘springboard’ for the presidential primary season, and President Trump’s outsized influence at this year’s conference combined with recent polling success shows just how dominant his candidacy is as we approach 2024.”
Charlie Gerow, the vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the allegations against Mr. Schlapp have not diminished CPAC’s place in the conservative ecosystem.
“CPAC is and remains the most influential conservative gathering in the country and probably on the planet,” Mr. Gerow said. “It’s vibrant. It is exceptionally well respected and thought of among the conservative movement and continues to grow.”
But some former leaders of the American Conservative Union say Mr. Schlapp refocused the event from a broad spectrum of conservative debate to the fringes of Trumpism. As mainstream corporate sponsors like Google and Facebook moved away from the event, Mr. Schlapp courted companies more associated with Mr. Trump’s brand of politics.
Figures once banned from the event — including Jack Posobiec, a far-right commentator known for promoting the PizzaGate conspiracy theory — landed featured speaking slots. And the conference was expanded and exported into multiple events throughout the year, in more than one state and in other countries, including those with autocratic leaders, such as Hungary and Brazil.
Al Cardenas, Mr. Schlapp’s predecessor at the American Conservative Union, said he barely recognizes the organization he once led.
“There’s been a significant transition on the board away from conservatives,” Mr. Cardenas said. “The disappointment to me about CPAC has been so grand that I’ve just buried it.”
Founded in 1974, CPAC evolved over the decades from a small gathering of conservative thinkers to attracting thousands of activists, party leaders and elected officials. Often called “Woodstock for conservatives,” the conference aimed to capture the mood of the Republican base, with spirited debates over foreign policy, taxes, spending, abortion rights, immigration and other hot-button policy issues. It was a place where establishment politicians went to bolster their right-wing bona fides and conservatives showed up to try to become stars.
CPAC was once so strict about conservative credentials that in 2007 the organization declined to invite Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was then running for president and performing well in early polls, because he supported abortion rights. When Mr. Romney spoke before the activists in 2012, he played up his record as a “severely conservative” governor. The phrase was mocked at the time but became a shorthand for the former Massachusetts governor’s attempts to convince the base he was conservative enough to be their presidential nominee.
“We got Reagan, Gingrich and Bush and Kemp,” said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer who began attending CPAC in the 1970s. “Then, as opposed to now, it was the must place to be. For a week, it was the center of the conservative universe.”
Since Mr. Trump became the leader of the Republican Party, the confab has become less focused on traditionally conservative issues and intraparty debate. Past CPAC events featured a series of panels amounting to a recitation of the cultural grievances that animated the party during the Trump administration. Despite underperforming in the midterms last year, there is little time scheduled for soul-searching over why Republicans have struggled in the last three election cycles — and how to change that trajectory in 2024. The answers to those questions, in the minds of senior Republicans, often lead to Mr. Trump.
Even as the party heads into what could be a contentious fight for the nomination, the event is expected to remain focused on the kind of conservative red-meat issues that repelled some swing voters in the midterms, with panels titled “Don Lemon Is Past His Primetime,” “Sacking the Woke Playbook” and “The New Axis of Evil: Soros, Schwab and Fink.”
“It’s more of like a boat show,” said Mr. Shirley, whose attendance at the event waned during the Trump administration. “It’s mostly to just meet celebrities.”
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