Once A Must-Do Event For GOP White House Hopefuls, CPAC Fades In Influence Along With Trump
OXON HILL, Md. — Having boosted its stature by tying itself to Donald Trump in recent years, the Conservative Political Action Conference’s fortunes appear to be sinking with the coup-attempting former president today, with fewer sponsors, fewer attendees and, gauging by appearances of White House hopefuls, less relevance.
Attendance at the four-day gathering at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center was noticeably less than in the past, particularly the prior two years when it was held in Orlando, Florida, to avoid COVID-19 restrictions in suburban Washington. Sponsorships are down, and the exhibit hall held plenty of unsold space after opening Wednesday — a dramatic contrast from previous CPACS.
“It’s stunning,” said Al Cardenas, a former chair of the American Conservative Union, the nonprofit that stages CPAC. “Corporate America has decided not to touch it.”
Likely GOP presidential candidates such as former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decided not to touch it, either.
In 2015, the last time a presidential election primary approached without a Republican in the White House, CPAC attracted a full dozen aspirants: Christie, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul and Trump.
Eight years later, even though as many as 14 well-known Republicans are running or considering a run for president, only three are attending the event: Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Many of the likely major candidates, including Haley and Pompeo, are attending a meeting for the anti-tax Club for Growth in Florida this weekend. DeSantis is appearing at a Republican dinner in Texas. Pence has visits scheduled in Michigan, South Carolina and Florida.
In the past, other groups would not have even considered scheduling an event opposite CPAC. That is no longer the case. “Nobody is stopping to say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that because it’s the same time as CPAC,’” one of the likely candidates’ top advisers said on condition of anonymity.
Also factoring into the decline is a lawsuit the current ACU chair, Matt Schlapp, faces accusing him of sexual assault against a male staffer for the Herschel Walker Senate campaign last year. Schlapp has denied the allegations, but numerous prominent Republicans said candidates and officeholders are understandably wary about appearing on stage with him.
“Schlapp’s legal issue are a cloud over the conference,” said one on condition of anonymity. “It’s hard to quantify, but there is no question it affected both speaker attendance and participant numbers.”
ACU did not respond to a HuffPost query for this story.
This year’s production continues the group’s movement away from its conservative roots. The keynote speaker at CPAC’s inaugural staging in 1974 was Ronald Reagan, but the biggest names in 2023 are election losers who claim the vote was stolen from them, including failed Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and, in the prime speaking slot Saturday evening, Trump himself.
On Thursday, the biggest draw for the Trump-centric audience was pillow monger Mike Lindell, who has become a major sponsor of right-wing media in recent years even as he aggressively pushes the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump using compromised voting machines. He is also a sponsor of this year’s event and is to appear on stage shortly before Trump on Saturday.
Cardenas said CPAC’s embrace of foreign would-be authoritarians like Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán — CPAC has staged conferences in both Brazil and Hungary — was troubling, too.
“Hungary’s prime minister is not only someone who you don’t want to emulate, but also someone who’s close to Vladimir Putin,” he said, referring to the Russian leader.
Indeed, speaker after speaker on Thursday criticized the United States’ current policy of sending arms to Ukraine to repel Putin’s year-old invasion. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, among the most strident voices against the aid to Ukraine, is a featured speaker Friday.
“CPAC now is really the center of the pro-Putin movement in American politics. It’s not an exaggeration to say that could cost Ukraine the war. … Being for Putin now is not an abstract thing. I think it’s extraordinarily dangerous,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who worked on the campaigns of former President George W. Bush and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney.
“There’s a tendency to laugh at CPAC because it’s such a freak show. But I would say this year, pay close attention,” Stevens added. “You go from Ronald Reagan — ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ ― to Marjorie Taylor Greene.”