Something will be missing from this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, and it’s not its famous straw poll or the kaleidoscope of colors offered by the thousands of activists and conservative media darlings in attendance.
Instead, most of the potential 2024 Republican presidential nominees are missing out on this year’s annual conference, headlined by former President Donald Trump, amid GOP reckoning after the Trump administration and denied allegations against the president of the American Conservative Union and CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp.
REPUBLICANS BEGIN TO CONTRACT BIDEN’S ATTACKS ON SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE
The CPAC absences underscore a division within the Republican Party as the GOP grapples with its post-Trump identity, trying to hold on to its hardline base while trying to court more moderate conservatives and independents.
“2012 marked the year [then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt] Romney bussed students to tilt the poll,” a Republican strategist told the Washington Examiner of CPAC. “In 2015 every GOP candidate courted young conservatives with receptions and beer. Now, 2023 is the beginning of the end of CPAC. Conservatives are looking for new direction and new leadership, and Trump and Schlapp are not.”
Republican strategists the Washington Examiner spoke to downplayed any connection between the allegations of sexual misconduct filed against Schlapp and the position of CPAC, the conference that began Wednesday in Maryland. Schlapp has denied the allegations, which were made by a male aide to former NFL player, Heisman Trophy winner and 2022 Georgia Republican Senate candidate Hershel Walker.
Alternatively, these strategists point to Schlapp’s continued ties to Trump, who will deliver the keynote address Saturday evening, and how CPAC no longer appeals to all the voters Republicans need to win the election.
“I think Matt has done a pretty good job with CPAC,” said another Republican strategist. “I think his biggest problem has been the frequent change of venues due to COVID. Trump adds to the drama, but you need some drama to make it exciting.”
The conference was held in Florida during the height of the pandemic. This is the first time he has returned to the nation’s capital since 2020.
“CPAC was a positive way to show unity among conservatives, but it has a different feel this year when the candidates are projecting hostility toward each other,” a separate GOP strategist added.
Former UN ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s only major declared opponent for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, speaks Friday afternoon at CPAC. Billionaire businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who has also announced his candidacy, is slated for Friday afternoon, while Trump-era Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is considering launching the his own candidacy, is scheduled for Thursday evening.
Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), along with former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH), as well as Haley and Ramaswamy, will be appearing at a closed press conference hosted by the Club for Growth in Florida from March 2-4. The conservative anti-tax organization 501 extended an invitation to Pompeo and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA), but they declined because of the conflicts. The event is an opportunity for future 2024 Republican presidential candidates to meet with donors, with the Club for Growth, which has distanced itself from Trump and Trumpism, giving $20.5 million over the cycle of midterm last year, according to OpenSecrets. DeSantis will also participate in fundraisers in California and Texas as she travels the country for her book tour.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are also not expected to attend.
“DeSantis and Pence sparring at CPAC is a sign that CPAC isn’t the ‘must-see’ event for GOP presidential hopefuls that it used to be,” said a fourth Republican strategist. “Schlapp has done a good job running CPAC, but appearing at CPAC has become a bit of an ‘establishment’ thing for conservative Republicans.”
Noting that last year’s CPAC was heavily attended by potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, a senior Democratic official disagreed, stating that CPAC “from our perspective,” it’s a perfect window into where the Republican Party is.”
“You have them inviting Mike Lindell. They invited [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban last year and beyond [former Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro this year, so CPAC is a perfect encapsulation of what MAGA is about,” he said. “Whether it’s at CPAC or elsewhere, Republicans are still catering to that CPAC audience.”
CPAC has defended itself and Schlapp from criticism, particularly from the Washington Post, which published an article this week analyzing Schlapp’s leadership and management style.
“Matt Schlapp was chosen to lead CPAC eight years ago because he had a clear vision focused on transforming CPAC from a small annual conference into a respected popular and conservative political powerhouse with an expanding international reach,” said Carolyn Meadows, the second vice president of CPAC. . “This week, we will be standing with thousands of real Americans who care about the future of our country, people too busy with their real lives to care about the hit pieces published by the mouthpiece of the radical left, the Washington Post”.
“CPAC attendees can expect to hear from all announced GOP presidential candidates and more than 100 debut speakers, including more than 30 elected officials,” Meadows colleague Megan Powers Small, a CPAC spokeswoman, added to the Washington Examiner . “It’s a missed opportunity for any potential presidential candidate not to address the thousands of grassroots activists at CPAC this year.”
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER
Trump is dominating early polls in the 2024 Republican presidential field, averaging 45 percent support among GOP respondents, according to RealClearPolitics. DeSantis averages 29%, Pence 7%, Haley 5%, Pompeo 2% and Scott 1%.