CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, is the annual conservative get-together that essentially served as a kind of convention for the Republican Party’s right wing. CPAC started in 1974 in advance of the ideologically contentious battle for not just the Republican presidential nomination but the soul of the GOP which was won, at least for a glorious time, by conservatives.
Luminaries within the conservative movement and GOP’s prominent figures regularly spoke at the event held within the Beltway, and CPAC has been long associated with the rise of Reaganism.
Over the years the tenor of the conference would swing between free market and grassroots conservatism to Bush Era political establishmentarianism, depending on which party held the White House.
Younger GOP officials would use the venue, national media coverage, and accompanying CSPAN broadcast to introduce themselves to a national audience.
In what seems like an eternity ago Bobby Jindal had effectively used CPAC to do this and scored second in the presidential straw poll. Of course this was prior to that State of the Union response.
And the year before an presidential election sans incumbent, CPAC was a must-stop for candidates exploring a bid or in the case of the more committed contenders, where they would frame their candidacy and lay out their platform priorities.
This past weekend in National Harbor, Maryland (more on this location later) this once premier gathering for Republican figures of profile got a nasty reality check in the form of vacant seats and a center stage devoid of many prominent GOP leaders. Missing in action were a few notable potential candidates for president next year.
CPAC was a shell of its former self with ranking Republican congressional leaders mostly skipping out, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis finding a more valuable and less controversial use of his time, and thousands of attendees and just as significantly big name sponsors taking a pass.
CPAC’s expected triumphant return to the Beltway from a COVID exile in Florida was a dumpster fire and a reckoning.
And it’s the American Conservative Union’s own fault for essentially wringing the neck of a golden goose of publicity, political capital, and revenue.
A hotbed of Reaganism had devolved into a hybrid of a Republican “nerd prom” and conservative comic con complete with people in costume run like a circus of self-promotion by the self-important irrelevant.
One of the issues that cast a pall over the conference was the allegation that ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp had, while visiting Georgia during Herschel Walker’s US Senate bid, groped a male campaign volunteer.
Schlapp was surrounded by a phalanx of security throughout the event and was whisked through the Gaylord Conference Center’s corridors so as to limit the prospect of someone with phone camera in hand confronting or taunting him about the allegation.
If that were the only issue to dissuade a national Republican from not wanting to have to explain to a reporter why he was appearing on stage with someone facing an accusation of reprehensible conduct, it would be enough to find something, anything else to do with his or her time and credibility.
But wait there’s more.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, one of two announced Republican candidates of standing for president, was likely not expecting a warm reception at the event though I doubt she thought she’d be surrounded by people acting boorish and shouting Trump’s name during press interviews. Nor did she think it would be necessary for a security detail to plow through the circle of taunters and rush her to a waiting elevator to escape the scene.
In the absence of well-known GOP officials and with Schlapp tainted by the scandal accusation, the vacuum was filled by almost-victorious gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, almost-defeated Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, and Mike Lindell, who received four votes for RNC Chairman in January, all of whom received featured speaking slots.
When former President Donald Trump, spoke there were hundreds of empty chairs in a ball room that had already been reconfigured to eat empty space.
While the media clucked over the estimated 35-40% empty seats, that’s not a reflection on the 45th president but the failings of the event that failed to attract attendees.
As they say in Hollywood, you can’t stop people from not seeing your movie.
And then there’s the straw poll, which had long ago turned into a manufactured farce that becomes a news story when it shouldn’t be.
Where does CPAC go from here?
First, Matt Schlapp needs to go, regardless of the outcome of how the legal proceedings play out in his situation. A trip to the CPAC website features smiling images of him yet nobody is spending money going to the conference to see him or members of his family on stage. A chairman of any organization, especially a political one, should be more director than featured star and too many people who stay too long let their podiums get to their head.
Secondly, CPAC needs to evacuate from National Harbor. It’s the worst of all worlds: remote, expensive, unsafe, and completely devoid of what charms being in the nation’s capital possesses. You can fly in to Reagan and go to the venue without crossing into the District of Columbia. Furthermore the weather is generally unpleasant that time of the year in DC. Attendees raved about going to Florida the past two years and proximity to the US Capitol didn’t attract the participation of anyone in the congressional leadership save Elise Stefanik. Why spend $1500 on hotel rooms in DC when you can spend half as much in Orlando during central Florida’s better weather months?
Thirdly, scrap the Straw Poll. It’s pointless and keeps away potential candidates looking to address conservatives nationally but don’t want to see their name on a giant screen with 1% or 2% next to it. It’s more questionnaire than a poll anyway and serves no practical purpose.
Fourthly, enact event quality controls. Everything from food availability to corridor access to programming needs to be evaluated and improved upon and those running the show should not be oblivious or indifferent to the experience of attendees.
Finally, regain the confidence of speakers and sponsors. This was supposed to be the big year for candidate appearances on the eve of the 2024 GOP nomination fight, the Christmas year in the four year political cycle, yet they demonstrated that CPAC needed them more than the other way around. Reassert the purpose of the conference as to promoting conservatism and not just a particular candidate or political personality.
Years ago, there was no real competition to CPAC. The Republican regional conferences came and went but now Turning Point USA is hosting gatherings that overshadow CPAC. And Club for Growth stole some of their thunder (and speakers) with a competing event last week. The ACU rests on its legacy at its own risk.
They need to right the ship fast and demonstrate that meaningful changes in operations are in the works. A repeat of 2023 in 2024, the 50th anniversary of the conference, would be fatal for an event with a rich lineage such as CPAC.