The Republican establishment is down on CPAC. But for Donald Trump and his campaign operation the conservative conference is not just the main event, it’s a crucial early test of his political strength.
The summit in National Harbor is expected to be a love fest for Trump this year — a moment to, once again, flout his dominance over the conservative activist movement as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination. If this weekend’s event mimics the conferences of recent years, Trump is preparing to bask in the glow. But that also raises the stakes for him. A poor showing in the crowd or in the CPAC straw poll could feed chatter that his grip on the GOP is failing.
“Obviously, he has a lot on the line with this — or in anything he does right now,” said Dave Carney, a Republican strategist, of Trump’s CPAC appearance. “Everyone’s looking for cracks. When you’re the frontrunner, every event you go to becomes important.”
Already there are signs that this year’s CPAC might be off to a rocky start. Some Republicans are predicting lower turnout, and at least two attendees said they were contacted this week about purchasing a $375 ticket to the marquee Ronald Reagan Dinner, headlined by Trump acolyte and former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.
Trump is hoping to lock up a straw poll of the 2024 Republican field again this year. His Saturday evening speech to a hall of adoring supporters — likely to span well over an hour — will cap off the four-day event. For Trump, being greeted by a sea of red hats and life-size cardboard cutouts will provide the visuals to prove he remains the leader of the conservative movement. This year’s CPAC isn’t designed for a wide field of potential presidential candidates to court voters — it’s Trump’s chance to position himself as inevitable.
His likely top rival in a GOP primary, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is skipping CPAC along with other potential 2024 candidates and top Republican officials. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott will gather with DeSantis and other GOP presidential hopefuls behind closed doors at The Breakers, a luxury Palm Beach resort, to address donors at a retreat hosted by the anti-tax group Club for Growth. Trump was not invited to attend.
Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the two other major declared presidential contenders, are the only candidates who will attend both gatherings.
CPAC was once the ground zero for grassroots Republican activists and would attract a broad spectrum of conservative leaders. But during the Trump years, it has effectively morphed into an arm of the MAGA movement, fully reflective of the populist, America First wing of the party. Among the panels at this year’s event are such Trump-themed sessions as “Finish the Wall, Build the Dome,” and “They Stole It From Us Legally,” in reference to the 2020 election.
CPAC’s pull on establishment Republicans appears to have waned not just because the organization has tied itself closely to Trump. The conservative group is also navigating a serious public relations crisis as its chair, Matt Schlapp, faces sexual assault allegations from a GOP campaign staffer. The alleged victim, a former employee of Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign, sued Schlapp and his wife Mercedes in January for nearly $10 million. The couple has denied wrongdoing.
It was CPAC that welcomed Trump back with open arms for his first public appearance in 2021 after he left the White House in disgrace following the Jan. 6 insurrection. But his ties to the gathering extend back to 2011. And four months before he announced his presidential bid in 2015, Trump tested his populist campaign message on the CPAC stage, telling the crowd of activists they were his “kind of people.”
“I love you people … You are conservative, you work, you love the country. It’s very simple,” Trump said.
A spokesperson for Trump called CPAC “the embodiment of the conservative movement as well as the Republican Party, and the undisputed political leader here is President Trump.”
“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,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
CPAC’s speakers this year include a host of Republican senators allied with Trump, including three who have already endorsed him for president: Sens. Tommy Tuberville, J.D. Vance, and Eric Schmitt. And notably, the only member of Republican leadership speaking at CPAC this year is Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who was one of the first to endorse Trump’s 2024 run. Right-wing commentator Candace Owens, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, and the former president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro are also listed as featured speakers.
A super PAC supporting Trump, MAGA Inc., is among CPAC’s exhibitors and will host a private reception Saturday ahead of Trump’s speech.
Other stars in the party have effectively conceded the event to the former president, choosing to skip out of this year’s festivities entirely. That includes the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, who a year ago called the energy at the conference “amazing” after taking the stage in Orlando. At the time, the RNC was a CPAC sponsor. The committee did not seek a sponsorship this year.
It’s unclear if McDaniel received an invitation to speak at this year’s CPAC — representatives for both camps did not immediately respond to a request for comment. At the RNC’s winter meeting in Dana Point, Calif. in January, Schlapp was scheduled to attend as the guest of a supporter of Harmeet Dhillon, McDaniel’s challenger in her reelection bid for chair. Schlapp ultimately did not attend the event, which took place soon after he was served with a lawsuit over the sexual assault allegations.
Also skipping out on this year’s CPAC is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, another Republican considered a potential presidential candidate. Carney, who serves as a consultant to Abbott, said the governor is only participating in in-state events until the legislative session concludes in June. Abbott spoke at the start of CPAC’s August convention in Dallas.
And while a cast of Fox News stars have studded conservative conferences in recent months — Sean Hannity at CPAC Dallas in August, and both Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham at Turning Point USA’s year-end conference in Phoenix — none of those high-profile commentators are scheduled to appear this weekend. Nor is Fox Nation, the network’s digital streaming platform, listed as a sponsor this year, as it has been previously.
The Schlapps have notably been absent from Fox’s airwaves since the allegations surfaced. And in recent weeks, the couple has taken to right-wing news services like Newsmax and Steve Bannon’s “War Room” to drum up buzz about this year’s CPAC event.
CPAC’s annual presidential straw poll is guaranteed to receive media attention. The poll, done by a secret ballot, and the results of which are released at the end of the weekend, will ask conference attendees their preference in a mock 2024 presidential GOP primary. But without DeSantis, Pence, Scott or other potential 2024 hopefuls speaking at the event, it is unclear how indicative the poll will be of widespread Republican thinking.
“The straw poll is going to be a less accurate indication of where the grassroots are than in years past because DeSantis isn’t here, Trump is the only big name speaker who is going to be here,” said a Republican strategist who regularly attends CPAC. “You have to take the results with a grain of salt.”