One of the Conservative Political Action Conference's more rambunctious traditions will end this year, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will skip the annual event to focus on politics in his home state. For the first time in 10 years, no member of the Paul political family will be organizing supporters at the biggest annual gathering on the right.
"He was never planning to go," explained Paul strategist Doug Stafford. "He was always going to be focused on the caucuses, either as a candidate or a voter."
CPAC begins Wednesday and ends Friday.
When he was still running for president, Paul successfully (and expensively) campaigned for the Republican Party of Kentucky to replace its May primary with a March 5 caucus. The idea, initially, was to bring more attention to the state and allow Paul to run for the presidency without leaving his Senate seat. (Kentucky law would have forbade him appearing on the same ballot for two offices.) As a senator seeking reelection, Paul is planning to give a speech at a Republican dinner on Friday in his home county, then show up for Saturday's caucuses.
That will change the tenor of CPAC, a place where former Texas representative Ron Paul first got a sense of his presidential campaign's appeal with a low-key 2007 appearance that filled a small ballroom. Every year after that, his libertarian flock took up more and more of the CPAC ballroom, changing the tenor of events — heckling Dick Cheney and an anti-gay activist, holding antiwar and anti-Federal Reserve forums in spare rooms. In 2010 and 2011, Ron Paul supporters handily won the event's high-turnout straw poll. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Rand Paul won them.
This year he won't compete, and the official "Paulian" presence will be smaller. The Campaign for Liberty, the 501c4 founded after Ron Paul's campaign in 2008, is not co-sponsoring CPAC this year. The pro-Paul Young Americans for Liberty will have a booth but has not focused on how to "recruit and turn out" supporters, according to YAL President Jeff Frazee.
Since quitting the presidential race, Rand Paul has not really sought to grab back the media megaphone. He gave his first post-primary interview to Rare.us's Jack Hunter, a former speechwriter who resigned when his old (and renounced) writings as "the Southern Avenger" were revealed by the Washington Free Beacon. But Paul has otherwise remained quiet, even his former rivals pick up his critiques of front-runner Donald Trump. Every remaining GOP candidate is scheduled to speak at CPAC, as well as Carly Fiorina, who dropped out of the GOP race a week after Rand Paul.