This year is different, and not just because coronavirus restrictions prompted the conference to relocate to Florida. Donald Trump will make his first post-presidential speech to the conference on Sunday, and the four-day agenda will spend hours on panels and speeches litigating the 2020 election. No defeated president has sought this sort of influence over his party, and CPAC is going to give it to him.
“Even though Donald Trump is a one-term president, there's this feeling among Republicans that he was a huge, smashing success,” said Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC. “That doesn't mean that every moment of every day, of every news cycle, was pleasurable. What it means is that from a policy perspective, he basically ticked through the list of things that he said he would do.”
CPAC changed Trump, and Trump changed CPAC. Before his presidency, it was possible to argue that the conference, which had sometimes discussed whether conservatives should bolt the GOP altogether, was a reflection of the movement's agenda or a reflection of who paid to show up.
During George W. Bush's presidency, administration officials came to CPAC to argue for invading Iraq; during Obama's presidency, supporters of the libertarian Republicans Ron and Rand Paul colonized the floor, fueling debates about everything from the gold standard to drug legalization. Mitt Romney won the conference's straw poll four times; the Pauls won it five times.
But something else changed during the Obama years, and Trump was the first politician to take full advantage. The 2009 conference was a flat-out rejection of the Bush presidency, with the ACU's leadership and GOP strivers such as Paul Ryan saying that Bush had failed to govern as a conservative. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who'd lost to Obama, didn't even show up.
“Voters saw an economy in decline, foreclosures rising, retirement savings falling, growing unemployment, huge deficits, earmarked giveaways, and massive government intervention to prop up a mismanaged financial sector,” Ryan said. “Voters examined this grim picture and rejected the status quo, punishing the party in power.”
Then, like now, Democrats in Washington were using their power to muscle through a massive relief bill. The details of the 2009 stimulus package, particularly the spending that Democrats had tucked in after failing to pass it before Obama took over, energized conservatives; as CPAC unfolded in one part of Washington, one of the first tea party rallies, which helped conservatives rebrand themselves after Bush, unfolded in another.
This post-election CPAC is different. Just one panel, “All Debts Are Off,” will focus on government spending, with former Trump OMB director Russ Vought talking alongside Rep. Chip Roy of Texas and Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana. One panel will tackle the “administrative state,” now being rebuilt by the Biden team, and one will discuss “the left's agenda on health care.” There's no planned discussion of “earmarks,” which Ryan called out by name, both parties got rid of, and Democrats are currently restoring.
Far more time will be spent on the 2020 election and the rules that conservatives want to change before anybody votes again. That will unfold across seven numbered panels and speeches, four of them on Sunday, before Trump's speech; an eighth panel, “Did your vote count?,” will bring Republican attorneys and a Georgia county GOP chair together for a breakout session.
The rest of the CPAC agenda, shaped by the ACU and by sponsors, also is in harmony with Trump. There will be discussion every day of economic and security conflicts with China, an issue that predated Trump's interest in politics, but one he put at the center of his agenda. Several panels will discuss big tech and “woke”-ness,” both from corporate America and in pop culture. The theme of the weekend is “America Uncanceled,” not far off the anti-“political correctness” mind-set that has animated conservatives for years.
That was present in 2009, too. As that year's keynoter, the speaker who closed out the conference, CPAC chose Rush Limbaugh, who Democrats at the time were trying to turn into the face of their opposition.
“Republicans had lost, and they weren’t especially excited about the candidate they'd lost with,” recalled Lisa De Pasquale, the CPAC director that year, who made the speech happen. “The internal mood was, wow, it’s gonna be depressing this year. And Limbaugh had never been depressing.”
The blend of entertainment and policy, both directed at mocking liberalism, was a success. Trump's 2011 visit to CPAC, which confounded conservatives who knew him as a celebrity with socially liberal views, didn't quite nail it, as he mostly made news for chastising Ron Paul supporters for supporting someone who couldn't “win an election.” But over time, Trump took control of the party and the conservative movement, replacing some of its issues with his own.
Not everyone stayed on for the ride. Al Cardenas, who led the ACU immediately before Schlapp, said that he wasn't attending this year, and defended the more raucous, leaderless CPACs that happened on his watch.
“The conference was based on debating peoples' views and where they stood,” Cardenas said. “That applied from everything to the sales tax to immigration to war. In my opinion, it was intellectually stimulating to hear different points of view.”
Republicans also are in far stronger shape than they were in 2009, both in the numbers of their congressional caucus and the control they've won in states. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida will kick off the conference tomorrow, likely continuing a feud that has been politically effective: Contrasting the lack of shutdowns in Florida to the Biden administration's wariness about fully “reopening” until the pandemic is over. Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who has grown her profile in the party since the pandemic began, will close out the speeches on Saturday.
The rest of the elected lineup emphasizes how the GOP has refreshed itself, while moving right, since the party's 2009 nadir. Of the 47 current or former members of Congress with speaking slots, just a handful arrived in Washington before 2010. Both of the party's black House members, Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah and Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, will be onstage, joined by four of the female House freshmen who made up the party's most diverse class ever.
None of them have broken with Trump. Just nine of the members of Congress with speaking slots, for example, voted to uphold the election results from every state. None of the Republicans who impeached or voted to convict Trump will be there; one of them, Romney, was disinvited by CPAC in 2020 and hasn't been back. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) won't be there, either, having skipped since 2014; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, the senators who forced the electoral college challenge on Jan. 6, will be.
While Republicans are still arguing over the rioters who invaded the Capitol that day, the activists who participated in it were not welcomed to CPAC. But Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who urged protesters that day to start “taking names and kicking” behinds, will be there. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a conspiracy theorist who has embarrassed Republican leaders, won't be. But she'll attend a more right-wing conference in Orlando, and a nearby reception, as CPAC is underway.
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CPAC: The Q&A
Matt Schlapp has run the American Conservative Union since 2014, taking over CPAC for the first time during the 2015 cattle call of presidential candidates. He was there when Donald Trump was wildly mistrusted by conservative activists. He was there when the event became almost entirely about the president and his agenda — one that his wife Mercedes worked to implement, inside the White House.
In the run-up to CPAC, Schlapp mostly has been asked about the refusal of many conservatives, including the former president, to acknowledge that the 2020 election was legitimate. An interview on CNN turned quickly into an argument about Nevada, where Schlapp had alleged that there were “hundreds of dead people” voting, and continued to suggest that the state's forgiving absentee ballot rules made the result suspicious. Both are repeated endlessly by Republicans and both are false.
Schlapp has continued to make those false claims in interviews, including this one, but his conversation with The Trailer moved to other topics. This is a lightly edited transcript.
The Trailer: You were at the ACU, though not running it, the last time Republicans were in this position — after they'd lost the White House and Congress, 12 years ago. The mood then was a lot more despairing about the party. Did you go back and look at how that year's conference was put together?
Matt Schlapp: People were feeling very hopeless. When your side loses, and we lost everything, it's like there's no hope. The big difference between this loss and the last loss is that with Obama, there was this discussion of whether he could be everybody's president. There's too much bickering in Washington, and maybe we have to figure out a third way. And obviously, there was an indictment of the war policies of Bush Cheney and the fact that, you know, we forget this because everyone loves to focus on the acid coverage of Donald Trump. But Bush and Cheney, their media coverage was so toxic that by the end, President Bush had about the lowest approval ratings of almost anybody leaving the office. And Dick Cheney was considered a war criminal who couldn't travel overseas.
TT: Bush never came back, and Cheney only returned a few times.
MS: I was sitting there at the tables when some of these decisions were made. There wasn't really an embrace of CPAC as a political force by George W. Bush. Karl Rove and the people advising the president didn't want to embrace it. That was a big difference when we got to Donald Trump.
The difference with that moment and our moment is that it's pretty clear what Joe Biden ran on. I don't agree with those things, but he has the ability now to press “play” on his agenda. I think some people are wondering, will you see more kind of pro-business [agenda] than the Bernie Sanders agenda that he agreed to? [Sanders had a role in shaping the Democratic platform, though Biden has not embraced many of his ideas.] I think we're seeing with the executive orders is he's going to go full tilt. He's got the right to do that, and we're going to see what the political consequences are.
TT: Not to obsess over 2009 too much, but a big message that year was the need to move on from George W. Bush, criticizing how much was spent when he was president. There's nobody here who wants to move on from Donald Trump, is there?
MS: I haven't counted the exact number, but we have over 100 speakers. We don't ask for people's remarks ahead of time. We have titles and themes to our conversations and speeches. It's a wide cross-section of a lot of Republican House members, a lot of Republican senators, and I don't know what they're all going to say. I imagine most would be very complimentary of what Donald Trump did as president, and I'm sure some will be less.
If you criticize them on spending, that's probably the one thing he never really promised that he would tackle. [In 2016, Trump constantly pledged to eliminate the debt by the end of a second term; it increased by nearly $8 trillion before he left office.] I don't think anybody, when they elected him, thought that he would get to be penurious with the budget. And he said he wasn't going to really spend much time on entitlement reform. So, you know, I think most Republicans are pretty pleased with the policy agenda.
TT: Are there any issues that used to be debated at CPAC that Trump has basically settled? For example, there were years of arguments about how Republican Party could only improve with Latinos if it reformed the immigration system and allowed some kind of amnesty. Trump did about as well as recent nominees with Latinos, even after opposing those policies, so I don't hear that anymore.
MS: It's a really good question. I was thinking the other day that when Donald Trump was elected, I was ambiguous on this idea. Do you really need to build a wall? I thought there were problems with immigration policy that were easily demagogued. I didn't understand what actually happens at the border. And although it was it was rough stuff to go through, a lot of us got a crash course in how chaotic the border actually is. Donald Trump won those arguments inside the party. These concepts were considered racist when they were brought up, and four years later, I think at least half the country, including a lot of union Democrats and a lot of diverse people, have come around to this point.
Let me get to the election, if you don't mind. Because I think this is important. I think that if you read the Time magazine article, and I think it has conspiracy in the title …
TT: You're talking about “the shadow campaign that saved the election?”
MS: Yes. Basically, the election's over, and everyone starts to brag. That's what's great about Washington. They say there was a secret campaign to “fortify” the election, all these people at the Chamber of Commerce and former Republicans. Now, I don't know what “fortify” means. It seems like an awfully strange word.
Our point is this: Is this the right way to elect a president? Democrats could say, of course, we want to do elections like this because we won. So we're going to do is simply soberly walk through the facts around what happened in these states, the myths and the realities from the people who are on the ground.
TT: How much of the conference is going to be, here is the conservative agenda of 2021 and 2022 and how much about the last election?
MS: We're going to go back and cover the facts that most people in the media canceled. They didn't want to even touch it. Matter of act, if you went on TV and tried to talk about it, they shouted you down. So we're going to talk about it because half the country wants to hear about it. I mean, I get calls from people all the time, like, is this true? Is that true? So we're going to walk through the facts and then the second thing we're going to do is talk about it all starts with the Constitution. I think most of what we'll spend time on is cancel culture and the Bill of Rights. Why do socialist Democrats not view it as something we ought to be ready to die for, and support like they used to? Cancel culture is just a cancer in our society. We have people that are on execution lists. We have people that are on lists that say they should never get a job again.
TT: An execution list? I haven't seen that.
MS: Maybe those voices are extreme and maybe that doesn't represent any kind of mainstream effort. But, to me, when you say someone is so terrible — I just looked it up the other day, Business Insider just came out with a new list of people who enabled Trump. Is the idea that you can hurt these people, harm these people, never have any association with these people? You know, I thought President Obama was a perfectly horrible president, but if I had the chance to work with an Obama person, I would do it. We've had Van Jones on our stage and we work with the left on criminal justice reform. Is that the only issue in the whole country that both sides can come together on?
TT: Some groups that sponsored in the past, like the NRA, aren't back this year. Some of them have said they're just taking this year off, but what's been the effect on the conference?
MS: Look, I don't think we've had any real drop-off in sponsorships at all. Every year we have a different collection of groups. Some have good years and they want to come in bigger, some have bad years and come in smaller. I do agree that for conservative groups generally, it's a very difficult time because now with cancel culture, you have everybody going after them. There's a real fear with some sort of corporate donors about getting tagged as being close to conservatism. And the great irony in that, of course, is that it's the conservative movement that animates the whole desire to have less regulation, less taxes and judges that don't make up laws. So I don't know where these people think they're going to go in the future if if there's no support for the voices that actually believe in less government regulation.
Catalina Lauf, “Catalina Lauf for Congress.” In 2020, Lauf's story of immigrant grit and conservative principles won her 20 percent of the vote in an Illinois congressional primary and a spot at the Republican National Convention. Lauf's now running in a different seat, the deep red 16th Congressional District represented by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who was drawing intraparty fire even before he voted in January to impeach Donald Trump. “The reality is that a majority of our party is united around the MAGA movement,” she says, accusing Kinzinger of caring about “his next MSNBC hit” instead of conservative issues. “Weak Republicans,” she says, are the reason Democrats are winning.
U.S. Chamber Action, “Let's Build.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce dug in against much of the last Democratic president's agenda, supporting the initial stimulus package then opposing the Affordable Care Act. It moved so much toward cooperation with Democrats last year that one GOP-aligned operative quit; it's currently supporting both the coronavirus relief bill and the embryonic effort to pass a separate infrastructure bill. Aimed at Kentucky, where both Republican senators probably will oppose a big spending package, the ad cites spending needs in the state and urges viewers to “tell Congress, pass an infrastructure bill by the Fourth of July.”
In the states
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has enjoyed remarkable political luck since his 2010 campaign for governor, winning three landslides as Democrats — often without his support — ended Republican control of the state Senate. He's now under more pressure than ever, with two scandals exploding his tensions with the party's left flank, and seeming to validate attacks from the GOP.
The scandals moved on different tracks. Cuomo, for months, was facing criticism for undercounting covid-19 deaths in nursing homes. Democrats had his back, while Republicans demanded federal investigations, and accused Cuomo's party of hypocrisy if it didn't agree. One federal investigation is underway. At the same time, a former aide is getting attention for sexual harassment claims she made against Cuomo for months and put together in a Medium post.
Cuomo has disputed some of Lindsay Boylan's allegations — aides have said they were there during a flight when she claimed Cuomo suggested a game of strip poker, and deny that he did so. But Boylan, who ran in a congressional primary last year against Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, has gotten a hearing from Cuomo critics, as reporters have dug into other allegations of Cuomo's bullying. And Republicans who had elevated the nursing home story are pressing their advantage, calling on Cuomo to resign and hinting that they could run against him.
“Cuomo has earned his title as Worst Governor in America, and now every New Yorker knows that he is a criminal sexual predator,” wrote Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who was cautious about Trump in 2016 but became one of his most reliable supporters in the House. “Cuomo must immediately resign. And any elected official who does not immediately call for his resignation is complicit.”
The governor hasn't actually been accused of a crime, and Stefanik had not taken the same approach to Trump, who has repeatedly been accused of sexual harassment and is currently facing a defamation lawsuit from a writer who accused him of rape.
But Republicans have been winless in every New York election, statewide, since 2006. If he runs, Cuomo would be seeking a fourth term, something his father Mario did to disastrous results. If he resigns, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a former member of Congress from the Buffalo area, would become the state's first female governor, and do so without an ideologically charged primary. (Hochul survived a 2018 primary challenge by just 7 points; the challenger, Jumaane D. Williams, is now New York City's public advocate.) That's a hypothetical scenario, but one that nobody was discussing before the past two weeks.
In Texas, the special election to replace the late Rep. Ron Wright has been scheduled for May 1. Candidates have until March 3 to file, and Wright’s widow Susan, a fellow former Hill aide, jumped into the race this week with more than 100 local endorsements.
“The taxpayers of the Sixth District deserve a proven conservative in Congress who will stand up for them and do whatever it takes to stop the radical left’s socialist government takeover,” she said in a statement.
Every candidate of every party will compete in the May 1 race, with a runoff coming later if no candidate clears 50 percent of the vote.
… 23 days until special House election primaries in Louisiana
… 103 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 117 days until New York City’s primary