Republican politicians, media personalities and activists are gathering this weekend in Florida for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, an event that could offer an early window into the party’s 2024 presidential contest while also amplifying false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Former President Donald Trump will be the star of the show in Orlando, delivering a Sunday afternoon speech – one in which he is expected to continue to falsely claim that the presidential election was stolen – that will mark his first public comments since leaving the White House.
But starting Friday, a medley of potential 2024 presidential candidates are also looking for breakout moments that will launch them toward stardom. Their speeches will serve as a gauge of the conservative base’s feelings about them as they begin to position themselves for possible runs.
“The race for 2024 will start at CPAC,” said American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, a chief organizer for CPAC.
The lineup includes some of Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, including Florida Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. And it includes several of his strongest supporters from the states: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
It also features several veterans of Trump’s administration, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, former housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor of Arkansas with Trump’s endorsement. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend and Trump campaign aide Kimberly Guilfoyle are also speaking.
Not on the list of speakers: Trump’s intra-party critics such as Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Also not appearing are former Vice President Mike Pence, who turned down an invite, and Nikki Haley, Trump’s former United Nations ambassador who now finds herself isolated after tempered criticism of Trump.
Schlapp said Haley had initially signaled she would address the conference but later backed out of an appearance. Haley did not respond to a request for comment.
This year’s CPAC is certain to demonstrate Trump’s firm hold of the GOP – and the conservative base’s eagerness to turn Trump’s falsehoods about election fraud into policy action, as several state legislatures move to impose new voting restrictions. Seven panels or speeches at the conference are taking place under the title of protecting elections.
The events appear to be little more than forums to advance unfounded Trump-world allegations that the election was stolen by President Joe Biden. Those accusations were rejected by Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, as well as dozens of court decisions, in some cases involving Trump-appointed judges.
Schlapp acknowledged that much of the conference will be devoted to Trump’s claims about the election. He said it would be “better” if conference participants also focused on Biden’s agenda, though.
“My thinking is it’s fine to go through the atrocities” of the past election, Schlapp said. “But better to rally folks to stop Biden policies.”
The event’s theme is “America Uncanceled,” a title that underscores another focus: “cancel culture,” or conservatives’ belief – amplified since Twitter and other social media platforms banned Trump in the wake of the deadly January 6 insurrection – that expressing their views has placed them at risk of backlash.
What Trump will say
Trump’s CPAC speech Sunday afternoon will serve as his resurgence into the political world, and according to a source familiar with his plans, it is not finished, with advisers still weighing in on how to make the most lasting impact.
Some within Trump’s circle are advising the former President to focus on 2022 and winning majorities of the House and Senate, which are both now controlled by Democrats. However, Trump and those who have pushed his anti-establishment agenda are instead considering a message without undertones of Republican Party unity that takes aim at Trump’s intra-party critics, the source said.
“We are going to war … but not physically,” this source said in describing the sentiment. “It’s primary season, and it’s open season.”
But ultimately, those around him know that the speech that Trump gives Sunday will depend on what he decides he wants to say when he arrives at CPAC, despite what might be on paper in front of him.
Trump is also likely to continue his lies about election fraud.
“In the context of needed election reforms, yes,” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said about the former President’s plans for Sunday’s address.
Trump has spent the last several days in meetings at Mar-a-Lago with Republicans who are clamoring to assure him of their allegiance.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, former Trump Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Miller have all been spotted at the former President’s Florida residence over the past week.
Many of Trump’s meetings have focused on his political future – including his strategy going into the 2022 midterms and planning around “if” he runs for president again, the source said. While Trump continues to flirt with a 2024 bid, his focus now is on payback against those he believes crossed him. His advisers are in the process of identifying pro-Trump candidates to challenge Republican state officials in Georgia, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach the former President, and others.
While Trump continues to take meetings, the source said his inner circle is smaller than in the past – noting that Trump still feels betrayed by those who did not support his lies about election fraud and did not back him after the January 6 riot at the Capitol that Trump instigated with a speech encouraging angry supporters to march there.
One of the ex-President’s former advisers questioned CPAC’s decision to welcome Trump back into the spotlight. It may be helpful for Trump to return to the stage as he attempts to solidify the Republican Party and eyes a comeback run for the White House in 2024. Still, the adviser argued, Trump’s return is a setback for the GOP.
“For him, yes. Bad for the party,” the adviser said, adding that it’s in Trump’s nature to continue to peddle his baseless election claims.
“He always faces zero consequences for his actions,” the adviser said. “Why change now?”
Why CPAC matters
Since 1974, CPAC has grown from a small gathering of a few hundred conservative activists to one of the largest annual political events in the country, regularly drawing thousands of attendees and speeches from top Republican politicians.
For the first time in its nearly 50-year history, CPAC will be held outside of the Washington, DC, area in Orlando. Florida has emerged not just as a reliable red state but is the home to Trump and two other important conservative figures: DeSantis and Scott, both of whom will have high-profile speaking roles on the conference’s main stage.
Interspersed with policy panels and breakout sessions for activists, the main-stage speeches at CPAC offer ambitious Republicans the opportunity to speak directly to the conservative faithful. Ronald Reagan spoke at 13 total CPACs, including the very first meeting six years before he became the Republican nominee for president.
Since Reagan, every GOP nominee has spoken at least once to CPAC – including those with strained relationships to the conservative movement, like George H.W. Bush and John McCain. The confab can give Republican hopefuls a chance to make a first impression or change their perception with the activist base of the party.
In 2000, George W. Bush made his first appearance at CPAC, winning over the crowd with a speech criticizing outgoing President Bill Clinton while on his way to winning the GOP nomination and then the presidency later that year. Twelve years later, during his own successful bid to be the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney touted to the CPAC crowd his “severely conservative” record as Massachusetts governor.
One key feature of most CPACs is the presidential straw poll, an informal and nonscientific survey of attendees that can be a bellwether for the party – or, more often, a show of organizing strength. While Romney won four CPAC straw polls between 2007 and 2012, Trump won none of the four pre-2016 straw polls before his own nomination.
Trump’s own political career within the Republican party began in part at CPAC. He made his first appearance there in 2011, introduced by the event’s director Lisa de Pasquale as someone who was “thinking about tossing his hat into the ring” for the 2012 GOP nomination.
“These are my people,” Trump said as the crowd cheered. “This is beautiful.”
Trump would not actually run until the next cycle, but his speech in 2011 had all the hallmarks of his 2016 campaign and term in office. He criticized the United States for being the “laughingstock of the world” and claimed that the leaders of other countries were taking advantage of America. Trump stated he was “pro-life” and against gun control, Obamacare and raising taxes. Jumping among the day’s news items – high gas prices, the sale of the New York Stock Exchange to a German company, the Somali pirate attacks – Trump boasted he would be able to handle it much better than the current leaders.
“How about the Somali pirates?” Trump said. “How simple would that be? Give me one good admiral and a couple of good ships, we’d blast them out of the water so fast.”
He even antagonized some of the crowd, telling a vocal group of Ron Paul supporters in the audience that the libertarian Texas congressman “cannot get elected.”
Trump would return to CPAC in 2013, 2014 and 2015 – always drawing large audiences thanks to his celebrity and his ability to speak the populist language of the activist crowd. He became a big donor to the American Conservative Union, the organization behind CPAC. Trump also spoke at the conference every year of his presidency.
Ironically 2016, the year he won the Republican nomination, was the last time Trump did not appear at CPAC. In the midst of the GOP primary season, Trump backed out of his CPAC slot that year after some activists accused the CPAC organizers of being too close with him. Instead, he stuck to the campaign trail, including attending a massive rally in Orlando.
Five years later, CPAC is coming to Orlando, practically in Trump’s backyard. While a number of would-be presidential candidates for 2024 will use the opportunity to make a splash, their speeches will all be the warm-up act for Trump’s big address on Sunday.