The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) made one thing especially clear this week: This is former President Trump’s convention.
“I’m not at CPAC. I’m at TPAC,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio show host who served as the chairman in Virginia for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
“CPAC is long gone. The Trump forces, the America First movement and the populist movement, of which I’m a key member of and a protectionist, has hijacked CPAC. We own this convention.”
CPAC has long been a major event for conservatives of all stripes to gather and mingle with some of the most popular figures in the Republican Party. But this year’s event has underscored two realities: One, that the annual conference is drawing thinner crowds than it has in the past, as the auditorium where the major speeches was held was often half-full; and two, that most in attendance weren’t particularly interested in seeing party luminaries besides the 45th president.
Over the past few days, visitors and speakers alike have made clear their support for the former president, whether it was in the trademark red “Make America Great Again” hats and other pro-Trump attire seen among the crowds, or in the overwhelming presence of some of the former president’s biggest allies.
“[Trump] has a special magic, an energy, a coalition that excites people and welcomes people in,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told The Hill in a brief interview regarding his support for Trump’s 2024 presidency.
Of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Gaetz said he thought “very highly of him,” but that “selfishly, I want him to stay my governor for the full eight years that Floridians elected him for.”
Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), among the most vocal supporters of the former president in Congress, were also at CPAC, as was Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
“Don’t fall for the primary stuff. You have good and decent people: Gov. DeSantis, Mike Pompeo, [Sen] Tim Scott, you have Nikki Haley. That’s all fine,” Bannon told a raucous audience during his speech on Friday. “It’s not relevant. We don’t have time for on-the-job training for a man that gave us four years — four years of peace and prosperity.”
Bannon also used his speech to assail Fox News and the Murdochs, accusing them of avoiding coverage of Trump, which drew applause from the crowd.
Trump and DeSantis cutouts were on display at one booth in CPAC’s expo center on Thursday. When asked whether the group supported DeSantis, one of the attendees standing behind the booth said they would likely have to take down the DeSantis cutout if he announces a presidential bid.
Though some attendees expressed openness or a preference for other options for a GOP presidential pick, some of the speakers, including Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, received a lukewarm reception during their speeches. At one point, Haley was heckled by Trump supporters while taking photos with CPAC attendees.
“Trump’s a proven entity,” said Walt Davis, who serves as an at-large member of the Ohio State Board of Education. “We watched him over four years accomplish so many things. It’s a record that exists. He doesn’t have to promise anything.”
The event’s timing offered a split screen with the conservative group Club for Growth’s donor retreat in Florida, highlighting the divisions within the Republican Party.
DeSantis, who declined to take part in CPAC this year, attended the donor gathering in Florida. Former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R), South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) are also expected to attend. Haley is participating in both events, while Pompeo was unable to attend the donor retreat.
Some have attributed the absence of potential high-profile presidential candidates to the sexual assault allegations against CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp, who was accused of groping a male staffer who worked on Herschel Walker’s Georgia Senate campaign. The embattled chairman was seen by media row on Thursday and did not answer questions from a reporter about the allegations.
Some Republicans have pushed back on the notion that CPAC and Club for Growth are dueling events.
“There’s a bunch of donors down there, I think that’s great,” said former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “I wish we could all be here and split that so they can have their event and we can be here.”
“I hope next year we’re able to bifurcate these events,” he added.
Spicer said that while the former president is the “800-pound gorilla in the Republican Party,” the gathering at CPAC is not all about him.
“There’s no question he is the frontrunner, but this is not a Trump event,” Spicer said.
Other Republicans in attendance, including Michigan GOP Chair Kristina Karamo, who was not endorsed by Trump in her election, maintained her neutrality as a state party chair while emphasizing the importance of the former president’s role.
“I think he definitely has a strong influence. He was a fearless leader in the conservative movement, did a lot of great things for the country,” Karamo said. “The Make America Great Again movement, the America First movement is just a massive movement.”
Trump’s hold on the conservative summit will be tested in the straw poll taken on Saturday. Though many attendees and speakers have their eyes on Trump, some Republicans don’t see the former president as a shoo-in in the straw poll.
“MAGA, ultra MAGA, and America First often get used interchangeably, but they really are distinct constituencies. I’m not sure Donald Trump wins a majority in the straw poll. I think that’s the real question,” said GOP strategist Dennis Lennox, who has attended CPAC since 2007, said. “He probably wins the straw poll, but does he get a plurality? Does he get a majority? And then how big is the majority.”