Its impresario is facing allegations of sexual assault. Its headline act is a twice impeached former US president under criminal investigation. And its after-dinner speaker is a local news anchor turned far-right election denier.
Welcome to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which claims to be the biggest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world. It is also a perennial window to the soul of the Republican party.
After going on the road to Florida and Texas because of their more relaxed coronavirus pandemic restrictions, CPAC returns to the Washington area on Wednesday for the first time since 2020, offering a four-day festival of political incorrectness, Maga merchandise and Joe Biden-slamming bombast.
But this time the cavernous corridors of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, will fill with chatter about the Republican presidential primary in 2024 – and gossip about CPAC’s own organiser and public face, Matt Schlapp.
An unnamed Republican staffer has filed a lawsuit accusing Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, of groping his genitals as he drove Schlapp to a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, last October. The man, who is in his late 30s, is seeking nearly $9.4m in damages in a complaint that included screenshots of purported text messages.
Schlapp strenuously denies the allegation. Last month he tweeted a statement from lawyer Charlie Spies that said: “The complaint is false, and the Schlapp family is suffering unbearable pain and stress due to the false allegation from an anonymous individual.”
Schlapp, who was director of political affairs in the George W Bush White House, is an influential supporter of former president Donald Trump. His wife, Mercedes Schlapp, served as Trump’s communications director between 2017 and 2019. The lineup of CPAC speakers announced so far suggests that the Schlapps remain firmly in Trump’s camp as he campaigns to win back the presidency in 2024.
That lineup also includes Trump allies such as former housing secretary Ben Carson, senators Marsha Blackburn and Ted Cruz, representatives Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ronny Jackson, Jim Jordan, Scott Perry and Elise Stefanik, former White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, ex-White House press secretary Sean Spicer and Truth Social chief executive Devin Nunes.
Then there is Trump’s son, Don Jr, his fiancée Kimberly Guilfoyle – infamous for hollering “The best is yet to come!” at the 2020 Republican national convention – and the main event: a speech by Trump himself that will be akin to an indoor campaign rally.
It is a chorus that will try to make the case that reports of Trump losing his grip on the Republican base after seven years have been greatly exaggerated. But the 76-year-old celebrity businessman, whose electability has been questioned after last year’s midterms, will not have it all his own way.
CPAC will also hear from both of his officially declared Republican primary rivals in next year’s presidential race so far: Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state and potential candidate, will also speak. Each address will be closely analysed for veiled critiques of Trump – and for applause and cheers, boos and heckles, or polite indifference from the crowd.
Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist, believes that it would be a “massive mistake strategically” for hopefuls to tiptoe around Trump. “How do you expect to beat a guy if you’re not willing to talk about him directly and contrast yourself with him?” he said. “You’re not giving the voters a reason to change the channel.”
CPAC’s tweets mockingly point out that Nancy Pelosi, former speaker of the House of Representatives, and Joy Behar, a comedian and co-host of television’s The View, have not been invited to the conference. But a more striking absence, at least according to what has been announced so far, is Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, widely seen as the most credible threat to Trump.
Rick Wilson, who attended many CPACs before cofounding the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “DeSantis is not going: I think that’s because Schlapp, like many other Republicans, has made the probably correct calculus that Ron DeSantis is an overpriced stock and Donald Trump is still the best known quantity in the Republican party.”
Florida-based Wilson, who has met DeSantis in person and found him to have to the “charisma of a toaster oven”, argues that the current audience for the governor falls into three groups. “Culture war weirdos who believe this whole ‘woke’ thing, which is a meaningful but not enormous part of the party. National Review writers who are desperate, desperate, desperate, desperate, desperate for anything other than Trump so they can say, ‘See, we’re past that. We can go back to normal.’
“I have some bad news for them. Nobody’s ever inviting them back in the room in the Republican party of tomorrow, just as nobody’s ever inviting guys like me back in the room. It’s over. The party’s run by the mob, not by the intellectuals, and it’s never going to go back. Once a movement becomes a populist movement dominated by the grassroots of the base, it never goes back to being a thoughtful, intellectually driven movement.”
The third and final group, he added, “are liberal Republican hedge fund billionaires from New York. The open borders, globalist US Chamber of Commerce are going out of their way to help DeSantis! The irony is DeSantis thinks he can have the most elite support and then trick the Maga base into thinking he’s a rah-rah like Trump. It just defies imagination.”
CPAC traditionally ends with a less than scientific “straw poll” of attendees’ preferences for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump has dominated it for years. Last summer in Dallas, Texas, he won with 69% of the vote, ahead of DeSantis on 24%. Anything other than a victory for Trump next week would cause political shockwaves.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who estimates that he attended four of five CPACs, said: “Trump and DeSantis will be the number one and two in the poll. Haley and Pompeo and anybody else who might speak at CPAC right now has no shot, no chance, no nothing. It’s the party of Trumpism and Trumpism will be reflected in CPAC.”
Border security, crime, culture wars and parents’ rights are likely to feature prominently at the conference. CPAC’s Twitter bio has the hashtags “#AwakeNotWoke” and “#FirePelosiSaveAmerica” - an outdated reference to the retired House speaker. CPAC’s website promotes a documentary entitled The Culture Killers with the warning: “The woke wars are coming to a neighborhood near you.”
CPAC will also give the biggest platform yet to growing dissent in the nativist wing of the Republican party over US support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, roughly $50bn and rising. Biden is likely to face criticism for having travelled to Kyiv in the same week that Trump headed to the scene of a toxic train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.
A group of Trump-aligned Republicans led by Gaetz recently introduced a “Ukraine fatigue” resolution calling for an end to military and financial aid to the embattled nation. Greene tweeted this week, “Ukraine is the new Iraq”, while DeSantis condemned the aid as an “open-ended blank cheque”, telling Fox News: “The fear of Russia going into Nato countries and all that, and steamrolling, that has not even come close to happening.”
Walsh predicted: “You’ll hear anti-support for Ukraine, pro-Russia, pro-Putin, take care of our borders. You’ll hear that isolationist build-a-wall-around-America attitude at CPAC because that is an animating force now in the party. I doubt Nikki Haley, who is not an isolationist, will even talk about Ukraine, because that’s not what the people in that auditorium want to hear.”
Ronald Reagan spoke at the first CPAC in 1974 and towered over it for years. A showpiece dinner is named in the 40th president’s honour, though it might be argued that CPAC has drifted far from his views on immigration, Russia and the definition of conservatism itself. This year Kari Lake, a former TV host who ran for governor of Arizona last year and still refuses to accept her defeat, is the featured speaker at the Reagan dinner.
Bardella, who attended CPAC when he was previously a Republican congressional aide, said: “I remember a CPAC that had keynotes from figures like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty and Paul Ryan. Now we’re seeing figures like Donald Trump and Sean Spicer and, in the past, Steve Bannon.
“CPAC at one point in time thought of itself as the establishment conservative cattle call for presidential candidates and now it’s become completely overrun by the extremists and the fringe who are the new establishment of the Republican party. There was a time where someone with the last name Cheney would be welcomed as a hero at an event like CPAC. Now someone with the last name Cheney is considered an enemy of the Republican party.”
Another familiar CPAC staple is an exhibitors’ hall where conservative groups promote their work, sell books and seek recruits. Ronald Solomon, president of the Maga Mall, a clothing and merchandising company, will be there as always. Speaking from his home near Palm Beach, Florida, he said his range contains about a hundred Trump or Trump-related hats, compared to around eight for DeSantis.
“After that lacklustre midterm he waned a little bit but now the popularity is coming back,” he said. “I am convinced that Trump will be the nominee.”