Politico

A top MAGA gathering finds life complicated after Trump


One of the premier MAGA gatherings in the nation is struggling to recreate the magic this year.

For decades, the Conservative Political Action Conference has been a staple of Republican politics. In recent years, the conservative confab has been the go-to stop for rising GOP stars, grassroots organizers and luminaries in the Trump movement.

But President Donald Trump’s election loss has created hurdles around programming and guest booking. Stringent coronavirus guidelines in Maryland have pushed the conference outside of the Washington, D.C. area for the first time in nearly 50 years. Previous sponsors aren’t yet committed or have decided to forgo sponsorship entirely due to changes to the event’s format or disappointment in the return on their investment last year. And the president that attendees adored so much may not show up to the event at all.

Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller said that Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago abode is less than 2.5 hours away from the Orlando hotel where this year’s conference will occur on Feb. 25-28, is not currently scheduled to make an appearance. Meanwhile, a senior American Conservative Union official would not answer whether Vice President Mike Pence, who drew MAGA world’s ire for certifying Joe Biden’s election, had been invited to speak at this year’s conference. A spokesperson for the former vice president did not respond to a request in time for publication.

ACU chairman Matt Schlapp said he is convinced this year’s conference will be no different from past years. “CPAC is going great,” he told POLITICO on Tuesday, before then saying that his quote needed to be attributed without his name. Schlapp did not address questions about why some sponsors were not continuing their CPAC sponsorship. But after those questions were posed and additional questions were sent to CPAC sponsors — including whether the Jan. 6 Capitol riots impacted their thinking about sponsoring again this year — ACU General Counsel David Safavian accused POLITICO of “tortious interference with business relationships” and attempting “to ‘cancel’ both CPAC and the American Conservative Union itself.” The group then tweeted a copy of a letter from Safavian that included a litigation threat.

“We fully intend to explore our legal rights to hold Politico fully accountable for what we see as tortious conduct,” the letter stated.

How well CPAC goes this year will provide one of the first public indications about the health of the MAGA movement with Trump out of office and with the Republican Party divided over just how loyal to the former president it should be.

One year ago, CPAC was in a far different place. The 2020 gathering was, for a brief moment, a crowning achievement for the conference’s organizer, Schlapp. Delivering a 90-minute, chest-beating victory speech, Trump showed up to hype his survival of his first impeachment. Pence came as well. Indeed, more than 30 Trump aides and officials in all spoke at the conference, ranging from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to senior White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

But within days, the appearances were overshadowed by news that an attendee who’d been in direct contact with Schlapp had tested positive for Covid-19. Organizers were forced to warn nearly 100 conference-goers of potential exposure and the president’s chief of staff went into self-quarantine, though only one actual case ended up being traced to the event.

The pandemic is even more of a complicating issue this year, compelling Schlapp to move the event to Florida precisely because there are fewer restrictions on such gatherings in that state. Whether guest speakers will follow him down there will determine much of the conference’s success.

A full agenda and list of speakers will be posted two to three weeks before the conference begins, according to the CPAC website, but several past speakers contacted by POLITICO said they were still deciding whether to attend given the added distance and the possibility that Congress could be in the middle of negotiating another coronavirus relief package in late February. An aide to Donald Trump Jr. said he would “probably” attend the conference, as he has done in past years, but that it was not currently on his schedule.

CPAC organizers did announce three speakers for the upcoming conference after POLITICO began inquiring about the lineup. In separate tweets on Tuesday from the @CPAC2021 Twitter account, it was revealed that former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell, former Deputy White House National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a rumored 2024 hopeful, would all deliver remarks at the conference next month. No other speakers have been publicly announced as of the time this article was published.

For those planning this year’s CPAC, the main questions are not just whether Trump will be there, but how much his presidency and future should dominate the proceedings. Members of the planning committee began meeting virtually in November, after the 2020 election, and were expected to convene at least five times before the conference begins.

“Do we pull the Nancy Pelosi option and try to expunge Trump from public life or do we try to build on the movement he created and make it tenable? It’s messy,” said a person involved in the CPAC planning process.

So far, this person said, this year’s theme is expected to focus on the fundamentals of conservatism as opposed to any individual political figure — borrowing a page from the Obama years when conservatives lacked an ally in the White House. Topics are likely to include the rule of law, protecting the legislative filibuster and the current structure of the Supreme Court, and defending the Electoral College, among others.

As for this year’s sponsors, some of whom spent as much as $250,000 in past years for exclusive benefits and branding opportunities, several said they were still evaluating the benefits or had decided not to sponsor at all due to mediocre returns on the investment or changes to the conference structure. Gryphon Editions operations manager Michael Hawkins said his company did not plan to sponsor the conference this year after being informed that the CPAC bookstore, which has been set up for attendees in past years, would no longer be available due to Covid-19 precautions.

“They don’t want everybody huddling around,” Hawkins said.

Laura Merriott, president of the anti-abortion nonprofit Save Unborn Life, said her group “didn’t get much response [from] donors last time” after paying between $1,000-$3,000 for a sponsorship and creating a pop-up exhibition.

“It doesn’t pay for itself when you go and set up and you don’t get” enough new donors to make it worthwhile, she said.

Other past sponsors — including the Washington Examiner, Republican National Committee, Turning Point USA, Heartland Institute and Save our States — said they had yet to make a decision as of last week about sponsoring again. Gerrit Lansing, president of the GOP fundraising platform WinRed, said his company would forgo a sponsorship this year, unlike last year, because they “don’t need to” be a sponsor.

“I didn’t even know they were having a CPAC this year,” he added in a text message.

Three previous sponsors who responded to POLITICO inquiries — the Heritage Foundation, Fox Nation and Let Them Live — do plan to return as sponsors this year. “It’s a great venue for us to reach potential donors and supporters,” said Let Them Live executive director Nathan Berning. Twenty-five other sponsors who sponsored CPAC last year did not respond to requests for comment on if they will sponsor again this year, while two additional sponsors were unable to be reached.

Besides canceling its bookstore, where speakers and up-and-coming conservative personalities at past conferences could sell their latest books to fans, it is unclear if CPAC organizers plan to implement further restrictions to protect attendees of this year’s conference from contracting Covid-19.

The Orlando Hyatt Regency, where the conference will be held, requires guests to wear protective face coverings inside the complex, but neither the hotel nor conference organizers specified whether social distancing practices would be implemented or an attendee cap imposed. According to its website, the Florida Department of Health currently encourages people in the state “to avoid congregating in groups larger than 10.”

Meridith McGraw and Tina Nguyen contributed reporting.

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