GOP fractures were thrown into sharp relief at this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), with Republican strategists and activists simultaneously lamenting and praising the transformation of a once-important event.
Party operatives who spoke to ABC News lamented the transformation of the annual conservative event from a headquarters for broad debate into an office seemingly hostile to ideas that diverge from former President Donald Trump’s “America First” populism. But conference attendees, decked out in “Make America Great Again” hats and Trump paraphernalia, were content with the convention’s narrow focus — and, in some cases, willing to tone it down further.
“It’s a broad cross-section, but that’s kind of bad, you almost don’t want it,” said Joe Walters, a 24-year-old participant from Westchester County, New York, arguing that the “establishment” had “turned the talking points into something that can be heard more Trumpian”.
“I wish he was more Trump in some sense.”
Founded in 1974, CPAC became known as the “Woodstock for conservatives,” attracting a wide range of Republican activists and lawmakers trying to climb the political ladder, including Ronald Reagan, who debuted his vision of the “city on a hill” at the opening. conference.
And while CPAC often followed emerging grassroots attitudes, it regularly featured speakers from across the Republican spectrum. However, the conference in recent years began to shun those who did not support the populism that has swept the base since Trump’s 2016 campaign.
That trend was on display at this year’s convention, with several potential presidential candidates choosing not to even come, and a hostile reception awaiting those who did.
Prospective candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, South Dakota Gov. Christy Noem and others have chosen to bide their time elsewhere — including , some, at a donor retreat in Florida hosted by the anti-tax Caucus for Growth, a powerful group embroiled in a feud with Trump.
And while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who launched her presidential campaign last month, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is actively considering a campaign, made the trip, they were met with only lukewarm applause during of their phenomenon. full of speeches.
After leaving the ballroom after her speech, Haley was met by attendees chanting Trump’s name before aides escorted her away.
“Ten years ago, it was an opportunity to test your messages on conservative leaders and influencers across the country and have a large audience get to know you from the podium and everything else that was included. And I don’t think that’s where is today. I think it’s a tight, small scene,” said an aide to a potential 2024 candidate. “I think the last time I was there, it almost felt like a college crowd rather than a crowd of serious thinkers.”
“As someone who has been involved in the movement for 20-plus years, it’s sad because it used to be the premier event for conservatives to come together.”
When asked if they thought CPAC could expand its focus to the broader GOP scene rather than one scene, the person was pessimistic.
“I think there are a lot of people hoping for that. But there’s going to have to be a wholesale change there, and I don’t see that coming anytime soon,” the source said. “Sometimes you just need to do a hard reset.”
At CPAC, however, such a “reset” seemed unlikely.
Trump’s footprint at the party was evident at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington, with a mock-up of his Oval Office set up and clothing racks in the convention store and allies like Steve Bannon holding court in the hallways. .
And while years ago, conspiracy theorists were kept away from the event, this year Kari Lake, the 2022 Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate who attributes her narrow loss to widespread voter fraud, has been tapped to keynote at this year’s dinner by Ronald Reagan.
“I felt like after this week at CPAC, with all the patriots we’ve seen come out on stage, we have this fire stirring in our bellies. We have this DNA rising in us — this founding father stuff patriots — and we’re ready to go out there and fight these people,” he said.
When more than a dozen conventioneers were asked by ABC News who they planned to vote for in the 2024 GOP primary, all but one said they supported Trump, with the lone dissenter saying he planned to vote for DeSantis.
“Trump forever. It’s always Trump first before anybody else,” said Adam Radonya, a 33-year-old small business owner from Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m sick of hearing all these other candidates. It’s always Trump unless he’s not there.”
And when asked if they’d like to see other would-be candidates speak at CPAC, some scoffed at the prospect of the likes of Pence addressing the MAGA faithful.
“They’re going to make fun of him. No, nobody wants Pence,” said Melissa LoCurto, a Long Island realtor, citing Pence’s refusal to overturn Trump’s loss in 2020. “I’m glad he’s not here. I’m not a supporter .”
The event represents a powerful reality check as the 2024 primaries begin.
Speculation outside the halls of CPAC has gripped Trump’s continued dominance of the GOP, with strategists predicting a competitive nominating contest while conceding that the former president remains the front-runner.
But this year’s convention underscored the fact that the former president retains solid support among a segment of the GOP base, as highlighted by this year’s straw poll results.
“It feels like MAGA country,” Donald Trump Jr. said in his speech on Friday.
In the famed CPAC poll, 62 percent of respondents said they want to see Trump as the GOP nominee in 2024, while DeSantis, considered the former president’s toughest opponent, came in second with 20 percent.
And in his speech, Trump struck a defiant tone, indicating that he will try to take out any opponent, Democrat or Republican, and “throw out the political class that hates our country.”
“We’re going to crack down on the fake media, expose and properly deal with the RINOs,” he said, using the Republican slur in name only. “We’re going to kick Joe Biden out of the White House. And we’re going to rid America of these crooks and crooks once and for all.”
With Trump’s influence at CPAC, even attendees looking for alternatives to the former president in the next election sounded dubious.
“I haven’t talked to anyone who is a DeSantis supporter. I’ve only really seen Trump people,” said Ben Kelley, a 23-year-old DeSantis supporter. “Maybe if I ask around, there will be more about DeSantis.”