An Underwhelming First Day at CPAC

CPAC was noticeably lacking the crowds of years past on March 2, 2023.

Perhaps organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference haven’t liked the coverage of their event this year, or perhaps the event is in as much disarray as those news reports say, but whatever the case, CPAC appears eager to keep critical media out, relegating reporters to a corner of the ballroom from which they can’t see the stage and denying others credentials.

But that hasn’t stopped reporters in attendance from seeing what’s going on: CPAC is underwhelming this year.

Thursday saw no side panels, or activism boot camps. Likely GOP presidential candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence are skipping the event. Senate and House GOP leadership are noticeably absent, save Rep. Elise Stefanik.

Of course, CPAC still has a few big names in GOP politics who, in taking the stage Thursday, showed just how far to the right the party has gone. The day started with Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the House Judiciary committee, discussing how he’s going to use the power of the committee to possibly impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. Freedom Caucus Reps. Scott Perry and Ralph Norman bragged about their caucus’ ability to wreak havoc on Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to the speakership. Sens. Ted Cruz and J.D. Vance trashed Merrick Garland as the most “partisan” and “politicized” attorney general in United States history—a laughable claim that is par for the course here, along with the trans-bashing and Fauci booing. But what is most noticeable is what is missing.

Even with various prominent Republican politicians in attendance, the back half of the main ballroom is empty, and the front’s enthusiasm is muted. Gone are the hundreds of libertarian-inclined college students traditionally known for filling CPAC’s hallways. Ticket sales have lagged and premium package holders from past years remain unregistered, according to The Washington Post.

Like usual, Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, the group behind CPAC, is on stage at regular intervals, but the sexual assault allegation against him hangs in the air. In January, The Daily Beast reported that a staffer on Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign who was put in charge of chauffeuring the conservative activist says that Schlapp groped him while he was driving and invited him back to his room. Schlapp denies the allegations and blames “fake journalists… pushing this leftist agenda and lying.” But the allegations seem to be sticking around, as are questions about his influence waning, with even Fox News pulling out of the event.

But it’s not just Schlapp that’s causing CPAC problems. It’s Trump. Under Schlapp’s leadership, CPAC turned into Trump’s circus, and as Trump has lost some of his luster among Republicans, so too has the convention.

Across the river in Washington, D.C., a group of conservatives are holding an alternative to CPAC, called Principles First, with its organizer noting that “When CPAC convenes this weekend, you’ll sooner find a golden statue of Trump than a conservative principle.” And in Florida, both DeSantis and Pence are set to attend a closed-door donor retreat held by The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax behemoth that spent $150 million the last two election cycles. Noticeably absent from their invite list of potential GOP presidential candidates is Trump.

Schlapp briefly acknowledged Thursday that elected officials were skipping out this year’s CPAC. He said that he’s heard from people that “It’s really hard that at CPAC you don’t have every elected official.” But he said it didn’t matter. “You’re going to solve the problems in this country,” he told the half empty ballroom.

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