National Harbour, Maryland: The conference room was half empty. The speakers were fuelled by longstanding grievances. And in corridors lined with Donald Trump merchandise and American flags, a proxy battle over the future of the Republican Party was playing out in real time.
Once regarded as a premier event on the Republican calendar, the Conservative Political Action Conference has traditionally been a good barometer of the party’s base and a presidential testing ground for would-be candidates to raise their profiles.
Hats supporting former US President Donald Trump for sale at the Conservative Political Action Conference.Credit:Bloomberg
But this year, some of Trump’s biggest rivals – such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence – decided to skip the three-day summit, highlighting the deepening divisions within the GOP over its ties to the former president.
Others, such as Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, showed up to make their pitch, only to be heckled with chants of “We Love Trump” as she obliged supporters who asked for selfies and autographs after her speech.
Trump will headline CPAC on Saturday (Sunday AEDT) at the Gaylord National Convention Centre in Maryland, just outside Washington DC, in what will be one of his biggest public addresses since he announced his campaign for the 2024 presidential nomination in November.
“I can’t wait to see him,” said Paul Colecornwell, who travelled from Texas with family and friends, all of who were wearing yellow t-shirts with red letters spelling out Trump’s name.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference,Credit:AP
“I just really like his ambition. He’s not scared of what he says – he’s just here to get things done.”
But while CPAC has long been the Trump show, low crowd numbers or a poor result at Saturday’s annual straw poll – which asks attendees who they want as their next president – will fuel suggestions that his influence within the party is waning.
At last year’s CPAC in Florida, Trump beat DeSantis in the poll with 59 per cent of the vote to 28 per cent, and slightly widened the gap at CPAC in Texas last August, 64 to 24 per cent. A significant drop in support would be yet another blow to the former president in his campaign for re-election.
Posing for selfies with fans outside the main stage, Trump’s son, Don Jnr, seemed to be aware of what was at stake.
Paul Colecornwell with his mum and girlfriend at CPAC.Credit:Farrah Tomazin
“Make sure you vote in the straw poll tomorrow,” he told a group of women wearing Trump’s trademark red MAGA caps.
Asked by The Sydney Morning and The Age if he was confident his father could clinch the Republican nomination, Trump Jnr replied: “I’m pretty confident” before taking a veiled swipe at DeSantis, who was at a donor event in Florida, run by conservative anti-tax Club For Growth.
“You can look around here and see people are pretty engaged,” he said. “They understand there’s only one guy who doesn’t need the corporate money and the establishment money. And the person who doesn’t need that money is the only person who is not ultimately beholden to those (donors) and can actually work for the people – and that’s what matters.”
CPAC was once a platform for conservatives to discuss serious issues such as taxes or economic policy. Every year, thousands of conservatives would attend the event, paying between $US300 ($443) to $US3000 ($4430) for a ticket, which allowed them to rub shoulders with the who’s who of the Republican Party.
Donald Trump JnrCredit:Bloomberg
But these days, it feels like more of a fringe festival of Trump loyalists and ultra conservatives, many of whom espouse his nationalist views and the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
UK Brexit leader Nigel Farage – a regular on the CPAC circuit – used his speech to describe Australia as “one of the wokest places on earth” and applauded the resignation of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern as “a bit of good news” for the region.
Far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene called for the US to stop funding weapons to Ukraine and accused transgender activist of targeting children.
Donald Trump Jnr mocked Democratic Senator John Fetterman – who suffered a stroke and is now in hospital for depression – by calling him a “vegetable”.
And MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, an election denier, called for the US to get rid of electronic voting machines before the nation ended up “being a Venezuela, a Brazil, or Australia.”
“They’ll take our country with computers!” he told reporters as he walked around the convention centre on Friday morning.
Nonetheless, Trump’s hold on the base of the party is undeniable, which will prompt widespread scrutiny on Saturday as he takes to the stage.
Research released last month by conservative pollster Whit Ayres found 28 per cent of the party’s primary voters were still so loyal to Trump that they would back him even if he ran for the White House against Republican and Democratic nominees.
And yet, among the party’s establishment, Trump is a significantly diminished figure after many of his midterm election candidates failed to win seats in November, resulting in the former president being blamed for the expected Republican “red wave” failing to materialise.
Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo – who is also considering running for the presidential nomination – highlighted the party’s lacklustre result during his speech, telling the crowd: “We lost race after winnable race. It’s because voters didn’t trust us to do any better than the tax-and-spend liberals.”
Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador, also lamented the result, as she called for regeneration change and cognitive tests for presidents and politicians over 75 years of age. That would include Trump, who is 76, and Joe Biden, who is 80.
“If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation,” the 51-year-old former governor said to lukewarm applause. “And if you want to win — not just as a party, but as a country — then stand with me.”
The Republicans’ poor showing at the US midterms did not appear to faze the crowds who turned up on Friday (US time) to listen to speeches, rub shoulders with their conservative heroes or attend seminars with titles such as “Taking on the Swamp”; “Open Borders Kill” and “The Biden Crime Family”.
Nor did the fact that there were notable absences, including potential presidential aspirants such as South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. As for Trump’s biggest rival, Ron DeSantis?
“He’s a great governor, but I’m not sure he’s ready to be president,” said Florida resident Bill Duffy. “I’ve loved Donald Trump since he ran in 2016, I believe he’s still our leader – and I think he can win.”
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