National Harbor, MD — As this past weekend drew to a close, so did CPAC, the largest gathering of conservative activists in the nation, but between the booing of Jeb Bush, panelists faking heart attacks on stage, and a man dressed from the 18th century, the conference is far from ordinary. And there was free stuff. Oh, was there free stuff.
CPAC, more formally known as The Conservative Political Action Conference, is the annual conference offering conservative candidates, supporters, and activists an opportunity to come together to network and prepare for future election cycles. With over 10,000 participants, this American Conservative Union-sponsored event draws activists from all stripes and colors. Yet the most significant aspect of CPAC is perhaps not its networking capabilities, but its famous presidential preference straw poll, acting as one of the earliest events to usher in the election season.
Expect the day to be dominated by free speech and free gifts. Speeches are a vital cornerstone of the CPAC experience, starting early in the morning and continuing into the evening. Conservative, and sometimes not so conservative, icons make up the schedule, with some speaking alone and others as part of a larger panel. Popular topics of the conference included the dangers of common core, promoting a strong military presence, ending the IRS, and stopping “Obamacare”, though many disagreed on a number of issues. Speakers ranging from England’s United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage to Hewitt Packard CEO Carly Fiorina take the stage, offering attendees an opportunity to hear from people they would otherwise never have the chance.
But if the large halls aren’t your scene, off to the side are smaller, more intimate rooms, giving attendees an opportunity to hear other speakers discuss specific issues and pet projects. Panelists range from former New Mexico Governor and 2012 Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Gary Johnson to former Speaker and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, and unlike some of those in the main hall, discussion can get even fierier, depending on who’s getting to ask the questions.
Downstairs is “The Hub”, the name given to the loft-like room directly beneath the speaking halls. The Hub serves as a “farmer’s market” of conservative political ideology, with booths advocating for a plethora of hot button issues and an almost endless supply of free swag. Issues are as diverse and varied as the crowd in attendance, and as it often goes with such diversity, booths tend to overlap in message as they try to redefine conservatism.
One such group was the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, or informally the TFP. A representative of the TFP explained that they are a lay Catholic men’s organization who have been sponsors of CPAC for “over 20 years”, and are seeking to defend traditional marriage, private property and enterprise, and Christ’s honor. Taking a moment from gathering signatures for a worldwide petition to encourage Pope Francis to take more conservative positions in the Catholic Church, he explained that even in the ever-increasing social libertarian CPAC crowd “it has been a good turnout [and] we’ve had a pretty supportive crowd.”
The Our America Initiative, an organization started by fmr. Governor Gary Johnson was another group in attendance and would be one seen as contrary to the TFP. While many preach for general conservative issues or the restoration of the Republican Party, Our America’s booth is filled with Libertarian Party paraphernalia, bumper stickers, and quite a few pictures of Johnson’s face. Speaking with members of the booth, they expressed skepticism of the de facto liberty movement head, Rand Paul, the importance of libertarianizing social issues, as well as the necessity of ballot access reform.
You might think you’ve seen it all, but the party doesn’t stop when the speakers leave for the day. Outside of the Gaylord Convention Center, attendees young and old flock to the many bars, clubs, and restaurants to mingle. CPAC has become progressively younger throughout the years, so the club scene has become increasingly more popular, with attendees in jackets thrown over club attire being something appearing on the internet’s comical “CPAC bingo sheets” in the past.
But conservative activists aren’t the only ones showing up at night anymore. Sometimes so do the candidates, as was seen with Kentucky Senator, and possible presidential hopeful, Rand Paul, who came out to conduct an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity at a bar down the street from the convention center. Hannity, picking up on the scene, even jokingly said that he would open a tab and “fireballs were on him.”
As it goes, with such a large and diverse breed of activists now attending CPAC, emotions can run high. Most of the time, such instances are minor and just the occasional firebrand in the panel audience or the main hallway, but sometimes they get noticed, such as when Rand Paul’s supporters conducted a mass walkout on Jeb Bush during his speech. For the most part, things remain relatively calm and activists instead fight it out with who has the most colorful team pride. Sometimes, supporters give the word “colorful” a whole new meaning.
Abigail, a bubbly young girl with bright purple tips in her hair, represents some of the diversity that can be seen in attendance at CPAC. “Rand is the reason I’m here”, she said, proudly sporting the equally bright “Stand With Rand” shirt associated with his supporters. “He’s my choice candidate because he’s a real supporter of the Constitution. No other candidate seems that genuine.”
In contrast to Abigail, Ryan, a young man with a large sticker on his jacket reading “Jeb! 2016” sees things a little differently. When asked why he thinks Jeb is a decent candidate, Ryan actually referenced his positions, something putting him at odds with a lot of his peers, saying “It’s admirable that he has a differing position and is not following talking points. He has flexibility [and] an independent streak.”
When asked about comparing him to his brother, Ryan was quick to dismiss any concerns. “He’s more conservative than [his brother]”, adding “look at his record as Governor of Florida”.
As for why others continue to attack Jeb Bush, Ryan expressed little concern. “There’s a candidate overload right now, and Jeb is the frontrunner, so it’s expected that he will be a target of everyone”, he explained.
Ben, a journalism student attending a Newt Gingrich panel, was another interesting stripe of activists in attendance. When asked which candidates he supported, Ben said he was a fan of both Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the latter being someone who has been heavily criticized for his stances in the party. When asked how he could be a fan of both candidates, he cited Paul’s sensitivities to the people of Westchester County, Yonkers, the Bronx, and other such locations.
“I’m Jewish and where I’m from there’s a lot of racial profiling”, Ben said. [Paul] is in touch with reality, [and] goes where poor people are and where they need to be helped.”
Regarding Christie, Ben explained “I support Christie on everything but cannabis. He’s on the same page [as Paul], but he’s a little too afraid to take on the establishment”
Ben also expressed favor towards individuals like Newt Gingrich, citing intelligence and respect as important qualifiers in a commander-in-chief.
Like all things though, CPAC had to come to an end, with Rand Paul winning the straw poll for the third year in a row, though Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker surged to a strong second. Conservatives left the conference feeling invigorated to stake their claims in the 2016 cycle. If there’s one thing that could be taken from the conference, however, is that there remains an ideological battle for the soul of the conservative movement, and with the ever-changing demographics of the conservative movement in America, one that could possibly last for years to come.