CPAC 2015 – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch But There Is Free Swag

CPAC 2015 – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch But There Is Free Swag

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.

Participants vote in the famous CPAC straw poll.
Participants vote in the famous CPAC straw poll.

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 raging 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.

Donald Trump addresses CPAC.
Donald Trump addresses CPAC.

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.”

Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum talks to supporters in The Hub.
Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) talks to supporters in The Hub.

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 a 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.

The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property is one of many groups that have booths in The Hub.
The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property is one of many groups that have booths in The Hub.

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’ 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 walk out 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.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) takes questions from Sean Hannity at Bobby McKey's Dueling Piano Bar.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) takes questions from Sean Hannity at Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano Bar.

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 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”.

Newt Gingrich speaks in one of the smaller Potomac rooms.
Newt Gingrich speaks in one of the smaller Potomac rooms.

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 activist 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”

An enthusiastic supporter of straw poll victor Rand Paul holds a sign during his speech to CPAC.
An enthusiastic supporter of straw poll victor Rand Paul holds a sign during his speech to CPAC.

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 with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker surging 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.

Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

Turnout reaches disparaging levels. Baker, Coakley grossly underperform.

With the close of another September primary, there was one question that rested on the minds of many- candidate and voters alike- who participated: “where is everybody?” Poll-workers from elections past recall when lines of early voters were exactly that, when the workers didn’t outnumber the voters, and when rush hour was more than just a few soccer mom’s bringing their children in to use the bathrooms before game practice. Citizens are raised to believe in the old moniker of “one man, one vote”, but lately in modern day Massachusetts, you might find your vote to be worth somewhere closer to that of ten.

Scenes such as this one occurred all across the Commonwealth.
Scenes such as this one occurred all across the Commonwealth.

“I didn’t even know”
This marks another year of depressingly low turnout numbers, and while this isn’t a problem specific only to Massachusetts, it is one that has achieved record levels in the Bay State. With over 4.2 million registered voters, about as much as all of the rest of New England’s registered voters combined, Massachusetts continues to struggle to motivate even a fifth of them to turn-out to vote in non-presidential elections. Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Francis Galvin, estimated that turnout would taper off at about 17%, and current uncertified results show that, unfortunately, he was right.

Unlike in years past, voters from both major parties were presented with contested elections. Depending on the town, some voters found they had more choices than others, but every Massachusetts resident who pulled a ballot this week was guaranteed at least one major contested race. Yet even then, as schools, halls, and polling precincts across the Commonwealth opened their doors, many found that it was once again the same old voters who come out to vote. Galvin put the blame on a general malaise with those who’ve decided to try their luck in the arena of politics, but for many, it was a much more simpler reason as to why they didn’t show. They just didn’t know.

A Fisher, a Baker, an Election Day Maker
While the stage was primarily set for the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s race for a successor to governor Deval Patrick, a lone spotlight was occasionally flashed over the fight between the MassGOP’s Charlie Baker and Mark Fisher. That there was a race at all came as a surprise for a number of the MassGOP’s brass, as Fisher wasn’t expected to survive the Sample ballots for the town of Charlton.convention. The threat of one legal snafu later, and Fisher was granted access to compete in the primary, saving the MassGOP both a damaging inter-party conflict and an embarrassing PR disaster.

MassINC’s tracking polls, as well as those from Suffolk University, had typically shown Baker to have a commanding lead over Fisher, similar in number to the delegate tallies which came out of the party’s state convention. Baker confidently sat in the area of a 60 to 70 point lead, with Fisher never leaving the high single digits or low teens. Part of this had to do with Fisher’s name recognition, which started low, and never successfully took off. The primary was set to look like a repeat of the convention, and very well could have been, until only a handful of voters made the effort to show up on election day.

Government of the Interested, by the Interested, and for the Uninterested
The events of Tuesday offer Massachusetts voters a taste of what happens in low turnout elections. Candidates who face off against frontrunners in David vs. Goliathesque scenarios will traditionally benefit from low-turn out races. Billing himself as the “conservative alternative” to Charlie Baker, Fisher would weather the electoral seas with a smaller, yet more enthusiastic membership base. Whether it be from a deep resonance with the message or a personality trait that just woos them, such voters tend to show up for their candidate regardless of the political climate. Such surprises have been seen in the past, such as with the “Buchanan Brigades” of 2000, the “Ron Paul Revolution” in the last two presidential cycles, and most recently in Eric Cantor’s defeat at the hands of David Brat earlier this year.

Turnout in Charlton's 4th precinct after 12 hours of being open.
Turnout in Charlton’s 4th precinct after 12 hours of being open.

Voter apathy created a scenario where Fisher voters suddenly gained a bigger presence in the pool, and he exceeded expectations and energized a base that the MassGOP has frequently had problems with. Claiming victory in a dozen and a half towns outright, as well as taking upward to 40% of the vote in every county west of Worcester, including in traditionally large population centers such as Worcester, Fitchburg, and Springfield, paints a much different picture than the 10% or so most polling had been expecting him to get.

Go West, Young Martha
Such a problem was not uniquely reserved for the MassGOP either, as the same can be said to have happened with the gubernatorial fisticuffs between Coakley, Grossman, and Berwick. Initial polling had given Coakley a safe lead since she left the convention, with Grossman only once bridging an otherwise large 20 point gap. Berwick often preformed in the low teens, with numbers similar to those seen by Mark Fisher in his race. The results? Coakley winning with a slight plurality of only five points.

Analyzing the results of Tuesday’s primaries shows a consistent trend seen with both parties; The further west you went, the weaker the “frontrunner” became. Political scientists can attribute this to the differing climate of western Massachusetts, and they wouldn’t be wrong, however, there’s a second factor to be considered in the direct decline in total number of voters. Galvin estimated that western Massachusetts would be the region most hit by poor voter turnout, and with some towns generating turnouts in the single digits. Low turnouts and declining votes create the perfect storm for firebrands and underdog candidates to shake things up, and create problems for parties further down the line.

If this remains constant, and it certainly has, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Massachusetts’ three independent candidates overperform expectations in November.

All politics was local
It’s very easy to dismiss such results as the normal voter apathy associated with primaries, but for Massachusetts, it goes further than just Tuesday’s primary. Like a weed, it has dug its roots into the innermost workings of local government. Local elections all over have plummeted to embarrassing lows, as well as turnout in Massachusetts’ last statewide elections. This writer’s native Charlton barely cracked 5% this last spring in a town of over 9,500 registered voters. When former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal said all politics is local, the Massachusetts mammoth had no idea that large families would one day become electoral power-brokers.

A common question in election official circles is “what can we do?” A mix of traditional GOTV efforts have been only superficial, bringing voters to the polls who then proceed to either vote for single candidates, or vote once and never return. Voter dissatisfaction with the election process also remains a consistent issue. Since the primary elections of 2010, numerous voters have voiced encouragement with the notion of a blanket style primary, as is used in Louisiana, and in a way, California, but there’s significant concerns in whether this would actually damage the electoral process even more.

One thing for certain however, is that voters in the Cradle have been increasingly taking such a liberty for granted, and it’s only a matter of time before they find themselves stuck with a selection of candidates, as well as their parties, only representing those that bothered to show up.

But, perhaps, that’s exactly what might be needed to finally fix things.

MassGOP Meets in 2014: Bustling and Bedlam in the Back Bay

The Massachusetts Republican Party held it’s State Convention this past Saturday at Boston University’s Agannis Arena, mobilizing the party’s small, but devout, membership for the upcoming state elections.

Governor's Councilwoman Jennie Caissie energizes the convention.
Governor’s Councilwoman Jennie Caissie energizes the convention.

Roughly 2,500 delegates crammed into the Arena to hear the Party brass give energetic speeches, set goals for the future, and support candidates they want to see represent them in their fight against the Democratic Party’s tight grip on state government.

Prominent faces from years past, such as former Governor William Weld and former Senator David Locke, joined a cast of new faces to tell the stories and tales of a time past. But it wasn’t all business with no play. To keep spirits high and guests interested, participants were also treated to live entertainment, a variety of booths representing the different organizations within the party, and the opportunity to socialize with one another over a drink.

While the convention process was organized and straightforward, with most of the formal festivities, such as the appointment of convention officials and the endorsing of otherwise unopposed statewide candidates, being primarily ceremonial, there were two instances for the various camps of the Republican Party to make their presences known.

Mark Fisher addresses the convention.
Mark Fisher addresses the convention.

Charlie Baker, former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim and the Party’s 2010 nominee for governor, and Mark Fisher, a small businessman based out of Auburn were both the stars of the afternoon, as they both sought the endorsement of the convention for the gubernatorial nomination. Both candidates accepted former State Representative and candidate for Treasurer, Karyn Polito, to join their respective tickets as a running-mate, but otherwise had very different opinions on how they would govern, as well as where they would want the party to go.

Fisher, a relative unknown to the political process, represented the conservative wing of the party, and saw the future success of the party to be in reaffirming it’s conservative message and denouncing the dangers of liberalism, starting with upholding the conservative party platform, whereas Charlie Baker represented the big tent faction of the party, and preached a message of transparency, frugality, and of a more open and diverse Republican Party.

Charlie Baker greets a supporter.
Charlie Baker greets a supporter.

The other challenge was between Hopkinton Selectman Brian Herr and Malden resident Frank Addivinola. Their race could also be viewed as representative of the big tent and small tent divide the party is currently facing. However, unlike Baker and Fisher, Herr and Addivinola never got to openly compete for convention support, as Addivinola failed to file the proper paperwork to be called and recognized by the convention. Normal convention rules dictate that if a candidate fails to achieve 15% of delegate support, they will not be allowed to appear on the primary ballot. However, in the case of Herr and Addivinola, the race for Senate is a Federal office, which is governed by separate legal guidelines for listing candidates, and while Addivinola was declared ineligible to vie for the endorsement of the convention, he is still campaigning to appear on the ballot going into the primary.

The Caution of A Conservative

Dave Kopacz, President of the Massachusetts Republican Assembly, a conservative organization within the party which fashions itself as the “Republican wing of the Republican Party” that has endorsed both Fisher and Addivinola, expressed concern over the general direction the convention had taken. “The convention overall was skewed to a favorite” he said, referencing how the speakers were openly supporting or promoting a Baker and Polito ticket going into November, as well as more subtle instances, such as Mark Fisher being one of the few speakers to not have introduction music.

Mark Fisher appearing on the big screen during his speech.
Mark Fisher appearing on the big screen during his speech.

In a party where the leadership is advocating big tent principles and positions that would be perceived as being moderate, and sometimes even liberal, in order to remain politically competitive, conservative candidates have been cast aside as losing causes, and receive minimal support. For Kopacz, as well as the organization he’s involved with, candidates such as Fisher and Addivinola represent an opportunity for the socially conservative and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party to gather prominence, much like they have in other states across the country, and try to prove the opposite. When asked about his intentions in a situation where there would be no conservative alternative on the ballot to Charlie Baker, Kopacz said he wouldn’t put his efforts towards the Baker and Polito ticket, and would instead focus on supporting “lower tier Republican candidates” as best as he could.

Another participant waiting for the results was Scott MacDonald, a Billerica delegate whom also helped manage the Young Americans for Liberty booth. “The Convention went as planned” he said, referring to the straightforward direction and otherwise unsurprising tone of the day.

Asked if he thought Fisher would make it out of the Convention, MacDonald was unsure, but said that it was possible. “There were a lot of [Fisher] votes on the floor.” he said, “so it’s hard to guess what will happen.” His delegation reflected that uncertainty, he explained, saying that the Billerica caucus went with a three way split with a third supporting Baker, a third Fisher, and a third undecided. However, at the end of the day, MacDonald still planned to support Baker “absolutely” if he wins.

Former Governor William Weld, a significant face of Moderate Massachusetts Republicanism.
Former Governor William Weld, a significant face of Massachusetts Moderate Republicanism.

But a majority of delegates and participants were still optimistic of the day’s events. Delegate Brad Wyatt, a candidate for State Representative, and sitting school community member based out West Boylston, was one of those such delegates.

Wyatt looked forward to the future, irregardless of how the convention results closed and saw the day’s festivities, as well as it’s participants, as a reason to remain upbeat. “It’s so good to see so many people remain active in the Republican Party” he said, referencing the influx of youth and unorthodox supporters that joined, courtesy of the libertarian influence brought on by Ron and Rand Paul over the last few years. “There’s a lot of youth here, and we need new energy” Wyatt said. “And at the end of the day, the Republicans have better solutions.”

While not influenced by any wing or figure in the party, one such energetic youth was Joseph Szafarowicz, the 23 year old Selectman and Chairman of the Charlton delegation. Never one to not speak his mind, Szafarowicz, new to the convention process, said found it to be “dull”, but found the crop of candidates that had come out of it to be the complete opposite. “Come November, I like our chances.” Szafarowicz said, adding “I like Baker a lot and think that he will do a great job in the corner office. I’m glad we were able to support Baker as much as we did [and] I think it will do well to unify the party.”

Delegates in Discord

As the night drew to a close, the convention did not go “as planned” like delegate MacDonald assumed. Much to the disappointment of many in the Baker camp, the nomination process ran into a wall during the tallying of the votes. Fisher preformed stronger than expected, retaining a small, but steady, stream of support in most districts, and besting Baker outright in the First Bristol and Plymouth district, and the Fourth Middlesex, which put him one vote shy of the requirement needed to gain ballot access. In response, the convention had to convene to analyze the results, as well as the credentials of those who voted.

Baker accepting the nomination. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe staff.
Baker accepting the nomination. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe staff.

The process was well-guarded, with whatever known outside of the State Committee meeting as hearsay, but after close to hour of analyzing the results, it was ruled that the amount of blank votes cast, or votes cast for either no one in particular, or names of those not nominated beforehand, would be included. Upon their inclusion, it was deemed that Fisher fell shy of meeting the requirement of reaching the ballot by six votes. As of the start of the week, the final, and official, tally of the convention is currently listed as Charlie Baker having amassed the support of 2,095 delegates, or 82.708%, Mark Fisher with 374 delegates, or 14.765%, and 64 delegates casting a “blank” vote.

Fisher, however, isn’t finished with the race yet. Disappointed with the convention results, he is looking to challenge the final tallies and sue the State Committee, if need be. The nature in how the results were determined have left many in the Fisher camp anxious and looking for answers, and the official Facebook page of the Mark Fisher campaign has opened up a legal fund for pursuing the results further.

While a majority of the Republican races will be uncontested, the primaries of all major parties will be conducted on September 9th, and the general election on November 4th.
All photos and quotes are original unless otherwise noted.