Former President Donald Trump turned the Conservative Political Action Conference into his first post-presidential rally Sunday evening, pledging in a speech riddled with falsehoods to purge his enemies from the Republican Party and hinting repeatedly at another run for the White House in 2024.
But before Trump closed out the annual conservative gathering, held in Orlando, Florida, this year, a cadre of ambitious Republicans eyeing 2024 presidential runs of their own tried to put their spins on Trump’s populist message, echoing his grievances against big tech, the media and liberal “cancel culture” in efforts to tap into the “Make America Great Again” base Trump built.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley called for a break-up of leading tech companies. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem leaned into a cultural battle over statues of founding fathers. Florida Sen. Rick Scott promised not to intervene against pro-Trump candidates in primaries from his perch as the chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the GOP is “not just the party of country clubs,” a reflection of Trump remaking the party’s base into a largely White, rural and working-class coalition even as the former President lives at a private club he owns.
Here are six takeaways from CPAC 2021:
Trump targets intra-party rivals, nods at 2024 run
Trump devoted large portions of his speech, which lasted more than 90 minutes, to false claims about election fraud.
He also said repeatedly that he could run for president again in 2024. And he suggested his near-term political focus will be on exacting retribution against the 17 Republicans in Congress who voted to impeach him in the House or to convict him in the Senate following the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Trump named each of those Republicans, saving for last Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, whom he called a “warmonger.” He said they should all be ousted in 2022 primaries.
“Get rid of them all,” he instructed the conservative audience.
Trump concluded his speech by predicting that in the coming years, “a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House.”
“And I wonder who that will be,” he said, in a typical nod toward a third campaign in 2024. “I wonder who that will be. Who? Who? Who will that be? I wonder.”
Trump wins the straw poll, DeSantis second
The results of the famed CPAC straw poll for the 2024 GOP nomination were announced Sunday afternoon. Unsurprisingly, a 55% majority of attendees favor Trump in 2024 — his first-ever victory in the unscientific poll. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came in second with 21% and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem in a distant third at 4%.
It wasn’t all good news for Trump, though: While 97% said they approved of the job he did as president, about one-third of a self-selecting, Trump-friendly conservative crowd wasn’t eager to back a Trump 2024 presidential bid. Just 68% said they wanted him to run for president again in 2024. Another 15% said they don’t want Trump to run, and 17% said they were unsure.
An informal and nonscientific survey, the CPAC straw poll can be a bellwether for the party — or, more often, a show of organizing strength. While 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won four CPAC straw polls between 2007 and 2012, Trump won none of the four pre-2016 straw polls before his own nomination.
In a second poll question that excluded Trump, DeSantis lapped the field in front of his home-state crowd in Orlando with 43% support. Noem finished second with 11%, followed by Donald Trump Jr. at 8%, then former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with 7% each.
No one else topped 3% in either straw poll. In both the poll that included Trump and the one that excluded him, former Vice President Mike Pence finished at 1%.
More lies about the election results
In the real world, the 2020 election was conducted fairly — though results were counted slowly in some states adapting to an influx of mail-in ballots amid the pandemic — and President Joe Biden won handily. But in Orlando, on CPAC’s main stage, in offshoot panel discussions and in the crowd, Trump-promoted fantasies about the outcome being rigged were treated as truth well before the former President himself parroted the lies during his speech Sunday evening.
“There was widespread voter fraud in way too many states, most especially in big cities run by the Democrat machine. That is fact,” Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a CPAC organizer, said in a panel discussion hours before Trump spoke Sunday. (It is not a fact.)
Goya Foods chief executive Robert Unanue had claimed earlier in the day that Trump is “the real, the legitimate, and the still actual president of the United States.” (Biden is president; Trump is not.)
Hawley, the Missouri Republican who objected to certifying electoral college votes from key swing states, effectively attempting to disenfranchise those states’ voters and overturn the results of the 2020 election, bragged about his efforts, claiming he was standing up for “election integrity.” (His actions would have disenfranchised tens of millions of voters if successful.)
Cruz makes light of Cancun trip
Days after Cruz was discovered fleeing to Cancun to escape a snowstorm and the power and water outages it had caused in his home state, the Texas senator was spinning it into a joke.
“I gotta say, Orlando is awesome. It’s not as nice as Cancun — but it’s nice,” he said as he kicked off his Friday speech at CPAC.
The comment underscored how quickly Cruz has turned what appeared to be an embarrassing and damaging episode into a punchline — a jab at the political press. And if the crowd’s laughter and cheers were an indication, he’ll have escaped Cancun politically unscathed with the conservative base.
Noem and DeSantis stand out
One star of this year’s CPAC might have been Noem, who was among the only speakers to articulate a vision of conservatism that — while consistent with Trump — sought to more broadly define the party’s principles.
“We must more closely articulate to the American people that we are the only ones who respect them as human beings,” Noem said. “That we are the only ones who believe the American people have God-given rights. We are not here to tell you how to live your life, how to treat you like a child or criminal because you go to church or you defend yourself.”
She bragged about her state’s lax coronavirus restrictions, and echoed Trump’s complaints about attempts to remove founding fathers from the public square, characterizing such moves as efforts to use those founders’ flaws — such as slave ownership — “to condemn their ideals and the greatest Constitution the world has ever seen.”
Noem, Hawley and Cruz were among the 2024 prospects that got the strongest reception. Another popular figure in Orlando: DeSantis, who kicked things off Friday morning with a message that previewed what was to come in the following days: A conference focused less on policy differences than on a willingness to fight against the left.
“Now, anyone can spout conservative rhetoric. We can sit around and have academic debates about conservative policy,” DeSantis said. “But the question is, when the Klieg lights get hot, when the left comes after you: Will you stay strong or will you fold?”
Little mention of Biden
The brand-new Biden administration was almost an afterthought at the confab. The most forceful denunciation of the President was a characteristically over-the-top assessment from his immediate predecessor.
“Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” Trump said. “Already the Biden administration has proved that they are anti-jobs, anti-family, anti-borders, anti-energy, anti-women and anti-science. In just one short month, we have gone from America first to America last.”
Trump’s attacks on Biden were another norm shattered by the former President, who is not following prior ex-presidents’ practice of staying quiet in the early stages of the new chief executive’s term. Trump was also unique in that he was the only major speaker to offer much in-depth criticism of Biden at all.
To the extent that the current President was mentioned by the event’s other speakers, it was to criticize Biden as weak, ineffectual, and under the control of the Democratic Party’s left wing. Cruz, for instance, mentioned “Joe Biden and the radicals in his administration.”
While Pompeo went after the Biden administration’s foreign policy moves, several speakers focused on familiar culture-war grounds.
“Joe Biden and his allies in Congress are promising to flat out decimate the Second Amendment and destroy the promise of liberty and freedom that is America,” said Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the financially troubled National Rifle Association, on Sunday.