Young conservatives come face to face with idols to bond, strategize at annual CPAC conference

Carlos Vazquez is not a political consultant. At 20, he hasn’t even finished school. But when he discusses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual three-day event beginning Thursday, he comes off like a particularly astute Republican strategist.

“When people go to CPAC and they hear a candidate, that’s the time when they’re going to say, ‘You know what, we do like him,’ or they’re going to say no,” Vazquez says. “It’s definitely going to be a time when people are going to make up their minds.” 

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A junior at George Washington University, Vazquez is a member of the College Republicans and president of the campus chapter of Young America’s Foundation. Like many of the country’s college-age conservatives, he’s a CPAC veteran and will be back for this year’s event, which will feature Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and other big names like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). 

“It’s very, very energizing,” Vazquez says.

He admits he was surprised the first time he attended the conference to see so many people his age — including many former high school classmates with whom he’d fallen out of touch. But Alyssa Farah, communications director at the College Republican National Committee, says that kind of turnout is common.

“CPAC tends to be dominated by youth registrants,” Farah says. “Last year they had several thousand show up.”

This fact isn’t surprising when you take into account that CPAC has its roots in the conservative youth movement. The conference was originally founded in 1973 as a joint venture between the American Conservative Union (ACU) and Young Americans for Freedom, a youth organization that was heavily influenced by the teachings of William F. Buckley Jr. and is now part of Young America’s Foundation. Over the decades CPAC has attracted virtually every major American conservative figure as a speaker, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Glenn Beck. This year the event — co-hosted by ACU and TheTeaParty.net — won’t be any different.

“All the presidential campaigns are going to be represented [this year],” says ACU Executive Director Gregg Keller. “I think if you want to win the presidency on the Republican side … you really have to come through CPAC.”

The event is being held at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, the largest hotel in the city. Keller says organizers have gone for a “newer and fresher” look for this year’s conference, including a new stage design to give the event a more “participatory” feel. There will be numerous guest panels and even what Keller describes as a conservative riff on the popular talk show “The View,” called “The Right View.”

“A big year is upon us, and I am honored to be with other conservatives, speaking at CPAC,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), another speaker at this year’s conference, in a statement for The Hill. “I look forward to engaging with young conservatives and sharing our vision for what lies ahead.” 

That chance to mingle with young conservatives is a chief reason why so many high-profile politicians and media figures attend CPAC each year. Keller says that older conservatives often find it “inspiring” to see so much of the younger generation in one place. Meanwhile, young conservatives attend in order to meet some of their idols.

Farah, who has attended CPAC for the past five years, recalls one time when she met both conservative columnist George Will and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist in a span of five minutes.

“You’re brushing elbows with the people you look up to, the people whose columns you read,” she says. “CPAC is unique in how accessible those people are.”

There’s another, equally significant reason why CPAC is so important to college-age conservatives: It’s one of the few places where they don’t have to feel marginalized. 

“I think that young Republicans are a group that’s kind of forgotten about,” Farah says. She believes CPAC is a great place for young conservatives to get together and talk — “a mini-strategy session,” she calls it.

Todd Carney, a junior at American University and president of the campus chapter of the College Republicans, doesn’t necessarily believe that conservative students are “isolated” on campus, but he does feel “it’s a bit of a shock” to attend an event like CPAC where conservative ideology is so predominant. Like Farah, he finds great inspiration in the way conservatives young and old can come together at CPAC and strategize. 

“While young people throughout the year are very involved … it’s a chance for them to feel the future and current leaders come together,” he says. 

This year in particular, with the presidential election getting closer by the day, there’s a feeling of unity among conservatives. Ron Meyer, a spokesman for Young America’s Foundation, cites the disappointment many young people feel with the Obama administration as a key source of motivation for those attending the conference. 

“Young people are feeling the heat,” he says. “They’re disappointed that the promises from the president haven’t panned [out].”

Meyer sees CPAC as an opportunity to get them more involved.

“It’s a chance to get young people energized … to give them the intellectual firepower,” he says.

Vazquez, the GWU junior, is just one of the thousands of young people who will be attending CPAC this week. In his soft-spoken fashion, he explains how much potential there is for the presidential hopefuls to make an impression at this year’s conference. 

There will be many in the audience, he says, who will have yet to be swayed — including many of his peers. He places special emphasis on the importance of winning the confidence of the young people, because they are the ones who will be knocking on doors come election time. “Young people are the power,” Vazquez says.

And CPAC — as so many politicians have learned — is where that power can be harnessed.