By Alexandra Jaffe - 03/07/13 12:34 AM EST
Organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) say they’re determined to showcase the movement’s “diversity” when delegates meet in Washington, D.C., next week, expanding their lineup of speakers and panelists to include significantly more African-Americans, Hispanics and women.
The annual gathering of conservative activists — often seen as a testing ground for rising GOP stars and potential presidential contenders — has been at the center of controversy in the past week for its decision to exclude the pro-gay-marriage group GOProud from the conference.
Similar snubs to popular Republican Govs. Chris Christie (N.J.) and Bob McDonnell (Va.) have also stirred debate about CPAC’s inclusiveness.
But in the wake of steep Republican losses among Hispanic, black and female voters in the 2012 election cycle, officials with the American Conservative Union, which organizes the three-day conference, maintain this year’s event will have a far more “representative view of America” than past meetings.
“This year in particular, with the [conference’s] 40th anniversary and the focus on America’s future, we really wanted to welcome in conservatives from a number of different backgrounds, and wanted to ensure that as many different voices are heard as possible,” said Laura Rigas, communications director for the ACU.
Among the roster of CPAC speakers and panelists, there are nearly twice as many black and Hispanic speakers as there were in 2012, and a third more female speakers.
Of 45 “featured” speakers listed on the conference’s website, roughly 20 percent are black.
Several Hispanic and African-American conservatives contacted by The Hill said the 2012 elections underscored the urgent need for the conservative movement to expand its reach.
Their message: Grow the movement’s base, or risk becoming irrelevant.
“We ignore these communities at our own peril. Eventually we’ll be able to have CPAC in a phone booth if we don’t figure out how to keep it growing,” said Hector Barreto, a CPAC speaker and chairman of The Latino Coalition, which promotes policies that support the Hispanic community.
“Folks took a lot of notice of what happened in the last election. Seventy percent of Latinos voted for one side over the other — that was a big shift from what we’ve seen, for example, in 2004.”
George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his reelection, according to exit polling, a high-water mark for Republican presidential candidates.
Twelve-and-a-half million Hispanics voted in 2012 — 1.8 million more than in 2008 — and President Obama received the support of 71 percent, according to exit polling.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who angered Hispanic voters by saying illegal immigrants should “self deport,” won 29 percent.
A Pew Project report projects that Hispanic voters will account for 40 percent of the growth in the U.S. electorate between now and 2030 — highlighting the need for Republicans to reverse the downward trend.
The 2012 demographic gap between Obama and Romney was more pronounced among African-Americans: the president won 93 percent of the black vote, according to exit polling.
Among women, Obama had an 11-point advantage over Romney, 55 percent to 44 percent.
CPAC’s theme this year — “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives” — is aimed at stressing outreach to untapped constituencies.
“We’re going to have the most diverse and, I think, representative view of America at this year’s CPAC,” ACU Chairman Al Cardenas told MSNBC.
“I think the whole theme is that the conservative movement needs to grow with the demographic reality of America, and we’re going to be painting that picture at CPAC.”
The conference is one of the largest annual gatherings of conservatives nationwide, and offers activists, operatives and politicians the opportunity to strategize and focus the movement for the year ahead.
At this year’s CPAC, a handful of panels will focus on expanding the conservative movement’s appeal to youth, Hispanics and even gay conservatives.
But critics say the conference organizers have a narrow view of conservative diversity.
Their refusal to invite Christie and McDonnell to address delegates, and the exclusion of GOProud, drew the ire of some conservatives who accused the organizers, and particularly Cardenas, of being out of touch with the movement’s mainstream.
It’s believed Christie was snubbed for his embrace of Obama during the crisis over Hurricane Sandy and for then blasting House Republicans for holding up disaster relief funding.
McDonnell, long a favorite of conservatives, embraced a transportation tax in Virginia.
“When a party is in the minority, it has to add, not subtract. CPAC’s cardinal sin was in foolishly trying to toss out others instead of building the broadest coalition,” wrote conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin.
Conservative pundit S.E. Cupp said she would boycott CPAC over its snub of gay groups, calling the move “dismissive and disrespectful.”
Less attention has been paid to the efforts at addressing past demographic deficiencies at CPAC.
Among the featured African-American speakers this year: Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), Dr. Ben Carson and Crystal Wright, editor of conservativeblackchick.com.
Fourteen of the featured speakers are women, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) are the most prominent Hispanics speakers.
At the core of the challenge conservatives face in shoring up support among minorities lies the question: Are Republicans losing those groups because of the messenger, or the message?
Barreto, who will lead a talk at this year’s CPAC on “Business in America” and who headed the Small Business Administration under Bush’s presidency, said it’s a combination of both. He noted that his discussion topic is central to the goal of expanding the conservative movement’s reach.
“One of the things we should focus in on [in reaching out to Hispanics] is what we call the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “One of the things we used to look at is the trends. On that side, the fastest growing segment of business in the U.S. is Latino business.”
That could explain in part why two talks led by Hispanics will address business development — Barreto’s, and one by Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund.
Other attendees, however, like West, say success in winning over minorities is a matter of “getting the message out there.”
“I believe it’s about the proper marketing to penetrate these different segments with your message,” said the former Florida lawmaker, whose speech will focus on proposed solutions to the nation’s economic problems.
“That has not been done effectively. If CPAC is a launching pad for that, I’m happy to engage in that at the conference.”