Serving conservatives in campaign season

Serving conservatives in campaign season

Matt Schlapp has never shied away from a project.

The former political adviser to President George W. Bush and current head of the American Conservative Union (ACU) now runs his own boutique lobbying shop out of an old building in Alexandria, Va. Schlapp bought the building from a video camera repairman, and he isn’t shy about calling it a fixer-upper.

“This place was a disaster when I bought it,” he said in his office, which now looks more like a modern office on K Street than a run-down repair shop.

“I’m a big believer in investing in things that look so horrible that nobody else will touch it,” he added. “Because I believe those are the gems.”

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Schlapp now has a role to play in another big project: helping conservatives sort through a crowded primary field and figure out who will be their standard-bearer in the race for the White House.

As chairman of the ACU, the oldest conservative political lobbying organization in the nation, Schlapp will be coordinating with activists across the country as major Republicans join what appears to be a wide-open race for their party’s nomination.

Schlapp’s group will have important roles to play in the process: ranking lawmakers on its influential scorecard and hosting the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that reliably draws the biggest names in the movement.

Heading the conservative group is the latest turn in a long career in GOP politics for Schlapp, who worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill, provided political advice under Bush and led lobbying efforts for Koch Industries. 

And he sounds invigorated at the prospect of Republicans throwing their presidential nominating process wide open in what promises to be a chaotic few months of primary politics — during which conservatives hope to have a prominent voice in setting the direction of the party.

“I’m really excited about it. It’s very un-Republican in that it’s not all set,” he said. “We’re acting like Democrats, and it scares the hell out of a lot of Republicans.”

Schlapp’s interest in politics goes back to his childhood. He recalls when C-SPAN hit the airwaves, calling it a “treat” to watch congressional debates from his Kansas home. Schlapp came to Washington with former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) in 1994, serving as his press secretary and eventually his chief of staff.

Schlapp joined Bush’s team during the 2000 campaign, working in Texas before assisting in the recount effort in Florida.

Bush’s eventual win brought Schlapp to the White House, where he worked as a political adviser alongside the likes of Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove.

Schlapp worked at the White House throughout Bush’s first term, but after feeling “burnt out,” he jumped to Koch Industries, where he led federal lobbying for the business giant, a major source of GOP donations.

At the outset of the Obama administration, Schlapp left Koch Industries and opened his boutique consulting shop, Cove Strategies, that he runs alongside his wife, Mercedes Viana Schlapp. The two met while working at the White House and now have five children.

Schlapp came to the ACU while still with Koch, taking a spot on the organization’s board. And when the top spot opened up, Schlapp was ready to step in.

“As much as I’d love to tell you that everyone on the board came to me and recruited me … it was different from that,” he said.

Schlapp said he saw the ACU in a stage of transition, as an older generation of conservative activists cycled out and a younger crop came in with a new perspective. And with a surge of other outside conservative groups descending on Washington after Obama took office, Schlapp recognized the ACU’s need to stay competitive in a crowded landscape.

“I thought I was in a good position to figure out what the future might be,” he said. “How are we relevant to the conversation?”

While conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action may draw attention for their efforts to drag elected Republicans to the right, Schlapp said the ACU tends to look outward, aimed at providing a conservative voice to criticize, cajole and draw a contrast with Democrats.

“I don’t think we suffer for a lack of groups trying to make the Republican Party more conservative,” he said. “I want to make sure we have enough people focused on the conversation with the left.”

Schlapp also discussed the need to grow the Republican Party, trying to build a coalition that has room for libertarians, defense hawks and even gay Republicans, whom Schlapp welcomed to CPAC in 2015.

While the ACU could name its favorite GOP primary candidate, likely through its political action committee, and Schlapp himself could endorse independently of the organization, he emphasized that the overarching goal is to make sure Republicans come out of this open competition strengthened, rather than splintered.

“When we get done with this process, there’s going to be a Republican nominee,” he said. “If conservatives feel shut out of this process, it would be disastrous.”

To that point, Schlapp has a lot of positive things to say about all the Republicans eyeing a run and nothing good to say about Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MORE.

A staunch Republican, Schlapp says he does not lobby Democrats or help them with campaigns. And he does not need much encouragement to tee off against Clinton, calling her remarks at the United Nations explaining her use of a private email  account as secretary of State “objectively one of the worst political performances I’ve ever seen.”

No matter the candidate, he’s optimistic that the likely prospect of facing off against Clinton as the Democratic nominee should provide a boost to any conservatives feeling bruised after the primary.

“You’re never going to get all these people to agree,” he said. “But I think you can get most of them to agree that having Hillary Clinton as a president is a disaster.”

The ACU claimed its 2015 convention was its most popular ever, and Schlapp recognizes that next year’s event falls squarely in the middle of primary season, making the stage that much bigger, as candidates hunt for conservative favor and votes. 

“We are a credible and fair platform where all the candidates can feel free to come and make their pitch,” he said. “We’re up to the challenge.”