Five things to watch at CPAC 2023

Conservative activists, elected officials and luminaries are gathering outside of Washington this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual event that will gauge the mood of Republicans ahead of an expectedly contentious 2024 presidential primary.

The event is set to draw some of the biggest names in Republican politics — including several current and would-be White House hopefuls — to National Harbor, Md., just a few minutes south of the nation’s capital.

The gathering will also be a key measurement of just how influential former President Donald Trump remains among the party’s grassroots. He’s set to deliver the keynote address at CPAC on Saturday.

Here are five things to watch at this year’s CPAC:

What does Trump do?

How Trump will use his message on the CPAC stage remains an open question. (Getty)

When Trump takes the stage at CPAC on Saturday, he’ll go in front of his favored crowd: the GOP grassroots.

How he uses the opportunity remains an open question. In recent weeks, his campaign has been pushing out a series of policy-focused videos and emails, hoping to turn the 2024 presidential race into a clear choice between him and President Biden.

But Trump also has some competition. His former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley became the first Republican to challenge Trump for the party’s 2024 nomination last month. Not long after, entrepreneur and conservative activist Vivek Ramaswamy jumped into the fray.

Then there’s the long list of Republicans who are weighing challenges to Trump: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among others. CPAC could very well be a prime opportunity for the former president to launch preemptive attacks.

Can the other 2024 hopefuls break through?

After entering the race last month, Haley is facing challenging early polling numbers and a less prominent profile than Trump or DeSantis. (Greg Nash)

Haley made a splash when she jumped into the GOP primary last month, but early polling suggests that she has a lot of ground to make up. Her name ID is far lower than that of Trump or DeSantis, and there are some in the party who still question her conservative bonafides.

The same goes for Ramaswamy, the author of the book “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.” 

While both candidates have a sizable gap to close, their CPAC appearances will be a key opportunity to court the GOP’s conservative base and prove that they’re viable alternatives to Trump, who dramatically reshaped the party in the nearly eight years since he launched his first White House campaign.

Pompeo, who hasn’t formally launched a campaign yet, will face a similar challenge, and a lukewarm reception at CPAC could change his calculus.

Are there any fireworks between GOP rivals?

Trump has gone on the attack against GOP favorite DeSantis, denouncing him as a “globalist” and a “RINO.” (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo/John Locher)

For the most part, CPAC is a unifying event for conservatives — a place where party activists and loyalists can come together to rally around their shared values.

But with the first primaries and caucuses less than a year away, the question remains of whether any of the candidates — current or potential — will take any shots at one another.

There’s already been some feuding among the 2024 hopefuls. Trump has sporadically attacked DeSantis, calling him a “globalist” and a “RINO,” or Republican in name only. Likewise, Haley has said that DeSantis’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill — which forbids school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to third grade — doesn’t go far enough.

The sheer concentration of ambitious Republicans at CPAC sets the stage for potential clashes, raising the possibility that it could be a more divisive event this year than a unifying one.

How do speakers approach hot-button issues?

March for Life

Supporters against abortion are seen during the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Friday, January 20, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)

Republicans are still coping with the results of the 2022 midterm elections, which saw the party only barely recapture the House majority and miss out on an opportunity to win the Senate, despite favorable political headwinds.

The lackluster performance has been blamed on a number of factors, but the battle over abortion rights stands out as a primary one. How CPAC speakers deal with that issue could signal conservatives’ approach to abortion rights going forward.

Many Republicans, including Trump, have acknowledged that the GOP handled the abortion rights issue poorly during the midterms, arguing that conservatives’ hardline stance on the matter scared away moderate voters. 

But there are plenty of other issues for conservatives to rally around at CPAC; immigration, inflation and so-called “wokeness” are widely expected to dominate the conversation this year, and there’s little daylight between Republicans on those matters.

Does election denialism take center stage?

Kari Lake

Kari Lake, who embraced election denial claims during her Arizona gubernatorial bid last November, is slated to speak at CPAC. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

CPAC’s speaking roster features a long list of well-known election deniers and conservatives who have echoed Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him thanks to widespread voter fraud and malfeasance.

Kari Lake, the former Arizona gubernatorial candidate who has challenged her own electoral loss, is slated to speak during CPAC, as are Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), both of whom have alleged that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump.

Then there’s Trump himself, who continues to spread his false election claims. 

CPAC will give all of them a friendly venue to talk about their allegations. But it’s not without risk: Polling shows that most voters believe that the nation’s elections are fair and reliable, and a growing number of Republicans say they’re more interested in a forward-looking vision than one that dwells in the past.

Tags Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC Donald Trump kari lake Mike Pompeo Nikki Haley Nikki Haley Ron DeSantis

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