5 takeaways as Republicans close ranks at CPAC

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Conservatives converged on this lavish resort development on the outskirts of Washington this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The four-day event amounted to a preview of the Republican strategy as the party prepares to head into 2020, when President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE and nearly two dozen GOP senators will face reelection.

That strategy, laid out by speakers and activists at CPAC, appears almost certain to hinge on a vow to combat what many conservatives see as “socialism” within the Democratic Party and to preserve the legacy of Trump.

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Here are five takeaways from the conference:

Republicans preview 2020 message: anti-socialism

If there’s one message that rang clear throughout CPAC, it’s this: the Democratic Party is now the party of socialism.

The allegation, made by speaker after speaker at the four-day gathering, offered the clearest signal to date that conservatives plan to hinge their 2020 message on a call to arms against what they described as encroaching government regulation and market interference.

“This election is not going to be about Republican or Democrat. It's going to be about socialism and the free market,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants History in the House: Congress weathers unprecedented week EU official in Canada says he feels 'at home' there because no one was shouting 'send him back' MORE (R-Calif.) said this week.

Trump also mentioned socialism in his two-hour address.

"The future belongs to those who believe in freedom … America will never be a socialist country," he said in his speech.

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Several speakers put Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Memo: Trump's risky bid for attention Conservative former NFL player says Trump met with him to discuss 'black America' Louisiana police officer fired after saying on Facebook that Ocasio-Cortez 'needs a round' MORE (D-N.Y.) in their crosshairs, hammering the freshman congresswoman over her push for a "Green New Deal," a single-payer health care system and her self-identification as a democratic socialist.

“Democratic socialism is just a [politically correct] term for communism,” Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaGorka criticizes reporter after heated Rose Garden exchange Trump declares Gorka 'wins big' after clash with reporters in Rose Garden Trump social media summit attendees clash with reporters in Rose Garden MORE, a former White House adviser, said on Thursday.

Conservatives are firmly behind Trump

When Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, was asked on Thursday what would happen if former Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan mounted a primary challenge against Trump, her response was clear.

“That’s fine. They’ll lose horribly," McDaniel said.

McDaniel’s remarks, and those of others, were more than a warning to potential Republican primary challengers.

They were a reminder that, less than three years after Trump secured the GOP’s presidential nomination, the party is firmly in the president’s corner.

Other speakers at CPAC heaped praise on Trump, lauding him as a transformational figure with unparalleled support among the Republican Party’s conservative base.

Dotting the sea of attendees were the president’s signature red “Make America Great Again” hats.

“We’ve gone from pessimism to optimism,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said. “He has ended the war on business, he has ended the war on energy, he has ended the war on success. In economic terms, you are now rewarded for the extra hour worked, for the extra investment, for the extra risk taken.”

CPAC avoids divisive issues among conservatives

For conservatives, CPAC offered an opportunity to project unity and optimism less than four months after midterm elections that saw Democrats recapture control of the House.

Divisive issues in the Republican Party were largely sidelined throughout the four-day conference.

Speakers and conservative rock stars rarely mentioned Trump’s trade war with China or his self-identification as a "Tariff Man."

Likewise, immigration took a back seat to other issues; only one panel during the conference — “Nationhood and the Border Crisis” — focused exclusively on the matter.

Instead, panels and breakout sessions focused on areas of unity for conservatives: blasting the Green New Deal, expressing support for Israel and Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy there to Jerusalem, and religious freedom.

Also taking a starring role in the conference was Venezuela, the embattled South American country where Trump has expressed support for the self-declared interim President Juan Guaidó.

McDaniel pointed to Venezuela as an example of “the path that Democrats are taking us down.”

Those themes exemplify conservatives’ efforts to cast the Republican Party as a unified front in the face of a large and diverse Democratic presidential primary field.

Midterm losses linger among conservatives

While speakers and conferencegoers were mostly bullish on the Republican Party’s strength, lingering in the background of CPAC were questions about conservative political prospects in the future.

Democrats captured some 40 House seats in the 2018 midterm elections, giving them a majority in the chamber after eight years in the minority.

Those victories were driven in no small part by female, minority and young voters in what was seen as a backlash to Trump.

Throughout CPAC, speakers hammered home the need to court younger voters and called to “educate” Americans on the very Democrats they had cast their ballots for in 2018.

“We can't think that the American people understand what socialism is,” McDaniel said. “We have to go out and educate people.”

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTed Cruz: 'Fox News went all in for Trump' 2 Republican senators introduce resolution to label antifa as domestic terrorists Ted Cruz: Trump's chances of winning reelection are '50-50' MORE (R-Texas) suggested on Friday that Republicans would have kept control of the House had they forced through funding for Trump’s long-promised border wall while they still had control of both chambers of Congress.

"I don't think we would have lost the House of Representatives,” Cruz said.

Taken together, the comments suggest that conservatives have the midterms on their minds — and are looking for lessons heading into 2020.

Ocasio-Cortez replaces Clinton, Pelosi as Democratic boogeyman

Ocasio-Cortez took center stage at CPAC this week — and she never even showed up.

The 29-year-old freshman congresswoman has emerged as a new boogeyman for conservatives, and CPAC cemented that reputation.

Speaker after speaker took turns denouncing Ocasio-Cortez — or “AOC” — for what they called her socialist agenda.

“I take people like AOC seriously because she is the thought leader of the Democratic Party right now,” Fox's Ingraham said Thursday. “She says something and pretty much every presidential candidate or hopeful jumps, or are forced to respond.”

The slew of attacks marked a change from past years at CPAC, when speakers and guests delivered tirades against Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Mnuchin reach 'near-final agreement' on budget, debt ceiling Wendy Davis launches bid for Congress in Texas Steyer calls on Pelosi to cancel 'six-week vacation' for Congress MORE (D-Calif.) and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report A question for Robert Mueller MORE, who were both considered longtime antagonists in conservative circles.

At the center of the criticism of Ocasio-Cortez was the congresswoman’s proposed Green New Deal, which several speakers pointed to as a proxy for socialism.

While Trump mentioned Clinton and got a "lock her up" chant that was popular in 2016 going, he also criticized the Green New Deal.

"Socialism is not about the environment, it’s not about justice, it’s not about virtue. Socialism is about only one thing: it’s called power for the ruling class," Trump said.

Speaking on Thursday, Gorka insisted that the freshman representative’s proposal was “a watermelon.”

“It's green on the outside, deep, deep red communist on the inside,” Gorka said.