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CPAC shows unity against Biden, but also Republican rifts

Sen. Rick Scott: Some GOP leaders ‘caving in’ to Democrats

Sen. J.D. Vance., R-Ohio, speaks as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, listens during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday at National Harbor, Md.
Sen. J.D. Vance., R-Ohio, speaks as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, listens during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday at National Harbor, Md. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — “Make America Great” baseball caps were plentiful and calls to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas drew vigorous applause. 

But while the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference was united in its contempt for President Joe Biden and other Democrats on Thursday, the annual event also showcased the rifts within the Republican Party. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, for example, denounced colleagues in the “establishment” for capitulating to Democrats.

There was little talk of the GOP’s performance in the 2022 midterms, when the party took control of the House but only by a nine-seat pickup, which underperformed expectations. 

Crowds were noticeably smaller: Rows of empty seats lined the back of the cavernous main ballroom as speakers such as Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville and CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp spoke. Several likely presidential contenders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, opted to skip the four-day gathering, which began Wednesday.

Two other presidential candidates, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur and activist Vivek Ramaswamy, are slated to speak Friday, while former President Donald Trump is to be the closing speaker Saturday.

Lackluster attendance was blamed on a number of factors, including a sexual assault allegation brought against Schlapp by a staffer on the 2022 campaign of Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker.

Though he was days away from appearing, Trump’s presence was felt throughout the event.

Noah Coffee, a 19-year-old college student from Houston, said he came to CPAC mainly to hear Trump. “I’m definitely on the Trump train,” he said. “He’s the heartbeat of CPAC.”

Several speakers praised the former president, decried the way he was treated and promised payback against Biden and Democrats.

“Think about what President Trump accomplished,” said Jordan, citing tax cuts and the nomination of conservative Supreme Court justices as two of those achievements.

Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the GOP needed to take a page from Democrats’ playbook, noting they zealously pursued impeachment charges against Trump in 2019 and early 2020.

Speakers at the conference painted a dark picture of the U.S. under Biden.  The federal government, they said, has demonized parents, allowed  fentanyl to flow across unsecured borders, failed to stand up to China, permitted transgender athletes to compete in girls sports and colluded with Big Tech to spy on Americans. They accused Democrats of lying about everything from Russian collusion in the 2016 election to the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine.

But some speakers also turned their focus inward, reflecting on the future of the Republican Party.

Sen. J.D. Vance, a Republican from Ohio who was elected in November on a populist platform, said the GOP is no longer the party of the wealthy country club set. 

“We’re the party of soldiers and sailors, of nurses, of construction workers,’’ said Vance, who has already endorsed Trump’s 2024 presidential bid.

“We have a different coalition than we had 30 years ago,” Vance said. “We’ve got to think about issues differently. You can go back 20, 30 years and the Republican Party was OK with trade deals and negotiations with China … that destroyed a lot of good middle-class jobs in the state that I come from. We’re not playing that game any more. We’re the pro-America party, not the pro-China party.”

The divide between the populists and what Sen. Ted Cruz referred to as “the Chamber of Commerce” wing of the party was reflected in the response to the train derailment and subsequent toxic chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio. 

Vance joined with Democrats, including fellow Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — a Democrat who is high on the GOP’s target list in 2024 — to craft a bill strengthening rail regulations.  Cruz accused Biden of failing to address the crisis.

“Democrats don’t give a damn about East Palestine because it’s a blue collar red place … and they’re like the hell with you,’’ Cruz said. “If you were a bunch of transgender tech workers, you’d have the entire Biden Cabinet down there for a listening session.’’

Asked at the Capitol, where he spoke to Senate Democrats, whether he’d visit the crash site, Biden said he had “spoken with every official in Ohio, Democrat and Republican, on a continuous basis” and that he would be “out there at some point.” 

In a separate talk later in the afternoon, Scott took aim at his fellow Republicans. While he did not cite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by name, he criticized “establishment Republicans” that he said have repeatedly capitulated to Democrats.

“It’s not just the Democrats in Washington who are destroying our country,’’ said Scott, R-Fla. “You’ve heard the famous quote: We’ve met the enemy and he is us. Unfortunately some of the leaders of our own Republican establishment, they’ve been in Washington way too long and they’ve forgotten why they came here. They’ve gotten used to caving in to the Democrats.”

Vance also had a message for the party’s establishment. 

“There are a lot of folks in the establishment wing, if they dont get their preferred candidate … they’ll not lift a finger to help,’’ said Vance, an outsider who won a competitive primary thanks largely to Trump’s endorsement.

“There are a lot of candidates who are going to win Republican primaries who aren’t going to be my first choice, that may be a little bit more moderate than I am, a little bit more establishment than I am. Who cares? When you have a candidate win the primary, [we’ve] all got to get on board and support [them],’’ he said.

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