Other candidates are running and more will get in, but former President Donald Trump hung over two Republican conferences in the Capital region last weekend. One was decidedly less enthusiastic than the other.
The Principles First summit began three years ago and became a form of therapy for Republicans disillusioned that the party had lined up behind Trump, said Heath Mayo, the corporate attorney who founded the group.
“I think we’re done with the therapy,” Mayo said Sunday at the group’s third summit, which was being held at a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel. “People are starting to think strategically. And it’s not just about Trump.”
Along with trying to find their lane in a two-party system, the 300 attendees discussed where Republican policy is on issues such as trade, U.S. support for Ukraine and leading on the world stage, Mayo said. But the question of whether the future was through the GOP, a conservative wing of the Democratic Party or even a third party was at the root of the meeting.
This bloc of voters may not swing a Republican primary in 2024, but Mayo said they could be significant in a general election, where voters have shown they will vote for a Democrat over a Republican they don’t believe in.
“Nobody in these rooms wants Trump to be the president again and people will damn near crawl over hot coals to stop that from happening, but I do think, you know, that there’s some substantive difference between a lot of the things that the Republican Party is saying,” he said.
The conference heard from former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Sunday morning, but while his videotaped message talked about moving beyond “angry, divisive politics,” it didn’t include the news that broke that morning that he would not run for president. Hogan had told CBS News and wrote in a New York Times op-ed that he did not want to risk splitting the opposition and giving Trump the nomination again.
Also appearing was former Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who voted to impeach Trump and served on the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Kinzinger, who decided not to run for reelection last year, said he would like to run for office again but that he wouldn’t pretend there’s currently a space for him to do so.
“I have no loyalty to the party,” he told reporters. “If it’s a conservative Democrat thing starts actually happening. If it’s some other movement, whatever.”
Trump at CPAC
Meanwhile, at a suburban Maryland conference center about a dozen miles outside downtown, the “Always Trump” crowd cheered the former president at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Trump railed against his usual targets: warmongers and globalists, members of the “deep state” and the “fake” news media, plus communists and “RINOs” — Republicans in name only. Trump also served up an extra helping of antipathy for establishment Republicans.
“When we started this journey … we had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neo-cons, globalists, open-border zealots and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush,” Trump said, referring to the former House speaker, presidential adviser and Florida governor.
Over the course of an hour and 45 minutes on Saturday, Trump delivered a dark message that was infused with populism and threaded with personal grievances. He denounced many of the principles that the Republican Party once stood for, including cutting entitlement programs and embracing a hawkish foreign policy. And after appointing Supreme Court justices who helped undo Roe v. Wade, he largely ignored abortion, an issue that had animated the party’s conservative base in the past.
“We’re not going back to people who want to destroy our great Social Security system, even some in our own party … that want to raise the minimum age for Social Security to 70, 75 or even 80 in some cases,” Trump said. “We are never going back to a party that wants to give unlimited money to fight foreign wars that are endless wars … but at the same time demands that we cut veterans benefits and retirement benefits at home.
“We’re never going to be a country ruled by entrenched political dynasties in both parties, rotten special interests, China-loving politicians of which there are many,” Trump said, singling out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by name.
Trump’s cult of personality infused CPAC, which also featured speeches by his allies and family members. But he wasn’t the only speaker at the four-day event to attack the party’s establishment wing.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told the CPAC audience that a new breed of conservatives will take an aggressive approach to investigating the Biden administration. “It is no longer the time to go back to the old low-energy Paul Ryan, Trey Gowdy days of fake oversight,” Gaetz said, referring to the former South Carolina lawmaker who chaired the House panel investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. “These are new times, they call for boldness and patriotism.”
In her speech, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., leaned heavily on attacking transgender youth. She drew energetic applause when she spoke of a bill she plans to reintroduce that would make it a felony to provide gender-affirming health care to youth. “The Republican Party will be the party that protects children from such an evil that I cannot believe it exists,” she said.
Greene also doubled down on criticism of aid to Ukraine. She vowed to “directly tell [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, you’d better leave your hands off of our sons and daughters because they’re not dying over there.”
But unsurprisingly, those weren’t the topics that the speakers at Principles First focused on, which included panels on the future of the GOP, the rule of law and keeping the peace after Jan. 6.
Former Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock said the type of people who attended the Principles First conference are the “majority makers,” who determine who’s in office. She criticized Republican candidates like former Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, the speaker at a dinner with a separate admission price at CPAC.
Comstock, who lost a swing seat in 2018 after two terms in the House, said in an interview that she’s advised people interested in running in swing districts that the 2024 cycle may not be the best time to run if Trump is on the ballot. She said waiting for 2026 might be a better option, especially in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan or Arizona where Trump narrowly won in 2016 but lost in 2020.
“If you’re a suburban Republican running in any of those states, or a suburban Republican in Virginia, the idea of Trump being the nominee has to strike fear, and no amount of money can really compensate for really having him on the ticket,” she said.
Still, others emphasized how to focus on the future of the Republican Party. Conservatives who oppose Trump need to “make the case to voters that Trump isn’t truly a conservative,” said Geoff Duncan, former lieutenant governor of Georgia.
Duncan, who did not seek a second term last year and is now a CNN commentator, outlined five steps to rebuild the party, which he said he was dedicating his future to and could help win back the White House in 2024. He said the party needs to do more than just oppose Trump or President Joe Biden, but also have a conversation about how to control federal spending and to compete in the suburbs.
He said he hoped both parties would put forward better candidates next year.
“I know that there are a number of conservatives that, if given the chance to vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump would vote for Joe Biden, and I know that there’s some in this room that would do the same thing,” Duncan said to applause. “I get it. But you know what, this is America, and you deserve and I deserve and every American deserves a better matchup than Joe Biden and Donald Trump.”