Donald Trump loomed large over the annual Conservative Action Political Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., this week, demonstrating the iron grip the former president still maintains over the GOP’s ultra-conservative base.
Trump won the event’s straw poll with 62 percent support, while his intraparty rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) came in a distant second with 20 percent support.
However, this year’s CPAC lacked the excitement seen in past years and featured far fewer party leaders, in part due to the conservative Club for Growth’s donor retreat in Florida happening at the same time. The dueling events underscored a growing divide in the Republican Party going into 2024.
Here are five takeaways from this year’s CPAC:
It’s the Trump show
If CPAC made one thing clear, it’s that the former president trumped all else at the conference. Attendees showed up in Trump-inspired attire, wearing pins and even dresses with the former president’s face, in addition to his signature red “Make America Great Again” hats, and many of the speakers were among the former president’s most vocal proponents.
Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) were among some of this year’s notable speakers, all of whom are staunch Trump supporters.
Gaetz told The Hill in a brief interview regarding his support for Trump’s 2024 White House campaign that the former president “has a special magic, an energy, a coalition that excites people and welcomes people in.”
Other Republicans acknowledged that the former president was still a formidable candidate, while pushing back against the notion that he held a vice-like grip on CPAC.
“There’s no question he is the frontrunner, but this is not a Trump event,” former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of the event.
Meanwhile, the event was just as notable for those who skipped the event — such as widely speculated GOP presidential candidates Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), former Vice President Mike Pence, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — suggesting Republicans might be interested in forging their own path without the platform of institutions like CPAC.
White House rivals fail to make waves
The event was sparsely attended by Trump’s potential 2024 rivals, with the exception of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Pompeo spoke to a small crowd and took a swipe at the former president’s administration for adding nearly $8 trillion to the national debt. Meanwhile, Haley made her pitch to a half-full ballroom, telling attendees to vote for her if they were tired of losing. Later, attendees shouted chants of “We love Trump” as she snapped photos with supporters.
Some of the biggest potential 2024 contenders, such as DeSantis, were absent from the event. However, a CPAC promotional video played minutes before Trump’s address showed clips of DeSantis addressing last year’s CPAC gathering in Orlando and drew applause from the crowd.
Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, who was removed from the state’s gubernatorial ballot last year for filing fraudulent nominating signatures and who was camped out all week at the event, came in third place in the straw poll, with 5 percent support. Haley came in with 3 percent support, while Ramaswamy and Pompeo received 1 percent support each. Other potential 2024 GOP hopefuls, including Pence, Scott, Youngkin, Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), all clocked in with less than 1 percent support.
The event is losing its luster
This year’s CPAC attracted thinner crowds than in years past — making it feel like a ghost of the event that was once all-encompassing of the Republican Party’s many different groups.
Groups mingling in the halls were smaller. The auditorium for Haley and Pompeo — some of the conference’s most high-profile speakers — was sparsely populated during their speeches. While Trump attracted a larger crowd, even his presence at CPAC was not enough to fill the entire ballroom, as a wide section of seats in the back of the room remained empty.
Against the backdrop of a diminished CPAC were also allegations that CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp groped a former staffer who worked on former Senate candidate Herschel Walker’s (R) campaign. An attorney for Schlapp has denied the accusations. But they undeniably colored the event.
Grievance politics take center stage
Throughout the multiday event, Trump and his allies used their platforms to promote unfounded claims of election fraud and target critics — many of them Republicans.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House strategist, lashed out at Fox News and the Murdochs, alleging they weren’t covering the former president’s campaign enough, while also falsely referring to the 2020 election as stolen.
Trump himself repeated his unfounded election claims during his closing speech, and falsely suggested that Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R) lost her race last year due to election malfeasance. Meanwhile, he took frequent aim at his adversaries, including some of his Republican foes: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), former White House candidate, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and others.
“We are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush,” Trump said to loud applause.
Bush said in a recent interview that he hoped DeSantis would run for president in 2024 and has previously expressed support for having Trump face a primary challenger during the 2020 GOP presidential primary.
Ryan, a former Speaker and another Trump critic, said earlier this year that the former president “is a proven loser.”
“He cost us the House in ’18, he cost us the White House in ’20, he cost us the Senate again and again,” Ryan said at the time.
Meanwhile, Romney drew Trump’s ire as he was the only Senate Republican to vote to convict the former president during both impeachment trials.
But the former president also took aim at McConnell. During his speech, he criticized “China-loving politicians” before referencing the Senate GOP leader and saying “You listening to this, Mitch McConnell? You listening to this?”
The former president has repeatedly attacked McConnell’s wife, former Trump Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, drawing accusations of racism.
2024 could get ugly
While the GOP primary field is still solidifying, the event put into sharp relief the divisions within the Republican Party and pointed to a contentious general election as Trump framed the race in war-like terms.
Though DeSantis has been pitched by some Republicans as a formidable alternative to Trump, CPAC demonstrated that the former president still maintains a strong influence over the party and hinted at a potentially volatile primary.
Meanwhile, Trump did not hold back when it came to his 2020 rival, the current occupant of the White House.
Trump lobbed countless attacks against President Biden and Democrats in his address, which included a joke about the president falling.
“You know, we all smile when he falls down stairs and things. It’s cute,” Trump quipped, adding that he was surprised “that the reporters didn’t catch him” when he fell off of his bicycle.
The former president also suggested that his campaign to take back the White House in 2024 was a quest to get back at his adversaries on both sides of the aisle in Washington.
“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today I add: I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution!” Trump exclaimed to the crowd.
–Updated on March 5 at 5:29 a.m.