The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) made one thing clear: The GOP is still former President Trump’s party.
The three-day gathering in Orlando, Fla., of members of the GOP grassroots coalition was full of praise for Trump, devoid of much dissent and capped by an hourlong speech from the former president himself.
The gathering also provided Republican rising stars, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (R) with a platform to test the political waters ahead of potential 2024 bids.
Here are five takeaways from this year’s CPAC.
Trump retains iron grip on GOP
Trump may have lost reelection last year, but the entire conference still revolved around him.
Speakers regularly praised the former president over the course of the weekend. A golden statue of Trump was even rolled out to be displayed on Friday. And he was given the distinction of delivering the conference’s closing speech.
The former president was greeted with chants and applause from the audience on Sunday before he delivered a speech that lasted more than an hour and was punctuated by cheers.
He threw cold water on the idea of starting a new party and teased the possibility of a presidential bid in 2024.
“We will first take back the House, and then a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House. I wonder who that will be,” he said.
CPAC’s straw poll found that 55 percent of respondents said they would vote for Trump in a hypothetical 2024 primary, while 95 percent said they want the Republican Party to continue with Trump’s agenda and policies.
Plenty still want a fresh face for 2024
The same CPAC straw poll showed that a sizable number of Republicans say they want a new face to carry the party’s banner in 2024 — but one that will carry forward Trump’s agenda.
Trump led the field with 55 percent support, followed by DeSantis at 21 percent and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) at 4 percent. In a poll that excluded Trump, DeSantis led, carrying a wide lead of 43 percent support, followed by Noem at 11 percent. Donald Trump Jr. had 8 percent support, while former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) both came in at at 7 percent.
“So again you see how important to everybody here — the grassroots, the base of the conservative movement, the base of the Republican Party — it is either President Trump or a Trump candidate,” pollster Jim McLaughlin, who announced the poll’s results at CPAC, said.
Speculation has swirled around DeSantis launching a 2024 run. The governor, who has closely aligned himself with Trump, has received praise from conservatives for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, CPAC organizers said they chose Orlando for its location this year due to much of the state remaining open during the pandemic.
Anti-Trump views are absent
With Trump as the central figure, the conservative gathering notably excluded any opposing views to the former president.
CPAC’s straw poll showed that only 3 percent of respondents said the GOP should change direction from Trump, while 2 percent said they were unsure.
A number of the event’s speakers, including Trump Jr. and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), have called for primary challenges against the former president's critics, including House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wy.).
Cheney was notably absent from the conference, as was Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), a former Republican presidential nominee and winner of the CPAC straw poll in 2012.
Trump himself took the opportunity to hit his GOP critics, name-checking in his speech every Republican who voted to impeach or convict him and saving particular ire for Cheney.
"And the warmonger, the person who loves seeing our troops fighting, Liz Cheney," Trump said. "Hopefully they'll get rid of her with the next election. Get rid of 'em all."
Trump also warned against Republican disunity, lashing out at what he referred to as “Republicans in name only.”
"If Republicans do not stick together, the RINOs that we're surrounded with will destroy the Republican Party," he said.
Election misinformation continues to be widely shared
Despite the fallout he faced over his Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and the subsequent riot at the Capitol, Trump continued to air false claims about the general election.
Trump said multiple times throughout his address that he won the 2020 election and that it was “stolen” from him.
The CPAC audience appeared to relish in Trump’s false claims, at one point chanting, “You won.”
It wasn’t only Trump peddling the false statements. Numerous speakers throughout the event made the same claims. In fact, Right Side Broadcasting Network, which was livestreaming the event, cut in during a panel discussion and urged viewers to “do your own research.”
Speakers talked, without evidence, about “late-night ballot dumps” and Democratic groups working to suppress GOP turnout in Georgia.
Trump’s claims about widespread voter fraud have been dismissed by more than 60 courts and his own Justice Department. Numerous recounts in swing states also found no widespread fraud and declared President Biden the winner.
The comments come as Republican state lawmakers across the country work to put forward proposals that would implement more voting restrictions following Trump’s defeat last year.
“It is undeniable that election rules were illegally changed at the last minute in almost every swing state, with the procedures rewritten by local politicians ... as opposed to state legislatures as required by the Constitution of the United States,” Trump said.
“Trumpism” isn’t going anywhere
This year’s CPAC demonstrated that Trumpism would remain at the center of the Republican Party whether Trump ends up at the top of the ticket or not.
The former president painted Trumpism as a conservative philosophy that promotes strong borders as well as fiscal and cultural conservatism.
“Trumpism means strong borders,” Trump said. “It means law enforcement. It means very strong protection for the Second Amendment.”
“It means support for the forgotten men and women who have been taken advantage of for so many years,” he continued.
The rising stars invited to the gathering also appeared to embody Trump’s political philosophy, including DeSantis and Noem.
Additionally, Trump and the conference continued to warn against the threat of what they called socialism, painting Biden and the entire Democratic Party as radical leftists.