NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Donald Trump’s decision to skip the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) here—a major gamble, and potentially a huge mistake—comes right as he’s aiming to unite conservatives movement-wide behind his campaign.
This move may jeopardize potential unity soon in the movement, even as signs of people getting behind him were beginning to show here.
“He spoke before I was chairman and the crowd always loves him,” American Conservative Union (ACU) chairman Matt Schlapp said in an interview with Breitbart News before Trump canceled. “He didn’t do great in the straw poll last year. My guess is he’ll do really well in the straw poll this year.”
Schlapp was even at that point defending Trump from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee who did appear at CPAC.
“I think it’s a pivotal moment,” Schlapp told Breitbart News when asked about the importance of CPAC as it relates to the presidential campaign.
I don’t know whether there’s weeks or months left in this race, before we really have a consensus nominee. But it’s time for everybody to do everything they can to get their candidate. Waiting seems unwise. I saw what Gov. Romney did today and I thought if you felt that much passion about this, you know Donald Trump’s the same guy as he was the day he got into this race. Nobody took him seriously. I think they thought he would just fall away but I think they’ve seen the opposite. I think the message they’ve taken from voters is now it’s a big threat they now have to stop. Part of me says great, go for it—this is America, do what you believe and leave it all on the field. Part of my brain says why? What’s the rationale for this.
Trump announced—as did CPAC, which is hosted by the ACU just outside Washington, D.C. annually—on Friday morning that he’s pulling out of the event. The announcement came after a contentious debate in Detroit on Thursday evening. The exchange on H-1B visas had him rattled, and saying on stage that he’s “changed” his viewpoint on the matter. After the debate, Trump blasted out a press release stating that he hadn’t changed his viewpoint.
CPAC Tweeted on Friday that they are “very disappointed” Trump “has decided at the last minute to drop out of” the event. “His choice sends a clear message to conservatives,” the conference Tweeted.
— CPAC (@CPAC) March 4, 2016
Trump’s campaign also issued a statement, saying he’s instead focusing on shoring up votes ahead of the Kansas caucuses on Saturday by holding a rally in Wichita.
The Donald J. Trump for President Campaign has just announced it will be in Witchita, Kanasas for a major rally on Saturday prior to Caucus,” the Trump campaign said. “He will also be speaking at the Kansas Caucus and then departing for Orlando, Florida and a crowd of approximately 20,000 people or more. Because of this, he will not be able to speak at CPAC as he has done for many consecutive years. Mr. Trump would like to thank Matt Schlapp and all of the executives at CPAC and looks forward to returning to next year, hopefully as President of the United States.
Newt Gingrich, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate and the former U.S. House Speaker, said on Twitter that Trump was “right.”
“Trump was right to skip CPAC,” Gingrich said. “The votes are in Kansas not Washington. Why give the anti-trump activists a target.”
Trump was right to skip CPAC. The votes are in Kansas not Washington. Why give the anti-trump activists a target
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) March 4, 2016
While Gingrich might be right about that point about where the votes are, Trump no-showing at the largest annual conservative movement event—one Ronald Reagan, the former president, attended 13 times—may hurt his ability to unite that movement behind his campaign, something he made clear he knows he has to do to win the general election during his post-Super Tuesday press conference.
Since Trump is and always has been a brute force populist nationalist—and not a movement conservative—the crowd that gathers here at CPAC from the traditional conservative movement has naturally been skeptical of his political rise. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), Trump’s chief competitors, are both appearing here as is Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Each of them has sought to spread and push that skepticism of Trump’s nationalism among movement conservatives in 2016, probably one of the biggest obstacles holding Trump back from total and complete domination in elections.
Trump supporter Carl Higbie, who appears on television and radio on Trump’s behalf regularly, told Breitbart News the night before Trump announced he’s skipping CPAC that he thought Trump’s speech here should emulate the gracious and humble press conference he gave after his big night on Super Tuesday.
“I think if we saw another speech much like the one he just gave after Super Tuesday—if we see that level of presidential unity and that type of presidential behavior from Mr. Trump, I think he’s going to start winning over some of the establishment guys,” Higbie said. “And I think it’s already starting a little bit.”
It certainly is. Trump has won endorsements from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), Maine Gov. Paul LePage, and former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. What’s more, several other major GOP players have started sounding a lot like they’re open to him.
“Oh absolutely,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), a powerful and connected conservative congresswoman who is heading the select committee investigating Planned Parenthood, told Breitbart News here when asked if Americans’ anger at Washington is justified. “I talked about that in my speech. I call this righteous anger. I think we can look at Jesus throwing over the tables in the templet and say this is what people are feeling: Righteous anger. They are sick of special interests taking control of Washington, D.C. They love their country too much so they’re fighting back.”
Trump just won Blackburn’s Tennessee on Super Tuesday, and she told Breitbart News that the key takeaway from Trump’s victory and Cruz’s second-place finish is that “it’s an outsider year.”
“People are looking for somebody who’s not going to go along to get along,” Blackburn said. “They’re looking for someone who’s going to care for the Constitution more than they’re going to care for personalities.”
Blackburn added that “sure, absolutely” the Republican Party will get behind Trump if he wins the nomination. “I think so,” Blackburn said. “I think you’re going to have some people who they just don’t like him, and they’re not going to support him, but by and large people are going to support Donald Trump if he’s the nominee.”
Blackburn added that “absolutely” the same goes for Cruz, Kasich or Rubio.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus which led the way in removing John Boehner from the Speakership and has been a change agent in the House, told Breitbart News similarly that the electorate is justifiably upset at lackluster non-leadership in Washington.
“It’s one of the reasons we created the Freedom Caucus,” Jordan told Breitbart News here.
Because we feel like there are a countless number of Americans who feel like Washington has forgotten them. In the Freedom Caucus, our goal every day is to figure out how we can be effective fighting for those families who feel like they’re forgotten and to do what we told the voters we were going to do. So, yes, there’s a frustration out there and we feel that on the inside as well. So we formed this so we can better do what we told the voters we were going to do. So yeah, it’s real. You’re feeling it in this race. But I also think the approximately 40 members of the Freedom Caucus, their constituents know they are fighting to do what they said they would do. I think voters respect that with those members.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), an outsider himself who worked in business before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, told Breitbart News that what he’s looking for in GOP presidential candidates is an “agenda, a vision, for America in terms of who we’re going to get our economy moving.”
“The kind of economic security that feeds into national security,” Johnson said.
Then hopefully they demonstrate to Republican primary voters how they would beat Hillary Clinton. It’s vital. This election is for all the marbles. The tragic passing of Justice Scalia, the vacancy on the court, this is for two branches of government—this is for the presidency and this for the Supreme Court—and we’ve got to maintain our majorities in both the House and the Senate. This is for all the marbles.
Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security committee in the U.S. Senate, told Breitbart News that the intense focus on national security and immigration matters in this presidential election—which is thanks in large part to Trump—is promising to him.
“Absolutely, that’s the top priority of our committee,” Johnson, who’s up for re-election this cycle, said. “We’ve held 14 hearings on border security alone. We’ve published a 100-page report on our findings and they’re not real cheery findings. Our border is completely insecure and it’s because on a bipartisan basis we have not made a commitment to secure the border. It’s going to be a top priority and a top issue in this campaign.”
Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX), who’s backing Cruz for president, told Breitbart News he’s looking for “a message of less government” from the presidential candidates here.
“My platform is what I want them to talk about,” Williams said. “Lower taxes, less government, cut spending, defend your borders, stand with Israel. I want them to talk about the Constitution as it’s written. I want them to talk about the Bible, and how it’s helping them get through this. So I think that’s what they need to say and I hope that’s what they’re going to talk about. Of course, I’ve endorsed Sen. Cruz and that’s where he is on the issues.”
Williams said of Cruz that “he’s going to continue to talk about what he talks about,” which is how Cruz is a “true conservative and he’s going to do what the Constitution tells him to do.”
Williams added that while he thinks Cruz is the only candidate left who can beat Trump in the GOP primary, if Trump does end up winning everyone needs to get behind his campaign moving into the general election.
“I think so,” Williams said when asked if Cruz’s victories in Texas, Oklahoma, and Alaska prove he’s the best suited to take on Trump, before adding:
But look, we have to support the person who wins. We can’t have another four years or eight years of Hillary Clinton. Are you kidding me? It would tear this country apart. I’m a Sen. Cruz man, but what I’m saying is he’s the only one—and Donald Trump—that can win states. I think Marco Rubio needs to probably take—we got the 15th coming up. If he can’t win Florida, he needs to get out. If Kasich can’t win Ohio, he needs to get out and let the people decide on who’s the best to run our country.
Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who’s currently running for the U.S. Senate seat Rubio will vacate at the end of this term thanks to Rubio’s presidential campaign, echoed Trump by saying the message the GOP candidates need to bring to CPAC is “energy, energy, energy.”
“We’ve had eight long years [of a Democrat president] and to add another four years to that, our country is going to be in such a hole so we have a chance to fight back and so we really have a chance to get our country back on the right track of limited government, the Constitution, individual initiative,” DeSantis said. “I’m hopeful. I think after eight years, I think the country is in the mood for something different. I think you’re seeing that out there with how many people are showing up in these Republican primaries.”
DeSantis, who is remaining neutral in the presidential race, said the discussion of “substantive ideas” like national security and immigration matters on the campaign trail is a good thing.
The more you’re discussing substantive ideas, I mean one of the issues that’s been discussed in these debates is the ‘Gang of Eight’ bill,” DeSantis said of Rubio’s legislation. “I think that that’s good. I was very much opposed to that—and a lot of conservatives were—but those are things that I think need to be aired out. I think that there’s a lot of insults, there’s too many of those, but there has been some substantive discussions.
DeSantis added that there is no doubt Donald Trump is currently leading big in Florida.
I think if you look at the polls, Donald Trump I think has led in every poll in Florida for like the last three months,” DeSantis said. “I think he’s in the drivers’ seat and you have these other guys, Rubio and Cruz, who are going to have to show some voters that they need to break with them because I think as things are going right now, I think Trump has probably got a pretty solid lead throughout the state. I’m not a good prognosticator, but I will say in Florida people have already been voting early and if the narrative—even if you start changing minds, there are already votes baked in the cake. It’s good to be leading three weeks out because you actually will bank votes three weeks out.
Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), who’s running for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, told Breitbart News that “it’s just too early to be able to divine those things” when asked if the party will get behind Trump if he wins the nomination.
“I’ll tell you that certainly I’ll consider getting behind whoever the nominee is, and I’m going to hold back until I know,” Fleming said. “But I do think we should come together as Republicans but also I think we need to listen to the American people. Obviously, they’re not up for the same old Republican establishment ideas and candidates. They want something new.”
Fleming said “I think it is” when asked if the process that’s playing out is healthy for the party and for conservatives.
“I think it is very healthy—that’s the whole point,” Fleming said.
I think too much has been hidden from people in Washington. The establishment has been listening to the special interests and not to the people and they’re just now figuring that out—the people across our country, our base. And they say “you know what, you guys never were listening to us, Republicans and Democrats, and it’s time to start listening.”
Fleming said that when Louisiana selects its candidate on Saturday, he doesn’t have any insights into what might happen other than that he expects an outsider to win.
I just think it’s going to be an outsider, whoever that is, because where everybody is coming from is the outside. But you know when it comes to the outside, I helped create the Freedom Caucus, and look at the change we brought. We tossed the Speaker of the House and we blocked the second in command from taking over. That’s what the American people want to hear from us. Whatever comes in 2016 in November, it’s going to have to do with people wanting change.
It remains to be seen what the fallout from this is going to be. It’s unclear if this obvious but slow-as-molasses movement in the conservative movement shift ever-so-slightly towards Trump will continue after the CPAC snub. It’s also certainly possible that Trump no-showing at CPAC doesn’t have any effect at all on it.
“I think people are genuinely—people are so pissed off—and so frustrated, they just want someone to disrupt,” videographer James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas—which does undercover video investigations into bastions of big government—told Breitbart News.
I think people just want a disrupter. That’s why you’re seeing Trump and Cruz do so well. If you’re an establishment guy, you have to convince people you’ll lead disruption. It’s not even a ‘conservative’ thing. I don’t think these people necessarily make conservatism a priority. These people just want someone who’s going to shake things up. Some people say Trump is the opposite of liberty—I don’t necessarily disagree. But he definitely is the opposite of Washington. So if you’re an establishment guy, you’ve got to find a way to channel the disruption. That’d be my advice—if you don’t do that, you’re not going to win.
“I really think that this is down to a two man race, Trump and Cruz, and I hope that these people let Marco Rubio and John Kasich know that they need to get out,” Dave Bossie, the head of Citizens United, added, noting that it’s unlikely to have a huge impact on Trump’s chances from here on out.