ORLANDO, Florida — American Conservative Union (ACU) chairman Matt Schlapp told Breitbart News exclusively that his organization’s decision to move its landmark conservative gathering, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), to Florida this year may be a more permanent relocation after all.
CPAC begins Friday in Orlando, Florida, and for the first time in the historic conference’s decades-long history, it will not be in Washington, DC, or the D.C. area. Presidents from Ronald Reagan through Donald Trump and conservative luminaries of all stripes from senators to governors to U.S. House members to cabinet members and more have graced the stages of CPAC over the decades many times, so the move — due to the coronavirus pandemic — is a big one. The fact that it may be permanent — a huge loss for the D.C. area revenue-wise as the conference regularly brings in tens of thousands of travelers for several days — is even bigger as just days from now, former President Donald Trump will address the crowd in his first post-presidential public appearance.
For the last few years, CPAC has been at the Gaylord hotel in National Harbor, Maryland. Before that, it was held at either the Omni Shoreham or the Marriott Wardman Park in Northwest Washington, DC. But this year, the conference has moved to the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, the heart of a reddening state that backed Trump in the last two presidential elections and just elected a GOP governor in Ron DeSantis in 2018. The move is because of the coronavirus pandemic, still raging across the county with deep restrictions on public gatherings and lockdowns and closures in many blue states and cities. But here in red Florida, life is almost normal as restaurants and businesses are allowed to open with no capacity restrictions, and mask-wearing is generally not required statewide except in some localities and establishments. Here at CPAC, the hotel and ACU are requiring conference attendees to wear masks and are conducting health screenings and temperature checks at the entrance.
“Well, we thought, okay, we’ll have this at the Gaylord,” Schlapp told Breitbart News. “The Gaylord is in Maryland. Maryland has this governor that’s kind of gone along with shutdowns. So it was going to be tricky, but then I was shocked when the team said they were not even going to let us have it. They weren’t going to let us have the hotel open. So then I said, ‘let’s go to West Virginia.’ They have a good governor. It’s a low tax state; it’s a great state, and I said, ‘maybe we’ll go to the Greenbrier or something.’ At the same time, we were checking Tennessee and maybe Georgia, but Georgia disqualified itself because of their terrible election activity. Honestly, Gov. DeSantis has been great, and this hotel really wanted us and Orlando seemed to want us so we just did it. So far, everyone seems really happy that we’re here.”
Asked if the move may be a longer-term one even after Democrat President Joe Biden and other Democrats like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and establishment Republicans like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan eventually lift onerous lockdowns and restrictions one day, Schlapp said the board of the ACU is considering making the move to Florida permanent — a huge loss for the D.C. area.
“We just had a board meeting, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you a lot of people thought we should figure out a new way to get CPAC into Florida permanently,” Schlapp said. “We’ll check our options.”
At the sold-out conference, conservatives will hash out what happened in November — the Democrats swept into complete control in Washington for the first time since 2008, holding their House majority and taking the Senate and the White House — and what happens next. They will hear from Trump himself on Sunday but also several other potential 2024 presidential candidates as well as governors and senators and congressmen and conservative movement stars. Schlapp said the conversation now is not so much about disagreements in the movement and party as most of the GOP, he said, is pretty lockstep with Trump’s vision on policy now.
“I don’t think there’s so much navel-gazing like, ‘what do we believe?’ We just got off four years of being reminded not only do we believe these things, but we can get them done and make a big difference,” Schlapp said when asked what the focus of the conference will be. “Now, Biden is reversing almost all of that because a lot of it didn’t get past Congress, so they’re reversible. But I think we know what we believe. I think we have some disagreements, but by and large, I think we know what we believe. We’re on the cusp of winning the majorities back. I’d make a pretty big wager that the Republicans will win the House and the Senate back after these next elections. I’ve looked at that Senate map and everyone told me no it’s awfully tough. But I’m old enough and I’ve done this long enough that there are just themes. There are trends. And, it’s not a socialist country and Joe Biden is not comporting himself as any kind of moderate. The legislation they’re putting on the floor is radical stuff. I think there will be a huge pushback.”
There were disagreements years prior on things like immigration and Big Tech and other issues that split traditional conservatives from populists, but Schlapp said this year people are unified behind the threat of open borders policies from the Democrats and the threat of Big Tech censorship and efforts to eliminate and silence conservatives.
“I don’t think we have those disagreements anymore, do you?” Schlapp said. “Even on Section 230, on Big Tech, a lot of people like myself who are more laissez-faire on these types of questions are like, ‘well, wait a minute? What are the ground rules here? They can just totally screw us?’ We have to say, ‘well, we don’t really believe in regulations? Um, no.’ Twitter used to be in these backrooms with us at CPAC helping us get bigger, and they seem now to not want to help us at all. We’re the same group. We haven’t done anything different.”
On immigration, Schlapp said that he believes almost everyone here is going to discuss it in speeches and on media row where radio broadcasters and television and online media outlets are conducting interviews with the big names.
“I think everyone, they’re all going to talk about it,” Schlapp said of immigration. “It’s become the issue that was like, ‘oooohhh!’ But now that people have literacy on it, I’ll take myself for example — we used to talk about it and I didn’t really understand what’s going on at the southern border. It’s like well, there’s these kids and you want to be compassionate and there’s all these blurry words but then you start learning about what’s actually happening. Biden had no idea. No idea.”
Even the economic view and argument on immigration — that jobs should go to American workers first, not to people from foreign countries who enter the United States — Schlapp said has become a mainstream viewpoint in the Republican Party thanks in large part to Trump. It started, he said, in a way that many in the permanent political class viewed as “a little fringe-y” but Schlapp said, “now it’s totally mainstream.”
“Even the wall is mainstream,” he added. “Because people got knowledgeable. They learned about it.”
“I remember Breitbart putting pressure on the organization,” Schlapp continued, referring to Breitbart News coverage at past CPAC events on immigration. “I also remember doing so many television hits and talking to Stephen Miller and others, and we figured out what was going on at the border. When you figure it out you’re like, ‘oh.’ This is like the worst example of bad public policy all meshed together to the point where it is infuriating to listen to them blame Donald Trump for putting kids in cages. Obama bought the cages. But here’s the thing that’s also infuriating: them saying we were separating kids from their parents. When you realize that there’s no proof these were the parents of these kids and then you realize that some of the demographic is sixteen-year-old boys. Sure, that’s a kid, it’s a minor, but it’s not really a kid. Many of them are unaccompanied by an adult at all, but even if there is an adult claiming to be their parent when they show up, there’s no paper, no nothing. It’s some guy who’s not a little kid who could be in a gang or could be a criminal or could be an adult claiming to be a kid, shows up, there’s no paperwork. So, anyway, it’s — I have enjoyed watching the Biden administration struggling trying to talk about it and what I have noticed and this is interesting as I just told you he picked killers for all these bureaucratic jobs but it’s clear the White House doesn’t have any idea what happens at the border. When they talk about it, they’re setting themselves up for many, many more problems. They don’t have literacy on it. I’m no expert, but I got smarter, and once you figure out what’s going on down there, you probably stop demagoguing it if you’re a Democrat.”
Another issue that will be center stage here is election integrity. There are a number of panels on the matter, and big-name speakers are likely to hammer home the need to secure the vote nationwide after November. Schlapp pointed to Democrat lawyer Marc Elias, who led their party’s push on election law changes the past several years, as something Republicans need to take more seriously.
“I think the problem Republicans need to understand is that Marc Elias told us exactly what he was going to do,” Schlapp said. “He spent five years and plotted along. It’s all in FEC reports. He was doing the dossier right when he was doing it too. They spent millions of dollars. They had a killer team of probably 30 lawyers. He had a killer law firm, probably one of the best in the country, and they changed laws. When they couldn’t change laws, they went to liberal judges and got laws bent.”
That needs to change, Schlapp said, arguing that Republicans need an Elias-like figure of their own.
“Someone has to hold the RNC’s feet to the fire that they’re going to have a real legal strategy and they’re going to hire the best FEC lawyers and they’re going to be on the field fighting,” Schlapp said. “We don’t need to get divorce lawyers and fixing-your-parking-ticket lawyers and all those wonderful lawyers in small-town America who, because they’re patriots, ran to the problem and did all they could to fix the problems — and they’re trying to bone up on election law to go up against Marc Elias and his team? Who by the way showed up at every one of these hearings.”
While Republicans are mostly unified now on issues, Schlapp said, one of the keys at this conference will be a discussion over how to handle the future of the party stylistically and personality-wise.
“It’s this Lincoln Project question, right, which is do we need to divorce ourselves from Trump and do we need to rid him from our memories and our history or what?” Schlapp said. “A reporter called me and said, ‘hey why are you preaching to the choir? You have pro-Trump people, you have Trump speaking, and you’re speaking to just that part of the party.’ I said, ‘well, if the Trump coalition in our party is like, I like to call it, a choir, then the choir is the whole church.’ The only people who don’t think that was a success are maybe a small group who maybe fill a pew. So I think that’s resolved. Now, will Trump run? Will he not run? Who will run if he doesn’t run? That’s the great thing about CPAC. We’re going to see them all. They’re all going to talk. They’re going to be on the stage. They’re going to strut their stuff. And we’re going to see who pops. I think the favorite for that is probably Gov. DeSantis, who’s really doing a great job down here.”
What’s more, if Trump runs again, Schlapp said he is easily going to win the nomination. “Even Mitt Romney predicted that,” Schlapp said.
But if Trump does not run, then potential other hopefuls like DeSantis or like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or various senators and others appearing here will get their first chance to audition for the job of commander of chief one day before the conservative movement here at CPAC. Asked what people are looking for in their next leader if it is not Trump, Schlapp said they want fighters like Trump.
“Two things: Number one, they can’t be ‘Never Trump.’ This idea that Larry Hogan or somebody else like that or Michael Steele or someone Never Trump is going to get the nomination is a complete fantasy,” Schlapp said. “Number two, though, not being Never Trump means they also have to stand up for these conservative values but also number two is how would you be president? We had a model which said Republicans should be very sweet, very gentlemanly, lose most of the time but do it graciously and pick something or other to really fight on from time to time. Obviously, Trump destroyed that model. He fought on everything that he cared about. He fought hard. He fought a little dirty. He fought all day long. He communicated about it all day long. And, in the end, he had higher approval ratings than other presidents who decided to be nicer about it. That’s the model certainly that CPAC people want, but that’s also the model that the overwhelming number of Republicans want. If we’re going to say we’re for something, if we’re going to put it in a platform and say it’s something we care about, if we don’t fight for it and fight like hell on the other side against the opposite side, we’re going to lose 85 percent of the time.”
Another thing that will be discussed at length at CPAC, Schlapp said, is the Biden administration’s radical leftist agenda already being implemented in force. Schlapp argued that because Biden is such a boring person, it has allowed a lot of the radical agenda to fly under the radar.
“They’re doing it so competently,” Schlapp said of the Biden administration’s quick and aggressive executive actions. “The great thing about Democrats is that because government is their religion, the ‘Deputy Assistant Secretary’ knows that, come the next election, they have a good chance of becoming the ‘Assistant Secretary’ and they’ve done three different jobs already in different departments that interrelate and they’re just bureaucratic killers. They know exactly where the thing was left off when they were last in power and Obama did a great job of pushing people back into the Biden administration. In Trump world, it was like, ‘what the hell does that agency do?’ ‘Well, let’s pick Joe.’ ‘Well, why are we picking Joe?’ ‘Well, Joe is great in the real estate business.’ You know what I mean? It was great and beautiful and wonderful as an outsider, but the downside is they wasted too many years getting ready to win these bureaucratic battles. That’s why [Trump’s] second term was so important because they were just figuring this out.”
As such, Schlapp said, if someone like perhaps Pompeo — who understands the deep state and how it works given his time fighting for Trump’s agenda first as CIA director then as secretary of state — were to emerge as the 2024 GOP presidential candidate, then they would perhaps know how to implement the America First agenda much more deftly after having learned everything during the Trump era.
“Let’s say a guy like Mike Pompeo gets the nomination,” Schlapp said. “Here’s a guy who is an Ivy League-educated lawyer, has run some businesses, I’m obviously a fan of his as he’s from my hometown. He knows how the bureaucracy works and he’s done this overseas stuff. So, the upside to having a new person would be if that person could combine that conservative agenda of Trump, his almost sacrilegious attitude toward the swamp, and a real savvy understanding of how that bureaucracy works. That would be a great scenario. The downside is can anyone really be as independent as Trump? Be as separate from it all as Trump?”
The biggest takeaway, however, that Schlapp wants attendees to walk away from this conference with — and that he wants the leaders coming here to speak about — is that people want action. They are tired of talk, he said, and they want to see something done and done soon.
“The only problem I ever had with CPAC was a lot of talk and no go,” Schlapp said. “If this conference is seen as a lot of chatter and complaining, then that will not be a success. The only way this thing is a success is if we talk about the election fraud and we talk about how we stop it — and talk about how we stop HR1. We have to talk about how we open up schools and talk about how we got to get Washington out of those schools. For these congressmen, and we have 30 coming — so we have a really big crowd — they need to be concrete in what they are going to do to stop Biden. It’s a little hard to be in the House and stop Biden. You’re more looking for your opportunities, but in the Senate, there’s great opportunities to stop everything.”