It's been nearly half a century since then-Governor Ronald Reagan addressed the first Conservative Political Action Conference, peppering his 1974 speech with invocations of American greatness and invectives against government regulations, while praising future senator and presidential nominee John McCain's Vietnam War-era courage as "typical of this land."
In the decades since Reagan's address, CPAC has become one of the primary annual focal points of mainstream conservatism — even as that mainstream incorporates increasing extremes, particularly in recent years — standing on par with the Republican National Convention. It's where right-wing aspirants and operators make their appeals to the base, who in turn jostle for access, influence, and proximity to those working their way up the conservative ranks. It is, per longtime GOP pollster Jim McLaughlin, "the ultimate barometer of what's going on in the conservative movement." As factions within the Republican party grapple with how former President Donald Trump fits into the GOP's future, this year's conference is just as notable for who is scheduled to participate as who isn't. In the vacuum left by these conspicuous absences, the question arises: Is CPAC losing steam in the conservative world? Here's everything you need to know:
Who's going, and who's not?
Ahead of the March 1-4 conference, the guest list is set. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the star attraction at this year's event will be former President Donald Trump, who has made CPAC a regular annual stop for dropping tantalizing hints about his political future and airing his favorite grievances. Trump has treated CPAC as more an extension of his political rallies rather than an ostensibly neutral conference, and as the conference has reshaped itself in kind to become "more TPAC — as in Trump — than CPAC," The Hill''s Albert Hunt noted two years ago.
Joining Trump this year, however, will be former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the other major candidate who has officially tossed their hat in for the GOP's presidential nomination, and someone who has indiscreetly taken shots at her onetime boss as she works to establish herself as a post-Trump figurehead for the party.
"There's a lot of next-generation candidates out there, and I think that Nikki is tactfully going to try to make the case that there's a real choice between these older guys like Trump and this younger generation of leaders that are changing the world," one Republican consultant told The Hill's Max Greenwood. "Having them both at CPAC, you're going to have two very different types of personalities to compare."
If CPAC presents such an ideal platform for comparative candidate shopping, however, then why have both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence — both heavily rumored to be preparing their own presidential bids — chosen to skip this year's conference? While DeSantis will reportedly be dining with GOP donors and notables as part of his ongoing book tour instead, Pence has explicitly declined an invitation to speak at CPAC in a repeat of his 2021 decision. It's not just potential candidates eschewing the conference either; according to The Daily Beast, Fox News — once a major sponsor of the event — has essentially gone dark ahead of this year's event.
"None of Fox News Media's outlets are listed among CPAC 2023's list of partnering sponsors, which includes the network's conservative arch-rival Newsmax as well as far-right competitors like Real America's Voice," The Daily Beast's Justin Baragona reported just days before the conference is set to begin. "Additionally, Fox staffers told The Daily Beast they have yet to receive any guidance on how they will cover CPAC."
Who is to blame for CPAC's faltering popularity?
These conspicuous absences all come as the conference is reportedly straining under the allegations that Matt Schlapp, whose American Conservative Union group runs CPAC, sexually accosted a staffer for GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker. Schlapp has denied the allegations. Nevertheless, in both Pence and Fox's cases those allegations may have contributed to the decision to step back from the conference this year.
"It shouldn't come as a surprise that CPAC is not attracting the big names that it once did," one source told ABC News regarding Pence."There's a feeling within the Republican Party that CPAC has long abandoned the traditional values that it once stood for." The allegations against Schlapp seemingly have only served to "exacerbate" the preexisting frustrations with the group "and are likely to contribute to further decline by the organization."
For Fox, the decision to remove itself from this year's conference is seemingly part of a broader push by the conservative media powerhouse to sever ties with Schlapp and his wife Mercedes, both former contributors to the network who have each been absent from broadcasts since the allegations were made public. As The Daily Beast's Justin Baragona reports, Fox's downgraded relationship with the pair has prompted the Schlapps to find "a willing partner in Fox's wannabe rival Newsmax," where the couple has made "regular appearances."
"With Newsmax hosts blithely ignoring the groping allegations, the couple has been able to hype up the confab," writes Baragona.
DeSantis' decision to skip CPAC this year may be less a question of moral objection to Schlapp's alleged behavior, and more a matter of sheer political calculus.
"CPAC has been getting more and more extreme with each passing year," longtime political consultant Mac Stipanovich told the South Florida Sun Sentinal. "I think that DeSantis has probably pretty well established his credentials and his credibility with the people who are going to be sitting in the audience at CPAC." In other words, Stipanovich calculates, "there may be ways for him to better spend his time without some of the exposure that, in a national race, might not be beneficial."
No matter the reasons behind their decisions, the fact that CPAC is now faced with so many high-profile absences ahead of a presidential election cycle doesn't bode well for the longtime powerhouse of conservative conferences. While by no means a death knell for the event, the fact that kingmakers like Fox News and would-be-kings like DeSantis are evidently comfortable skipping the annual festivities entirely suggests that CPAC's clout might be waning, after all.