GOP tries not to rock the boat at CPAC
While there were no big surprises this year, the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, was as animated as ever last week, featuring three days of barn-burning speeches by Republican party icons like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But it was self-described “Libertarian Republican” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky who came away with the big win on Saturday, taking first place in CPAC’s presidential straw poll with 31% of the vote. Sen. Ted Cruz was a distant second with 11%, followed by newcomer Ben Carson with 9%. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie placed fourth with 8%.
Although Republicans attempted to display a united front, the 2014 CPAC straw poll highlights intra-party tensions that remain unresolved in the wake of Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid. Some Republican establishment figures have suggested the party needs to soften its stance on divisive issues like immigration and gay rights, putting them on a collision course with the more conservative Tea Party, which is pushing for a harder line in 2016.
“The way the Left tells it, the Republican Party is in a civil war,” Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan told the CPAC crowd on Thursday. “I don’t see this great divide in our party. What I see is a vibrant debate.”
While Ryan said he invited “creative tension,” divisive issues like immigration reform and gay rights went virtually unmentioned for the duration of the three-day conference. One notable exception was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who criticized Republican leaders for encouraging conservatives to back down on traditional social issues. “They actually mean we have to lose,” Santorum said.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who previously saw his rising star tarnished by a conservative backlash to his support for a path to citizenship, made no mention of immigration reform in his CPAC speech, focusing instead on a muscular foreign policy vision that has won him renewed attention in recent weeks.
Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, struck a similarly cautious tone, urging Republicans to set aside political infighting and unite behind the party’s nominee in 2016. “You can call them a RINO, you can call them a tea-bagger, you can call them whatever you want – vote for them, okay?” Carson said. “We need those people.”
Another sign that Republicans are trying not to rock the boat was the return of Gov. Christie, who was disinvited from CPAC last year after buddying up to President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The embattled New Jersey Governor received a relatively warm reception from the conservative crowd as he lashed out at the media and President Obama, who he blamed for the failure of bipartisan budget negotiations. “If that’s your attitude, Mr. President, then what the hell are we paying you for?” he said.
Christie wasn’t the only politician seeking to burnish his conservative bonafides – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is facing a primary challenge from the right in his home state of Kentucky in 2014, made a point of taking the CPAC stage with a rifle, a gift for retiring Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
Underscoring the continued right-wing threat to establishment-friendly figures like Christie and McConnell was former Gov. Sarah Palin, who closed the conservative conference on Saturday with an admonition. “You know that 2010 tea party victory that swept you into power? You didn’t build that,” Palin warned. “The tea party did.”