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The CPAC Crackup

What is not yet clear is whether this is a divorce — or merely a trial separation.

As the annual CPAC conference kicks off Wednesday, we’re seeing signs of a growing split between the extremists and the normies.

What is not yet clear is whether this is a divorce — or merely a trial separation. But as we head into 2024, the battle lines are clearly being drawn.

We’re seeing signs of a growing split between the extremists and the normies.

As NBC News reported this week, many of the most prominent figures in the GOP, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, former Vice President Mike Pence and other GOP congressional leaders are avoiding the Conservative Political Action Conference taking place in Maryland this year.

For years, CPAC has been known as the “Star Wars bar scene” of the conservative movement. But in the Trump era, the event increasingly felt like a cult gathering. A few years ago, the conference featured a golden statue of Trump, prompting widespread ridicule. And current CPAC leader Matt Schlapp seems to be relying more and more on fringe figures for its featured speakers.

This year, Schlapp has assembled a roster of B-list Trump loyalists, including former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Donald Trump Jr, his fiancée Kimberly Guilfoyle, and GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ronny Jackson, Jim Jordan, Scott Perry and Elise Stefanik. Election denier and failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and My Pillow Guy Mike Lindell will also get (arguably) coveted speaking slots.

Another featured speaker: recently defeated Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who will be filling the slot apparently reserved for authoritarian strong figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who spoke at a CPAC event last year, and fascist-adjacent wannabes like France’s Marion Le Pen, who spoke to the group in 2018.

Of course, Donald Trump himself will headline the event.

Trump, however, was not invited to this week’s Club for Growth Retreat. The rival meeting will be attended by DeSantis, Pence, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.

Nikki Haley, who has been trying to straddle both worlds, will attend both events. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to speak at CPAC, and was reportedly also invited to the Club for Growth gaggle.

The timing of this proxy war could not be worse.

Some Republicans may be avoiding the conference because of Schlapp himself, who is facing allegations of sexual assault. (He denies the allegations.) But The Washington Post reported that Schlapp is also braving external and internal strife, “including the exodus of more than half of its staff since 2021, according to the current and former employees and board members.”

Another ominous sign for the right-wing group: “The Fox Nation streaming service is not returning as a sponsor.”

This boycott of CPAC is likely about more than Schlapp’s morality, however. Trump opponents run the risk of being booed (or worse) by the MAGA-ified crowds who still show up for the festivities.

As one veteran Republican operative told NBC, “Someone said to me, ‘We all wanted an excuse not to go, and Schlapp gave it to us.’”

But the decision by Pence, DeSantis and others to avoid the conference might also reflect another calculation.

But the decision by Pence, DeSantis and others to avoid the conference might also reflect another calculation: For many Republicans, CPAC had become a growing embarrassment, a carnival of cranks, crackpots and crazies. And being associated with conspiracy theorists like Kari Lake and Lindell — not to mention figures who may have played an even more direct role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — is politically reckless.

Election deniers, including Lake, fared poorly in the midterms, and there are ongoing criminal probes of the attempts to overturn the election and the attack on the Capitol.

So, for the time-being (and it may not last long) Republicans who are distancing themselves from Trump are also avoiding the wooliest figures of the MAGAverse.

But be careful about reading too much into the flight from CPAC 2023. Back in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump skipped the event after an argument over ground rules. The conference official who angered Trump? Matt Schlapp.

“We made very clear with him, you’re allowed to give a speech, but you have to answer questions,” Schlapp explained at the time. “I think that’s fair. And I think here’s the question as the front-runner he still has to follow all these rules and there are certain ways that we deploy and certain decorum we have at CPAC, and everyone has got to follow them because we’re being fair, because this is such a critical moment for conservatives in this nominating contest.”

We know what happened after that. Trump went on to win the nomination and the presidency. And CPAC, like the rest of the GOP, fell back in line.