Some top potential 2024 Republican candidates are skipping CPACget the free app
FORT WASHINGTON, Maryland – The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is an annual GOP tradition that historically attracts ambitious Republican politicians testing their appeal to primary voters — the last day traditionally includes a straw poll. But this year, although there are plenty of prominent Republicans mulling a run for the White House, many of them will not be making an appearance at CPAC this week.
As the conference kicked off Thursday, CPAC chair Matt Schlapp acknowledged, "There's a lot of chatter in the media about who is here and who is not here."
All the major declared Republican presidential candidates are making an appearance: former President Donald Trump, former Ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. And former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is also mulling a bid, will also speak at CPAC.
But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina's Sen. Tim Scott, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan are not speaking or attending.
DeSantis and Pence were both invited, but declined. CPAC spokesperson Megan Powers Small said "it's a missed opportunity for any potential presidential candidate to not address the thousands of grassroots activists at CPAC this year."
The two, along with Haley, Scott, Sununu and Ramaswamy, will be appearing at a different event this week, however — a donor retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, hosted by the conservative Club for Growth group, according to a Republican source familiar with the closed-door donor retreat. Pompeo and Youngkin were also invited to this retreat but could not attend, according to a source familiar with the planning. Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago residence is a few miles away from the event and who has been feuding with what he's been slighting as the "Club for NO Growth," was not invited.
Nachama Soloveichik, a Haley adviser, said her attendance at both CPAC and the Club For Growth retreat shows she's "decisive and she's bringing her message all across the country."
"When others sit on the sidelines, Nikki Haley puts in the work, in Iowa, in New Hampshire, at conservative gatherings," she said.
The absence of the other possible contenders did not escape Trump's notice, either. He posted on Truth Social, "The only reason certain 'candidates' won't be going to CPAC is because the crowds have no interest in anything they have to say. They've heard it all before, and don't want to hear it again."
He has been feuding with Club for Growth since the 2022 Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, when it backed opponents of Trump's endorsed candidates.
"Except when they worked with me, their track record is awful. They need new 'Leadership,'" he wrote.
The group, which told reporters in February it would back Trump if he wins the GOP presidential nomination, has not endorsed in the primary campaign, which is still in its early stages.
Multiple GOP operatives working with non-Trump political operations have told CBS News that CPAC has been too tied to Trump and his campaign and isn't worth attending. His son, Donald Trump Jr., and former advisor Steve Bannon are both speaking at the conference and were seen doing interviews in the hallways of the conference on Thursday.
Attendee says he doesn't want to pay hundreds of dollars for a "rubber chicken dinner" with "loser" Kari Lake
Dennis Lennox, a Republican strategist who has attended many CPAC conferences, said attendance at the annual conference is so far lower than it's typically been in years past. And rooms at the Gaylord National Harbor where the conference is held are still available as of Thursday afternoon.
"You can get a table for lunch," he said. "Whereas, in previous years, by 11:30 a.m., you couldn't get a table for lunch."
Lennox received a call earlier this week inviting him to the Reagan Dinner, the big CPAC banquet-like event with a keynote speaker that takes place toward the end of the conference. Kari Lake, the Republican and former local TV personality who denied the results of the 2020 election and failed to accept her own defeat in the Arizona governor's race, is the keynote speaker this year. At least as of Tuesday, tickets were still available.
"The ticket is $375 per person, so over $700 if you're here with your wife or your partner or your husband or your girlfriend, for a rubber chicken dinner with Barefoot-quality wine and a speaker who is a loser who in her twisted head thinks she's the legitimate governor of Arizona," Lennox said.
Just to illustrate the point, Lennox noted that in 2013, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the Reagan dinner speaker. That seems like a "lifetime ago" in the body politic of the country, he noted.
"I suspect that Ronald Reagan, if he showed up to the dinner, would be booed as a RINO," Lennox said.