ORLANDO, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — Conservative leaders flocked to Florida this weekend for a conference that will put attention on the future of the Republican Party and its leading 2024 presidential contenders.
This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off in Orlando late Thursday, and the event is expected to culminate in a speech from former President Donald Trump on its final day. Trump’s Sunday remarks, the last item on the conference’s agenda, will be his first post-presidential appearance.
The conference also marks the first significant gathering of Republicans since the election and its aftermath as the party reckons with its future amid a faction that continues to support Trump as its leader and those who think the GOP needs to move quickly beyond his presidency. Conference organizers, representing the first camp, did not invite any of the 17 Republican members of Congress who voted to support Trump’s second impeachment or any major Trump critics.
Instead, the event will feature a slew of former Trump administration officials and others who represent his wing of the GOP, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
Trump is expected to talk about the possibility of a 2024 run at the conference, which comes nearly two months after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.
The conference’s organizers say that election fraud will be a major theme.
“Because we pretty much wiped away scrutiny in a lot of these important swing states, you had a lot more illegal voting. That is not an opinion, that is fact,” Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference and a Trump ally, told The Associated Press before the conference’s kickoff Thursday evening.
Schlapp said discussion panels on election integrity would highlight “huge” evidence of illegal voting in Georgia, Nevada and elsewhere that ultimately swung the election for Biden.
Five dozen court cases around the country after the election found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and Trump’s then-attorney general, William Barr, said the Justice Department also had found none.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a regular at the annual conference, will not be on the program.
After the Senate acquitted former President Trump for inciting insurrection, McConnell declared on the Senate floor that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 attack. McConnell also called Trump last week “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”
The Republican Senate leader said he expects to see an open contest for his party’s White House nomination in 2024. But McConnell also showed no hesitation in backing Trump when asked whether he would vote for him as a nominee.
In an interview with Fox News on Thursday, McConnell said he would “absolutely” vote for Trump if he became the 2024 Republican presidential nominee.
“There’s a lot to happen between now and ’24. I’ve got at least four members that I think are planning on running for president, plus some governors or others,” he added. “Should be a wide open race.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is among several scheduled speakers who are contemplating a 2024 presidential run. Cotton declined to describe Trump as the outright leader of the GOP.
“In opposition, when you don’t have the White House, there are many more voices that lead the party,” Cotton said in an interview.
Cotton refused to say there was widespread election fraud in the 2020 election, but he encouraged efforts by Republican officials in various states to strengthen election security.
“I don’t want election procedures that were adopted in the middle of a pandemic to become the normal practice,” Cotton told the AP. “Especially when those procedures are – just as a factual matter – more susceptible to potential fraud.”
Others thought to be considering their own runs in 2024 include former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. Reporting by AP’s Jill Covin and Steve Peoples, as well as Reuters’ David Morgan.