ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Republican Party’s leading conservatives have spent several days in Florida focused on the issues they believe will help the GOP retake control of Congress this fall — and perhaps the White House in 2024.
Largely unmentioned? Former President Donald Trump and his chief grievances.
Lies about election fraud, the focus of last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, have been an afterthought for the opening days of this year’s four-day affair. Some high-profile speakers distanced themselves from Trump’s approving rhetoric toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched an invasion of Ukraine shortly before the conference. Some didn’t mention Trump’s name.
Some of those most likely to seek the presidential nomination united behind an agenda that includes more parental control of schools, opposition to pandemic-related mandates and blocking the topic of systemic racism from being taught in schools.
The message from more than a half-dozen elected officials, delivered to thousands of mostly white activists at an event that usually celebrates far-right rhetoric, does not mean the party has turned its back on Trumpism.
Trump was scheduled to be the keynote speaker Saturday night, and one of his most controversial supporters, Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., appeared on a morning panel hours after being featured at a conference of pro-Trump white nationalists.
“I refuse to shut up,” Taylor Greene declared during a brief appearance on the main stage at CPAC as she railed against “Democrat communists.”
With momentum heading toward the November elections, Republicans are increasingly optimistic they have found a forward-looking strategy to overcome pro-Trump extremism and expand the party’s appeal with control of Congress at stake.
It’s essentially the same playbook that Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin used last fall when he won in swing-state Virginia by avoiding Trump and his biggest grievances, including the false notion that the 2020 presidential election was plagued by mass voter fraud.
“There are people that perhaps have never voted the same way any of you have in a presidential race and they’re really angry,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said Friday. “And that’s why I believe that for all the negative we’ve heard, the pendulum is swinging.”
Democrats are clinging to paper-thin majorities in the House and Senate, and voter sentiment has swung in an ominous direction for them since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021. In an AP-NORC poll conducted Feb. 18-21, 70% of Americans said the country was headed in the wrong direction. As few as 44% said the same in April 2021.
Leading Republicans seemed intent at CPAC on not helping Democrats by embracing Trump.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who tried to block the certification of Biden’s electoral victory after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, sidestepped a question about whether he would challenge Trump in a 2024 prospective matchup.
“I’ve said I’m not planning to run for president,” Hawley said. He also declined to say whether he wants Trump to run again in 2024: “I never give him advice, including on this.”
Hawley distanced himself from Republicans, including Trump, who have offered soft praise for Putin. “That’s a mistake. Putin is our enemy. Let’s be clear about that,” Hawley said.
Trump told supporters this past week that Putin was “pretty smart” for seizing Ukraine.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has also refused to rule out a 2024 presidential bid should Trump run, did not mention the former president in his 20-minute address. DeSantis said Biden “hates” Florida and has “had the worst first year of any president since the 1800s.”
Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, spoke about his work in the Trump administration, but he did not repeat his own recent flattering comments about Putin, in which he called the Russian leader “very capable” and said he has “enormous respect for him.”
While Trump was not celebrated by most of the top Republicans on the speaking program, there were exceptions. And many lower-profile speakers praised him, repeated his lie that the 2020 election was stolen and played down Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, considered a potential running mate for Trump in 2024, talked about the 2016 presidential election and the unsubstantiated allegations that Democrats in power “spied” on the Trump campaign. But she pivoted quickly to the future.
“We have some fantastic fighters, like President Donald Trump. But he’s not alone. The American people are on our side,” Noem said, touting her own efforts as governor to block pandemic-related restrictions.
But even Nigel Farage, a former British politician and one of Trump’s top allies abroad, urged conference participants to move past Trump’s obsession with his 2020 election loss.
“Does it make sense for the Republican Party to go on talking about the stolen election?” he asked, as some in the crowd shouted, “Yes!” “This message of a stolen election, if you think about it, is a negative, backward-looking message. … That negative anger must be turned into a positive.”
Conference organizers on Sunday will release the results of their annual presidential straw poll, which Trump has dominated in recent years.
DeSantis, in particular, was a favorite of the large crowd, which applauded almost every time his name was referenced or his picture appeared on big screens.
“Trump looms large,” Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, said in an interview. “No. 1 is, Does he run again? And it’s overwhelming that people want him to. But there’s a diversity of opinion.”
Another collection of ambitious Republicans, the more aggressive Trump critics, were excluded from the conference altogether. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were among them.
Christie addressed the snub during a call Wednesday with reporters on redistricting. He co-chairs the GOP group directing the party’s efforts and noted he also helps lead fundraising for Republican governors.
“CPAC is a good group of people, but it’s one group of people in our party,” Christie said when asked about his absence. “I’ve got plenty of forums to work in the party. … Those are the efforts that are going to determine how we do this fall in elections, not some conference where we’re going to be doing some talking in February.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York, Nick Riccardi in Denver and Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.