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 soon thereafter.
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 gathering. Some didn’t mention Trump’s name.
Instead, those most likely to seek the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024 rallied in favor of more parental control of schools, railed against any mention of systemic racism and rejected pandemic-related mandates.
The unified message from more than a half-dozen top elected officials, delivered to thousands of mostly white activists at an annual event event not known for moderation, will be tested when Trump delivers the keynote address Saturday night. But with momentum heading toward the 2022 midterms, Republicans are increasingly optimistic they have found a forward-looking strategy to expand the GOP’s appeal and win back women and independents who fled the party during Trump’s presidency.
“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 told conservative activists Friday. “And that’s why I believe that for all the negative we’ve heard, the pendulum is swinging.”
Democrats have reason to be concerned if Republicans can stay focused.
The party is clinging to paper-thin majorities in the House and Senate, and voter sentiment has swung in an ominous direction for Democrats since President Joe Biden took office. 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.
And as public opinion shifts, the GOP is drawing on the same playbook that Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin used last fall to win in a state Trump lost by 10 points a year earlier. Youngkin avoided Trump and his biggest grievances, including the false notion that the 2020 presidential election was plagued by mass voter fraud.
It was much the same this week in Florida.
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 told reporters before his speech, which focused on Biden’s foreign policy challenges and the teaching of systemic racism.
Hawley also declined to say whether he wants Trump to run again in 2024: “I never give him advice, including on this.”
The senator then distanced himself from the 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 at his Florida estate this 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. Instead, he railed against what he called “Fauci-ism,” a reference to leading government health official Anthony Fauci’s cautious approach to the pandemic.
After touting his own anti-mask and anti-vaccine policies as governor, DeSantis trained his harshest criticism at the Democratic president. He said Biden “hates” Florida.
“He’s had the worst first year of any president since the 1800s,” DeSantis said.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke about his work in the Trump administration, but he did not repeat his own flattering comments about Putin from earlier in the week, when he called the Russian leader “very capable” and said he has “enormous respect for him.”
Pompeo, who reminded attendees of his potential 2024 ambitions by citing a recent trip to Iowa, said those focused on systemic racism, not the nation’s foreign adversaries, represent the greatest threat to America’s future.
“There is no threat greater to the United States than that which emanates inside our republic, emanates inside our school system, if we do not teach our children, the next generation, that we are not a racist nation,” Pompeo said.
While Trump was not celebrated by most of the top Republicans on the speaking program, there were exceptions. And many lower-profile speakers praised the former president, repeated his lie that the 2020 election was stolen and downplayed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
North Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, considered a potential running mate for Trump in 2024, talked about the 2016 presidential election and 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.”
Meanwhile, conference organizers on Sunday will release the results of their annual presidential straw poll, which Trump has dominated in recent years. Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, noted that some other would-be presidential contenders are popular as well.
DeSantis, in particular, was a favorite of the large crowd, which applauded almost every time his name was referenced or his picture appeared on the big screens at the head of the hotel ballroom room.
“Trump looms large,” Schlapp 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 chairs 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.”