If country club Republicans think they've rid themselves of Donald Trump and his policies just weeks into his post-presidency, they better think again.
The Conservative Political Action Conference — the bellwether event for America's conservatives — began and ended with an unmistakable message: In Trump we trust.
Or, at the very least, in Trump's policies.
Speaker after speaker, line after speech line, the 45th president's hold over the Republican Party was solidified this weekend.
Strong borders, personal liberty, prosperity, law and order and the rejection of liberal woke-isms in life, school, public policy and culture were the clarion call of a Republican Party unifying around the Trump doctrine as its antidote for defeating Democrats in 2022 or 2024.
"The voters are saying overwhelmingly they agree with what President Trump did in office," Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Sunday in a TV interview on the sidelines of the conference. What it means for the next two elections is that Joe Biden and congressional Democrats must run once again against the policies that delivered the White House to Trump in 2016, if not Trump himself.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) offered a glimpse of what Democrats can expect in the next two elections. "We believe in borders, because we believe in citizenship," he said. "And we believe in citizenship because we believe in America."
The former president, making his first major public appearance since leaving office in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and a second impeachment and acquittal, teased a 2024 run without committing to it.
"Who knows, I may even decide to beat them for a third time," Trump said coyly.
Trump easily won the CPAC straw poll as the attendees' top contender in 2024, though only 68% said they hoped he'd run again. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the next closest in the poll, but with less than half of Trump's support.
Whether or not he runs, Trump made clear he doesn't plan to divide the GOP by creating a new third party as some in media speculated he might. Rather, he said he plans to help fund state election reforms to reverse some of the late rule changes effected without legislative authorization in 2020 and to recruit and elect candidates committed to Trumpism.
"The future of the Republican Party is as a party that defends the social, economic and cultural interests and values of working American families of every race, color and creed," Trump declared, as did many other speakers who preceded him.
CPAC answered many key questions. Trump isn't going away and also won't start a third party. And his policies are engrained as the GOP alternative for the next two elections.
Also, Republicans see a path to winning back suburban women voters they lost ground with in recent years by focusing on the Democrats' perceived failures in education, starting with the inability to get schools to reopen in the face of teacher union opposition.
"Women are struggling because our kids are not back at school," McDaniel said on Sunday. "I'm not saying this as a Republican. I'm saying this is a mother with two kids in public school watching this rip apart my community as kids are suffering. So get it done. Get our kids back in school. And that's what the Republican Party stands for."
With that settled, the next big mission for the GOP at the national and state level is to reset election rules to their pre-2020 pandemic norms and to recruit a diverse slate of candidates firmly molded in the policies of Trumpism.