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At this year's CPAC, the anti-establishment is the establishment

With a growing base united against the left, Republicans look to 2024 with Trump in the driver's seat.

Published: February 23, 2022 8:29pm

Updated: February 24, 2022 1:25am

In December 2019, Tulsi Gabbard was a Democratic presidential candidate who called then-President Donald Trump "unfit" to serve as commander in chief. Nikki Haley, meanwhile, was considered a (very) early favorite for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, beloved by Trump supporters and establishment Republicans alike.

Fast-forward to February 2022, and Gabbard is speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Trump will headline the annual gathering of conservative activists and many of the most prominent Republican figures in the country. Haley won't be attending.

It seems fair to say that 26 months ago, few people saw this coming. Yet, today, Gabbard's inclusion is widely accepted.

"I want her to feel welcome, even if she says some things I don't agree with," CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp told the "Just the News" television program. "I think it's important to show Americans generally that we've always used this word 'conservative,' but at this moment, we're really just Americans who love America."

The CPAC chair added that he believes many people are rethinking their partisan affiliations due to progressive, far-left policies alienating certain Democrats.

Schlapp isn't alone in welcoming a former Democratic congresswoman to be a featured CPAC speaker.

"I like Gabbard and would include her," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Just the News. "I also like Haley and would include her."

Gabbard's "not a traditional conservative by any means, but she's expressing views that people care about," said Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP. "There's interest in hearing her as a potential voice of a Democrat saying the Democratic Party went too far."

"A lot of people have switched parties and gone to neutral," added Anuzis, who will be attending CPAC and is currently a consultant for National Popular Vote. "This is not your father's Democratic Party anymore."

The notion that the Democrats have veered too far left is serving as a key unifying force for a growing Republican base that is increasingly diverse — as evident in this year's CPAC theme: "awake, not woke."

There's another, unofficial theme, however: The anti-establishment has taken over.

On Thursday all kinds will descend on Orlando, Fla, for the start of CPAC — libertarians, foreign policy hawks, social conservatives, America Firsters who back Trump's Make America Great Again movement.

But they won't be seeing many old guard Republicans — such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), or even former Vice President Mike Pence, who won't be attending following his recent rebuke of Trump over the results of the 2020 presidential election.

People shouldn't "read too much into" some of the absences at CPAC, especially Pence and Haley, according to Anuzis. "It's just playing into where the politics are today. There's no reason to create controversy."

That their presence could cause controversy is nonetheless striking, especially when, instead, attendees will be listening to the likes of Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (the famed author of "Hillbilly Elegy"), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and media personality Candace Owens — primarily newer faces with more disruptive agendas.

As an apparent protest, some of the most outspoken anti-Trump Republicans are gathering in Washington, D.C. this weekend to offer CPAC "counterprogramming."

"There's always frustration with what we refer to as the establishment, people who've been there too long and are not fighting the fight," said Anuzis. "Polls show Republicans and conservatives want people fighting for what they believe in over any specific issues."

In other words, for many Republican voters, a fighting spirit and a willingness to act is paramount, and if the leaders they elect don't fight, there will be consequences.

"There's a great American 'unwokening' going on, and the Republican Party is going to be the beneficiary of it," said Schlapp. "But I'll tell you what: If that Republican Party doesn't take this new power of Congress and actually do something with it this time, I actually think the Republican Party is done."

However, while CPAC attendees will be looking for leaders to be fighters on their behalf, the main feelings in the room will be excitement and optimism, not bitterness, as conservatives look to retake the House and possibly the Senate in 2022 and the White House in 2024.

"CPAC is for conservatives to get rejuvenated, fired up, share best practices, and see future leaders," said Anuzis. "It's a mass pep rally for Republicans."

Gingrich noted CPAC is "probably less important than it once was because social media creates so much space for activism," but added the conference "remains a very recognizable and useful gathering for conservative activists."

One of the main reasons for CPAC's prominence is its presidential straw poll — some observes call it the first Republican primary.

Of course, Trump is the elephant in the room as everyone recognizes it's his nomination to lose. He easily won last year's 2024 straw poll and is expected to come out on top again this year.

"If Trump decides to run, I don't know how anyone can beat him," said Anuzis.

But if Trump doesn't run, then Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who finished second in last year's straw poll, is likely to be the biggest beneficiary.

However, with perhaps dozens of potential presidential contenders in attendance, from Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), the GOP is Trump's party to lose.

Trump's themes from older CPAC speeches "are now not considered heterodox to conservatives and Republicans. They're very mainstream for the people that are coming to CPAC."

On the surface, it seems the GOP establishment need not apply for credentials because CPAC isn't the place for them. However, by all appearances, the insurgents have taken over the party and have now become the establishment, as will be evident over the next four days in Orlando.

But regardless of who's leading the political right, Republicans and conservative activists told Just the News that neither the GOP nor the conservative movement is a monolith.

"We're a multi-legged stool with regard to our politics," said Anuzis. "The Trump base brough a lot of new voters. There are the Reagan Democrats who come out depending on what the party does. This is coalition politics."

This diversity extends beyond ideology.

Trump, for example, made significant inroads among Hispanic voters in the 2020 presidential election. Since then, Republicans have continued to make massive gains among Hispanics and only trail Democrats by 7% in this demographic, according to a recent poll by the National Republican Congressional Committee's Battleground Survey Project.

In last year's elections, four of the seven seats flipped by Republicans in Virginia's House of Delegates went to women or minorities. Meanwhile, a record number of Republican women were elected to the New Jersey General Assembly.

Overall, Republican women or racial minorities won 10 of the 15 state legislative seats captured from Democrats in November. This followed 2020, when a record number of women were elected to the U.S. House.

Trump also increased his support among young adults in 2020 compared to 2016 by seven percentage points — a trend that, according to some, will continue with President Biden in the White House.

"For many in my generation, the Joe Biden presidency is the wakeup call that we so desperately needed," said CJ Pearson, a member of Generation Z and a prominent conservative activist with a large social media following. "Far-left radicalism may sound good to the ears, but only God knows the damage it's caused to everyday lives of millions of Americans."

"Empty grocery stores, skyrocketing gas prices, and a nation on the brink of war in a fight that isn't our own," Pearson continued, in an apparent reference to the Ukraine crisis. "This is Joe Biden's America. And young Americans want no part in it."

Schlapp noted that Trump has played a big role in changing and broadening the conservative movement to be a bigger tent.

"Yes," said Schlapp, "we're conservatives. Yes, we're libertarians. Yes, we're mostly Republicans. But there's a whole lot of people who are independents and conservative Democrats, or moderate Democrats, or people who've never been political at all and Donald Trump animated them. So, I think we got to get out of this idea that everyone's got to follow these 10 or 15 steps in order to be accepted in our group. We'll accept you if you're with us on a couple of issues. You just want to save and defend this great country."

Undergirding much of this movement is the transformation of the GOP into the party of the working class — or, as Trump, declared, the party of "craftsmen and tradespeople and factory workers."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R. Fla.), who will speak at CPAC, recently echoed this point, saying, " GOP voters are working class Americans, and they are changing the party."

There's certainly been an effort by top Republicans to rebrand the GOP as the political home for the working person — at the expense of Democrats.

"The Democratic Party has gradually abandoned its historical commitments to the working- and middle-classes: good schools, safe neighborhoods, and, most important, social mobility," journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon wrote recently. "Instead, it has embraced a progressive politics that jibes with the sensibilities of wealthy coastal elites — and has alienated pretty much everyone else."

"Unsurprisingly," she added, "a lot of everyone elses are rushing toward the GOP."

Indeed, truckers, construction workers, carpenters, builders, electricians, cops, mechanics, and maintenance employees were among the occupations most likely to give to Trump in 2020, according to a Bloomberg News analysis. Meanwhile, teachers, professors, therapists, lawyers, HR department staff, finance professionals, and bankers were among the occupations most likely to give to Biden.

It's no secret that many of these conservative and blue-collar voters believe the American way of life is being undermined by Democrats and so-called establishment Republicans and want someone to defend their values. To paraphrase Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson, they're tired of elected officials who, in this contest, "would rather lose nobly than win ugly."

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