The evolution of CPAC’s speaker lineup is the story of the GOP

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There’s former president Donald Trump, of course, followed by ACU head Matt Schlapp, who’s become a much-better-known name in the Trump era. Then Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, both of whom are positioning themselves for possible 2024 presidential runs on the Make America Great Again ticket.

Compare that lineup with the way the page looked before the 2016 conference, as captured by the Internet Archive.

First on the list: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), then competing against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. He was long seen as a leading candidate among conservatives in that contest, but may simply have been first on the list because his last name is Cruz. Former corporate CEO Carly Fiorina, also seeking the nomination until a few weeks before the conference, came second. Then Trump.

Trump was followed by Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and radio host Glenn Beck. Love was seen as a rising star in the GOP, a Black woman elected from Utah. But two years later she would lose her reelection bid — and be mocked by President Trump for not being sufficiently loyal to him. Bolton ran afoul of Trump even more dramatically, writing a tell-all book about his tumultuous tenure in the White House.

Beck, though, is probably the most instructive inclusion. Before the 2016 presidential election, when it seemed likely that Trump would lose, Beck excoriated him as “an immoral man who is absent decency or dignity.” But, like so much of the conservative right, when Trump took power, Beck slipped back into the flock.

The story of CPAC over its past seven iterations is, in fact, the story of how the right-most-wing of the party became the party’s core. That story can be told as we do above, by looking at the speakers that have been highlighted each year in an effort to sell more tickets.

Since 2015, there are 12 speakers who have been promoted in at least five of the seven CPAC speaker lists. They are:

  • Trump (all seven)
  • Conservative columnist Gordon Chang (six)
  • Cruz (six)
  • Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch (six)
  • Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA (six)
  • Radio host Mark Levin (six)
  • Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) (five)
  • Radio host Deneen Borelli (five)
  • Former Trump administration official and ACU board member KT McFarland (five)
  • Radio host Larry O’Connor (five)
  • Conservative columnist Katie Pavlich (five)
  • Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (R) (five)

That list by itself tells you a lot about who tends to seek out CPAC’s platform: candidates for office and right-wing media personalities, both of whom tend to be more likely to ride the sentiment of the base than to try to redirect it.

More informative, though, are the people who either no longer attend CPAC or who have newly become regulars. A Washington Post review of the CPAC website shows that 483 individuals have been featured on the speakers list since 2015, with 314 of them only appearing once.

There are five speakers who were featured in at least three of the four conferences from 2015 to 2018 but who were no longer featured from 2019 to 2021. By contrast, there are 13 people who were featured in at least three of the last conferences who weren’t featured from 2015 to 2017.

Included among that first group of speakers are both Bolton and Fiorina (who voted for President Biden last year). The other three are no longer featured speakers for different reasons. Fox News’s Sean Hannity, for example, has seemingly moved on to bigger pastures. Former Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke lost his position and became mired in controversy. Likewise former National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre, who could once be relied upon for a speech offering a wild delineation of the terrors brought to America by the political left.

The group that has moved to the forefront of CPAC is much Trumpier. Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) (name improperly spelled with a tilde in this year’s agenda) are now staples of the conference. There’s conservative media personality Sara Carter and Black gun activist Maj Toure. Republican National Committee Chairman Ronna McDaniel has been a regular of late, as has Fox News’s Pete Hegseth, who’s delivering a keynote address this year.

Had activist Brandon Straka been a featured speaker this year, he, too, would have joined the new list of regulars. He won’t be in attendance, though, having been arrested in Nebraska last month in connection with the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

That sentiment will nonetheless be represented robustly at the event. There are 37 House Republicans included on the featured speakers list this year; 32 of them voted to oppose at least one of the electoral-vote slates submitted by states to be counted on Jan. 6. They’ll be joined by Cruz, Blackburn and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), all of whom similarly opposed the finalization of the 2020 election results.

A fitting table-setter for Trump’s keynote speech on Sunday. That 2016 lineup with Fiorina and Cruz listed above Trump was a very, very long time ago.

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