DALLAS – There is a power struggle going on to be the face of the Republican Party by 2024 – but you wouldn’t know it if you attend CPAC Texas.
There was no Ron DeSantis. Mike Pence was nowhere to be seen. Nikki Haley? Negative. Mike Pompeo? No.
It was all about Donald J. Trump, who didn’t have to share the spotlight with a cast of potential presidential primary rivals, as he has at some other conservative summits this year.
Unlike CPAC’s Orlando event in February — and the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Nashville conference in June — the weekend meeting missed most of the non-Trump names as potential contenders for 2024, although Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) were among the elected officials who spoke.
And while Trump’s dominance in the GOP has never been more heavily threatened by a growing group of ambitious Republicans, the event highlighted his continued appeal to the party’s activists. A 2024 poll of CPAC Texas attendees found that Trump was in the lead with 69 percent support, 10 percentage points higher than his performance at the February rally in Florida. DeSantis came in second with 23 percent.
Trump’s approval rating among those in attendance was 99 percent. Poll methodology, including survey size and margin of error, were not provided.
“I’ve said the last few CPACs, I don’t think it can go any higher,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Trump campaign pollster who conducts the CPAC straw polls.
McLaughlin argued that the rally’s response proved that Trump’s influence is not waning.
“What’s actually happening is that he’s more popular than ever,” McLaughlin said.
But while straw polls at other gatherings of conservative activists have also shown Trump would start a primary campaign in 2024 with a strong lead, recent polls by the wider GOP have told voters a slightly different story.
A Siena College/New York Times poll last month showed the former president was in a matchup with several other candidates with the support of just under half of Republican primary voters. Trump led with 49 percent of the vote, followed by DeSantis with 25 percent.
In a separate poll question that removed Trump as an option for 2024, 59 percent of CPAC attendees supported Texas DeSantis for president, followed by 8 percent for Donald Trump Jr.
Not only were other top potential 2024 rivals absent from the conference, but little was said about them during the three-day meeting. Speakers instead focused entirely on Trump, largely not naming DeSantis or others as top leaders in the party.
The loudest voices spreading baseless claims about electoral fraud in 2020 — claims that have been repeatedly refuted in audits, official investigations and lawsuits — have shied away from discussing Pence, even criticizing him.
Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign and White House strategist who was convicted this week of contempt of Congress, outlined a vision for the GOP’s years ahead at the conference. That included more candidates like Kari Lake, who won the Republican governor’s nomination in Arizona this week after basing her campaign on disproven claims of voter fraud. And, of course, it included Trump running for a second term.
Bannon, who was recently found guilty of two charges for refusing to cooperate with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, roused the crowd by suggesting that outside forces were trying to imprison Trump in a attempt to dissuade him from the Weather White House.
“They understand they can’t beat him at the ballot box,” Bannon said. “They can’t beat his energy. They can’t beat his vision. They come out with a death by a thousand cuts legally, right, trying to put him in jail to make sure he can’t run again in 2024 and be the rightful president he should be today.
President Joe Biden won the 2020 election by flipping five states Trump carried in 2016, surpassing him nationally by 7 million votes.
In a statement to POLITICO after the straw poll, US Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp referred to Trump’s continued notoriety among conservatives.
“There is an unbreakable bond between President Trump and the conservative movement,” Schlapp said. “He just did the things he promised to do and they are eternally grateful to him for that.”
On stage, British commentator and former Brexit party leader Nigel Farage told the crowd that Trump looks like he’s ready for another run.
Farage, who recently visited Trump, told the CPAC audience that the former president appears to have lost 20 pounds since he left office.
“The weight of the world is falling off his shoulders,” Farage said. “His nominees are winning the primaries, and I believe Donald Trump is the man out there to fight on behalf of America and the Western world.”
Scott, the Florida senator whose 12-point “Plan for America” and accompanying ad campaign has been taken as a sign that he is laying the groundwork for a presidential run, received the most thunderous applause of his speech when he called for a border wall called to “President Donald J. Trump.”