By A.J. Cooke

OXON HILL, Md. – The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the flagship event for right-wing activists and politicos across America, saw a visible drop in attendance – if not energy – this year despite numerous high-profile speakers including former President Donald J. Trump and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

This comes on the heels of a $9.4 million lawsuit against CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp – first reported by the Daily Beast – by a longtime Republican staffer who accused him of groping his penis in a “sustained and unwanted and unsolicited” manner.

The allegation remains uncorroborated and Schlapp has denied the accusation in a statement to the Daily Beast, adding “This appears to be now the twelfth Daily Beast piece with personal attacks on Matt Schlapp and his family. The attack is false and Mr. Schlapp denies any improper behavior. We are evaluating legal options for response.”

Some hard-line social conservatives boycotted the event, claiming that the sexual assault allegation and increasing representation by LGBT conservatives at CPAC in recent years represents the “gay agenda” infiltrating the GOP.

“CPAC is failing because they are part of the problem and are not taking the lead in the culture war that we are obviously losing,” said Spence Rogers, President of political consulting firm Go Right Strategies.

Mostly-empty Potomac Ballroom during speech by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) in Oxon Hill, MD at CPAC on Mar 3, 2023. Shared on Twitter by Vice News Chief Political Correspondent Elizabeth Landers. (Elizabeth Landers/Vice News) 

Many veteran politicos who attended refused to go on the record with their thoughts, citing an unwillingness to be negative about the conference, which has garnered headlines for banning controversial conservatives in the past, but their consensus was that it was the worst anyone could remember and was clearly mismanaged.

Every one, however, made a point to note that – regardless of how the conference itself worked out – the real action for industry insiders is in the hotel lobby bar and hospitality suite parties, which is still the best networking for conservative political professionals all year. Those few who did attend, they added, had a lot of positive energy and passion.

One exception to the political operative omertà was Brian Landrum, a Republican campaign strategist and media producer, who said:

CPAC lacks the energy of years past, with the crowd a bizarre mix of UltraMAGA loyalists, aging politicos, and young would-be campaign staffers. Gone are the parties and after-parties of yesteryear, and the drunken shenanigans in the halls of the Gaylord. This CPAC feels almost… tame, which is not how the longtime epicenter of the rebellion ought to feel.

Ian Walters, who was Communications Director for CPAC in previous years and had helped journalists and high-profile personalities work out problems, appeared to no longer be associated with the event. In fact, none of the CPAC media staffers present had even heard of him.

One CPAC staffer leading a group of volunteers, when asked if there was an ACU employee available at the conference, responded, “What’s the ACU?”

The American Conservative Union is the founder and planner of CPAC.

View of the Potomac River from the front of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on Mar 3, 2023. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge connects Oxon Hill, MD – home to some of the poorest ghettoes in America – to Alexandria, VA, which is one of the wealthiest cities in the country. (A.J. Cooke/Zenger News) © Z News Inc.

CPAC 2023 was also described as the “greediest” CPAC ever, with general admission prices ratcheted up to $300 ($50 for students) and the exhibition hall – notably much smaller than previous years – no longer accessible to anyone but paid attendees. CPAC also no longer provides discounts to veterans and active duty military.

The Leadership Institute Job Fair, the biggest event of its kind for professional conservative activists and previously open to the public, was also only available for pass-holders. This raised eyebrows because conservative campaign activists are notoriously poorly-paid and frequently-unemployed.

“That’s unbelievable,” said Gerard, a recent graduate of a technical college in Florida. “I think this was worth $50 a ticket… but charging people for a job fair seems kind of odd… This is my first year at CPAC and I don’t think I’m eligible to get a student ticket next year, so I’m probably not going to be going.”

He continued:

I don’t really like how the conservative movement works today. They just seem like they’re really out of touch with young people. I feel like, as a young person – as a twenty-something – that the biggest issues on the horizon are a potential war with Russia… and how the economy isn’t functioning for young people. And I feel how a lot of the older boomercon people just don’t get that we’re struggling to make ends meet… we’re struggling to keep up with the cost of inflation and I don’t feel that boomercons get it. And Social Security is just a Ponzi scheme… we’re gonna have an insolvent nation… I don’t feel like the conservative movement is moving towards what young people need to hear.

A crowd of dozens moves towards Prince George’s Exhibition Hall E at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, MD on Mar 3, 2023 during the Conservative Political Action Conference. One former vendor described CPAC 2020 attendance “shoulder-to-shoulder” but CPAC 2023 attendance appears to have diminished precipitously. (A.J. Cooke/Zenger) © Z News Inc.

Brad Rukstales, a tech entrepreneur from Valentine, Illinois who identified himself as a “Jan Sixer” was much more enthusiastic.

“I’ve been here for a little over a day and it’s just amazing that I can just stand here and see politicians and newscasters that I’ve followed for years just walk by,” he said. “That’s really neat! I’ve been impressed with the content and the type of speakers that are in the breakout sessions. And what I also appreciate is that you see people from all different walks of life coming through here.”

After he was charged with 4 misdemeanors for nonviolent offenses related to going into the Capitol building during the 2021 Capitol Riot, he pled guilty to unlawful picketing and was sentenced to 30 days in federal lockup. 

“I think it’s been very lackluster,” he said when asked about the conservative movement’s response to the events of January 6th, 2021. “When I look at the leadership of the conservative movement, they have been very hesitant to have anything to do with it because it’s a lightning rod. And I think, underneath the leadership, people don’t understand what happened that day.”

Security guarding the entrance to the Radio Row balcony at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, MD on Mar 3, 2023 during the Conservative Political Action Conference. Many areas at CPAC that were previously open to the public have been closed off in recent years, with event organizers citing security concerns. (A.J. Cooke/Zenger) © Z News Inc.

“I love CPAC! I love that it’s back in Washington,” said Tom Rogers, a longtime CPAC attendee from Boca Raton, Florida. “It gives us more access to more legislators. They come in a lot more. It gives us access to more speakers. I hate Washington prices, but will withstand them to get to people that we wanna see and who we wanna hear. I think it’s the biggest event every year for the Republican Party and conservative voices.”

Despite his enthusiasm, he clarified that there were significant logistical issues that made coming to Washington-area CPAC’s difficult.

“I’ve been a fan of being out and down in Florida and Texas, places where it’s a little more affordable to get to. We had problems getting our housing – we had to get four bedrooms – and, when they found out we were coming here, they canceled us. This happened with Airbnb THREE different times,” Rogers explained.

“It’s not the most fun thing ever,“ said Benjamin, a 22-year-old social media influencer with the Foundation for Economic Education from Knoxville, TN. He posts economics-focused libertarian content on TikTok as Dr. PraxBen. ”I feel like CPAC is more focused on older people but, in general, I think they need to be a lot more engaging – especially to younger people. If you want to actually reach the next generation, it seems like the Democrats are doing that pretty well.”

It’s my first CPAC… I thought I’d check it out, meet a few people. It’s kinda interesting: I met [Rep.] Lauren Boebert [R-CO]. I got a picture with Ben Carson. People like that. But I mostly was willing to come this year because I’ve got some friends in DC and I was like – you know, if the event is too boring… And the event has kinda been close to that, but there’s still people here I get to talk to and that’s mostly the only good thing.

Prince George’s Exhibition Hall E at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, MD on Mar 3, 2023 during the Conservative Political Action Conference. In previous years, CPAC filled at least two halls wall-to-wall with exhibitors but this year only had enough to fill half of one hall. (A.J. Cooke/Zenger) © Z News Inc.

Diane Ventura from North Carolina, who has been volunteering for the Republican Party since the Reagan years and has attended CPAC since 2012, described CPAC 2023 in one breath: “Under-delivered.”

In previous years, CPAC filled space in the Gaylord’s Prince George’s Exhibition Halls C and D wall-to-wall with vendors and various political organizations which was open to the public. This year, they could only fill half of Hall E, which is roughly four fifths of the size of a high school basketball court, and the entrance was guarded by four volunteers plus professional security to ensure that everyone entering had a badge.

One vendor who asked not to be named complained that event organizers “ran out” of exhibitor badges, so their table was perpetually under-staffed.

“We own the Trump Towel and we had a booth here in 2020,” Ventura continued. “It was spectacular! Shoulder to shoulder! And we donated thousands [to charitable causes]… but our economy just doesn’t allow that anymore. There’s a huge division right now in the Party and it’s evident right here. You can see it… It’s the economy also. People can’t afford to take three days off from work to come here and vendors can’t afford to take the risk. It’s obvious that there’s not [many] vendors here.”

Prince George’s Exhibition Hall C and D at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, MD on Mar 3, 2023 during the Conservative Political Action Conference. In previous years, CPAC filled these two halls wall-to-wall with exhibitors but this year only had enough to fill half of one hall. (A.J. Cooke/Zenger) © Z News Inc.

“It’s just discouraging because… well, it’s more disappointing, I guess,” Ventura concluded. “We’re still the greatest nation in the world, but we’re experiencing so many crises in so many directions, internally in our own party and externally in the entire world. It’s much bigger than just a couple selfies with a few politicians and that’s why I’m worried right now.”

CPAC organizers were asked for comment but did not respond by time of publication.

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