What is CPAC? A brief history of the conservative movement’s most influential gathering

Starting Thursday, thousands of political activists, pundits, elected officials and public intellectuals will gather under palm trees in Orlando for an annual gathering of the conservative movement.

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The Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, will for the first time not take place in the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland, across the river from the nation’s capital. The iconic hotel remains shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The convention’s move from its longtime home, however, has not diminished its significance for the political right. Former President Donald Trump, a frequent CPAC speaker, will make his first major post-presidential appearance at the event, where he is expected to heavily criticize his successor, President Joe Biden.

Other right-wing icons will be present, including nine sitting senators; two governors; 36 members of the U.S. House— including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — and various high-profile conservative media personalities and activists.

CPAC and the rise of Reagan

Founded in 1974, CPAC has served as a barometer for the conservative movement. The American Conservative Union, which hosts the conference, was instrumental in reshaping a right-wing political coalition in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

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That year, California Gov. Ronald Reagan gave the conference’s keynote address. The resulting “New Right,” partly formed at CPAC, later took command of the Republican Party and helped elect him as president, ushering in an impassioned conservative era.

The event has since become a meeting ground for various strains of the conservative movement, allowing the coalition to prioritize goals and form a coherent political identity in contrast to American liberalism.

Most of the conference consists of topical breakout sessions, activist training, major speeches from conservative leaders and sponsored parties. CPAC also conducts an annual “straw poll,” which surveys attendees on a range of issues, including who they’d prefer as the Republican nominee for president. The exercise doesn’t often identify the eventual nominee but does give insights into the thinking of Republican activists.

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CPAC and controversy

The conference has never been without controversy. Recent reports that former Vice President Mike Pence would not speak at the conference due to ongoing tensions with Trump caused an uproar in conservative circles. A speaker was also disinvited from CPAC just this week for frequent anti-Semitic comments.

In years past, conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled from speaking at the event after comments surfaced that accused him of supporting pedophilia. CPAC has also run into controversies by inviting to the event gay and atheist conservatives who ran afoul of the dominant opinions on the right.

Republican lawmakers have long understood the conference to be a key path to the conservative grassroots, who are often integral to winning higher office.

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Activists at CPAC can sometimes be harbingers for what's to come in conservative politics. In addition to serving as Reagan’s first major national platform, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was warmly welcomed at the convention during a period that saw neoconservative intellectuals and Christian conservatives as ascendant.

After Democrats swept Congress in 2006, and Barack Obama ascended to the presidency in 2008, the conservative tea party movement made itself known at CPAC in 2010, presaging the energy on the right that would sweep Republicans into Congress that fall.

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That period also saw conflicts at CPAC between more traditional conservatives who opposed the Obama administration and activists promoting the "birther" conspiracy theory that Obama was born in another country.

Donald Trump, who helped spread the conspiracy theory, was a CPAC speaker in 2013, 2014 and 2015, before announcing his presidential run in the summer of 2015.

In 2016, CPAC attendees were bitterly divided between conservative activists skeptical of Trump and the future president’s ardent supporters. The straw poll of activists that year found Ted Cruz was the preferred nominee for conference-goers.

Trump has since consolidated support in the Republican Party and broader American right-of-center. He received standing ovations at each of his speeches at the conference during his presidency and remains the center of conservative politics in the United States.

In 2020, CPAC was squarely centered on combatting “socialism” on the American left, a message that Republicans carried into the 2020 elections, further underscoring the conference’s role as a nexus for the national conservative mood.

Much of the conference’s 2021 agenda focuses on addressing different issues important to cultural conservatives, including fighting “cancel culture” and fighting alleged in traditional media and online, as well as combatting the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress.

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The former president, who still commands solid and fervent support from Republican voters, is expected to declare himself the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination, according to Axios.

"Trump effectively is the Republican Party," Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told the news site.

"The only chasm is between Beltway insiders and grassroots Republicans around the country. When you attack President Trump, you're attacking the Republican grassroots," Miller emphasized. CPAC will likely put the union between Trump and his most loyal followers on full display.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CPAC helped launch Reagan era, maintains influence