OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — Donald Trump’s outsider candidacy rattled the conservative movement. But more than a year into his presidency, the onetime Democrat now holds what seems to be a near-total grip.
The largest annual gathering of conservatives has all the looks of a Trump festival, with Republican critics absent from the event outside the nation’s capital. Republicans are facing a challenging election season, and the Trump administration wants to motivate conservative activists so they will give endangered Republicans another term.
Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, offering a defense of the Trump agenda and trying to rally activists for the fall elections.
“Your president and I need you to show up,” Pence told activists as he urged them to “defend all that we’ve accomplished.”
“It’s been a year of promises made and promises kept,” Pence added.
But a year in power has seen some of the enthusiasm around the gathering wane, with large swaths of empty space in a ballroom already narrowed from previous conferences.
Conservatives hope it won’t bode ill for their November prospects.
Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, said Pence’s efforts amounted to a “pep rally” for potentially unmotivated conservatives. Echoing Pence’s call that the administration’s first year was the “most consequential” since at least President Ronald Reagan’s, Phillips said, “That’s a great point that I hope our base hears.”
Frequent past attendees such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are skipping the event, as is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the libertarian-leaning Republican who once brought massive followings of young people to the CPAC halls.
Even Steve Bannon was absent. The ex-White House chief strategist whose falling out with Trump cost him his perch atop the conservative Breitbart website has featured prominently at past gatherings.
“Clearly the interest is: What is Trump doing and what are their policies and what are they doing,” said Saul Anuzis, a longtime CPAC gadfly and GOP operative from Michigan.
The hallways were filled with well-dressed attendees adorned with Trump campaign hats and buttons. Top government officials, Cabinet secretaries, outside allies and conservative media boosters dominate the CPAC agenda, with appearances by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and White House counsel Don McGahn.
Paired with supportive interviewers, they highlighted the administration’s work over the last year and its future plans.
“Thank you President Trump for bringing us someone as wonderful as Secretary DeVos,” said Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, after a friendly interview with DeVos on her overhaul efforts.
Trump was to return to the conference for the second year in a row Friday.
“He’s the president, this should be about him,” said Lisa Blankenship, a real estate agent from San Diego. She wore a Trump hat and scarf, and brought a small Trump figurine for posing for photos with conservative media personalities.
To Anthony Del Vescovo, 19, a student at Northeastern University, the conference was “very structured to look like a Trump event.”
The focus on Trump-ism marks a shift for an event that had long held itself up as a resolute advocate for conservative principles. During the George W. Bush administration, CPAC prominently featured criticism of the president’s economic and immigration proposals — particularly sounding the alarm on soaring deficits under his tenure.
There was no such criticism audible Thursday.
Sebastian Gorka, a former White House aide and Trump booster, explained the conversion onstage, saying that “the GOP is starting to understand that this president was only accidentally the GOP candidate.”
“He was the rank outsider, he owed nothing to the swamp,” he added of Trump, saying the rest of the party is “riding his coattails.”